A NATO airstrike that killed at least 70 civilians in northern Afghanistan last Friday has set off a flurry of queries and concerns about the heavy civilian death tolls caused by such operations.
The attack, which targeted two fuel tankers hijacked by Taliban fighters , struck in the northern province of Kunduz, an area previously considered relatively safe and stable.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, expressed regret that any civilians had been killed upon visiting the site, as Afghan president Hamid Karzai called the airstrike a major “error of judgment.” Yet while condemning the airstrike’s civilian impact is an appropriate and positive response, more persuasive action must be taken to prevent civilian deaths.
NATO, which has already begun conducting a probe into the incident, admits that civilians were killed or injured. Its investigation must answer why German forces, who called in the airstrike, failed to note the heavy civilian presence near the tankers before the bombs were dropped. The German Defense Ministry has defended the troops’ decision, saying the presence of armed Taliban fighters triggered the order to strike. Nonetheless, scores of unarmed, non-combatants surrounded the tanks and were the primary victims of the attack. The United Nations mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, is following up with its own investigation into whether the attack was even warranted.
Under Gen. McChrystal’s command, the rules for launching air strikes have been tightened, and the number of airstrikes has been halved in the last year. Although his policy of prioritizing civilian protection above large combat operations is a positive sign, this latest attack demonstrates civilian casualties are still occurring on a massive scale in Afghanistan.
Any investigation and policy analysis must consider how to minimize civilian impact and emphasize civilian protection as an utmost priority. Afghans deserve safety and stability, especially from the forces which aim to protect the country from radical insurgents.
Furthermore, incidents like this exemplify why the current conflict in Afghanistan has prompted GI-NET to monitor the country as an Area of Concern. The rising number of civilian deaths due to counter-insurgency operations, coupled with insurgent attacks, presents a worrisome downward trend in the security of the Afghan population.
“As commander of the International Security Assistance Force, nothing is more important than the safety and protection of the Afghan people,” General McChrystal said in a message to be released to Afghan news organizations. “I take this possible loss of life or injury to innocent Afghans very seriously.”
It’s time these words were met with concrete action. NATO and American forces in Afghanistan must take the increasing numbers of civilian casualties seriously, and make civilian protection their highest priority.
For more information about Afghanistan, visit GI-NET’s informational page.