On the evening of March 1, U.S. helicopter gunships opened fire on a group of 10 Afghan boys gathering firewood in eastern Kunar province, killing all but one. A week after the incident, top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan General David Petraeus apologized for the incident and promised to review tactical directives to ensure civilian casualties are minimized. Afghan President Hamid Karzai reportedly refused Petraeus’ apology over the killing of the nine boys, a snub made more obvious when Karzai later accepted an apology by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The blunders that led to Karzai’s rebuff of Petraeus’s apologies are a rare public glimpse into what has become an all too common pattern of ISAF leadership mishandling civilian casualties incidents, exacerbating long-standing tensions over this issue. What is merited is not only a review of ISAF’s tactical directives, but an overhaul of its attitude toward civilian casualty allegations.
Karzai’s snub was the cherry on top of a nightmare week at the strategic communications offices of the U.S. military. Petraeus’s apologies were likely refused not only because they seemed too little, too late for such a shocking civilian casualty incident, but more importantly because they came on the heels of Petraeus’s bungling of a separate incident that had happened in the same province 10 days before. Afghan government officials allege that a NATO airstrike on the evening of Feb. 17 in the Ghaziabad district of Kunar province killed 65 civilians, including a number of children. Though NATO admitted that some civilians may have been wounded, it claimed the airstrike targeted combatants.
When the issue was raised in a meeting with Karzai and other Afghan officials a week after the incident, Petraeus reportedly suggested that some of those children injured or killed were not harmed by U.S. airstrikes, but may have been burned by their parents instead in disciplinary actions. According to the Washington Post, many Afghan officials present, including Karzai took his comments to be an accusation that the parents burned their children to falsify civilian casualties. The Post quoted one official as saying: "Killing 60 people, and then blaming the killing on those same people, rather than apologizing for any deaths? This is inhuman. This is a really terrible situation." Though the U.S. military later attempted to back-track and put Petraeus’ statements in a better light, the issue had already gone viral in the international media and incited widespread anger in Afghanistan. Petraeus notably has not issue an apology over loss of civilians in that incident, nor his remarks following it.
The killing of nine children, the belated apology from Petraeus, ultimately rejected by Karzai, and the cringe-worthy alleged accusations reported in the Washington Post of falsified civilian casualty claims have significantly damaged Afghan relations with international forces. Sadly, this is not an isolated case. The poor handling of these types of incidents by leadership at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has become the norm.
Civilian casualties continue to be at their highest levels since 2002, including in the eastern region where this incident took place. I was in eastern Nangarhar and Laghman two weeks ago and in the 60 mile radius from where we were staying, there were attacks both by local militants and by coalition forces: five suicide bombings and two ISAF night operations took place in a span of five days. While statistics show that insurgents are responsible for the majority of civilian deaths, international military forces are still responsible for a number of civilian casualties, many of which go unreported.
To give credit where it’s due, some of the decrease in civilian deaths by international forces are the result of ISAF tactical directives since 2009, particularly limits on airstrikes. Perversely, however, as they have gotten relatively better at reducing civilian casualties, ISAF leaders have gotten worse at responding to incidents when they do happen.
In February 2010, U.S. Special Forces killed five civilians including three women in a botched night raid in southeastern Gardez province. Instead of admitting responsibility they initially blamed the family for killing the women (alleging an "honor killing") and then tried to defame the reputation of a journalist whose independent investigation demonstrated publicly that their initial version of events was wrong. ISAF only accepted responsibility a month after the incident, following significant media and Afghan government pressure.
Though it is rare for ISAF’s awkward, and often offensive, hemming and hawing over these incidents to reach the public, I see this reaction all the time in my job as a human rights monitor. When other monitors or I try to raise such potential civilian casualty cases to ISAF, we often get the same reaction that Karzai did — first denial, and then an implication that the claims have been fabricated either to get compensation money or support insurgent propaganda.
Many ISAF officials whom I’ve spoken to recently take the attitude that ISAF-caused civilian casualties are a thing of the past. Because they have gotten relatively better at preventing civilian casualty incidents, they seem more likely to disbelieve and dismiss allegations when they do happen. This attitude is mistaken, and bears serious consequences. Though tactical limitations since 2009 have resulted in a decreased risk of civilian casualties due to international force operations, civilian casualties have not been eliminated. As the tempo of operations continues to increase, civilian casualties will continue to happen. Ignoring these incidents not only handicaps ISAF’s ability to manage the public consequences of these incidents, but weakens its ability to vet its intelligence in hitting the right target, as opposed to innocent civilians or in the Kunar case, children gathering firewood.
The only silver lining of this incident would be if it sparks not only a review (and public disclosure) of the current tactical directives, but a serious review of ISAF’s attitude toward these incidents.
Erica Gaston is a human rights lawyer for the Open Society Foundations, specializing in civilian casualty issues. She is based in Washington, DC.