KABUL, Afghanistan — Still riding the wave of euphoria over the Abbottabad strike that took down America’s most-wanted enemy, some in the U.S. policy establishment are advocating for an increased use of Special Forces and the strategic operations they conduct.
Night raids, or “intelligence-driven” attacks on specific individuals or compounds, already represent a much larger part of the Afghanistan war strategy than they did before Gen. David Petraeus assumed command of U.S. and NATO troops here last summer.
The attacks are credited with decimating the mid-level Taliban leadership, and many see them as the way forward if U.S. President Barack Obama makes good on his promise to begin a significant drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan beginning in July.
But a string of botched strikes over the past years demonstrates what happens when things go wrong. Disastrous public relations fallout from the deaths of innocent civilians may well outweigh the gains made by successful operations in a population-centric conflict whose outcome will ultimately depend on whom the Afghan people choose as their best guarantor of safety and prosperity.
The most recent “mistake” occurred just a few nights ago in Nangarhar province.
The press release by the media office for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) bore the fairly innocuous headline: “One armed individual, one local national killed during security operation.”
Closer reading revealed that the “armed individual” was a member of the Afghan National Police, and the “local national” was a twelve-year-old girl, later identified as the police officer’s niece, Nilofar.
The U.S. forces had the wrong house. NATO apologized.
“We understand any civilian loss of life is detrimental to our cause and to our efforts to secure the population,” said Rear Admiral Hal Pittman, ISAF deputy chief of staff for communication. We are working with our Afghan security force counterparts to understand what happened and take steps to prevent this from happening in the future.”
As heartbreaking as the deaths in Nangarhar might be to the family and friends of those involved, they are at least publicly acknowledged to have been military errors.
Not so the death of a former mujaheddin commander killed by a NATO strike in September 2010, along with nine others. He was publicly but erroneously identified as Mohammad Amin, the Taliban shadow deputy governor of Takhar province.
A report recently released by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) found that the target of the strike, Zabet Amanullah, was a civilian who was working on the parliamentary election campaign of his nephew. With him in his convoy were election officials and other civilians.
The author, Kate Clark, gives a detailed account of the strike, along with biographies of both Amanullah and Amin. She also includes an interview with Amin, alive and well and living in Pakistan, conducted months after the raid by Michael Semple, a renowned expert on the Taliban.
Still, up to the present, NATO insists that it got the right man.
The nine others were also targeted because of their proximity to a “known terrorist,” according to the report.
Figures released by the Unite Nations indicate that the numbers of civilians killed or injured by the international troops is going down, but the effect of those operations that do go wrong is all out of proportion to their numbers.
The deaths of nine young boys in Kunar province in March at the hands of NATO attack helicopters sent Afghan President Hamid Karzai into tears, and provoked an angry reaction in the Afghan Parliament.
In Paktia last year, three young women, two of them pregnant, were killed in a bungled raid. It took determined media pressure to force an acknowledgement and an apology from the military.
But these are the attacks that NATO accepts, and whose victims are counted among those killed. There are many more where the military has denied the accounts of the Afghan government and locals, refused to accept responsibility, and whose casualties are never included in the ranks of dead civilians.
The 10 killed in Takhar last year are just the tip of the iceberg.
Take a raid in Ghazi Abad, Kunar province, in February, in which NATO insists it targeted and killed more than 30 insurgents.
Local residents, bolstered by Afghan government officials, said that as many as 65 civilians were killed, an account also borne out by Al Jazeera reporters who went to investigate and were later detained by the U.S. military.
Three years ago, in Herat, an airstrike killed more than 90 civilians, including 60 children. Yet NATO repeatedly refused to accept the findings of Afghan government delegations, a U.N. investigation, and a report by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, all of which supported the casualty figures. Only months later did NATO grudgingly acknowledge that up to 33 civilians may had been killed.
In August 2007, there was a bombing in Bughnai, Helmand Province that was intended to kill a high-ranking Taliban commander, Mansoor Dadullah.
Two 500-pound bombs were dropped on what was presumed to be a Taliban gathering. Instead, say locals, they hit a weekly “mela,” a combination market bazaar and picnic, killing and injuring hundreds.
This was another incident never acknowledge by NATO. The spokesman for the British forces in Helmand at the time, Col. Charles Mayo, insisted that the mela had to be a Taliban gathering “because there were no women present.”
In the Pashtun south, women are not normally included in such public events.
Mansoor Dadullah, meanwhile, was happily giving telephone interviews from an undisclosed location saying that he had not been harmed, or even present at the bombing site.
According to Clark, who wrote the AAN report, the international forces are living in a “parallel world,” which has little or no contact with the real Afghanistan. But, as Clark has demonstrated, it is real Afghans who are dying because of foreign soldiers’ inability to understand the environment in which they are living.