Doyle McManus, Tribune News Service
The United Nations mission in Afghanistan reported recently that US airstrikes and Afghan security forces killed more civilians in the first half of 2019 than the Taliban did.
The mission says “pro-government forces” killed 717 civilians while “anti-government forces” killed 531, and 118 deaths could not be attributed.
US officials dispute the numbers. But if the UN is right, Afghans face greater danger of death from their government and its allies than from the Taliban, even counting a recent series of grisly car bombings in Kabul.
In Syria and Iraq, the US-led coalition estimates that its airstrikes and artillery killed 1,321 noncombatants in the war against Daesh since US forces intervened in 2014 — but Airwars, an independent monitoring group, says at least 8,106 were killed.
The Trump administration has also escalated the US war against Al Shabab militants in Somalia, launching 123 airstrikes since early 2017. That’s four times as many as the Obama administration conducted over eight years. The Pentagon has acknowledged only two civilians dead since 2017. Amnesty International says at least 14 were killed, but on-the-ground reporting is almost impossible. What’s the common thread? In all these conflicts, the Trump administration is trying to minimise the number of American troops on the ground by disengaging, fighting through proxies or limiting US involvement to airstrikes and special operations.
But that hasn’t reduced the civilian casualties caused by US and allied forces. It has made the problem worse.
It’s tempting to ascribe the change to the tone set by President Trump, who once proposed killing militants’ family members and boasted: “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”
US forces haven’t relaxed their prohibitions against targeting civilians. They insist they still take pains to avoid harming innocents.
Instead, most of the increase in civilian casualties has stemmed from a sharp increase in US and allied airstrikes. The Pentagon says its forces in Afghanistan conducted 1,302 airstrikes in the first seven months of this year; that’s more than any full year since 2013.
US and allied forces also relied largely on airstrikes to help retake two urban centres held by Daesh in 2017: Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. Thousands of civilians were caught in the crossfire, or blocked by the militants from fleeing.
“It’s not so much that the gloves are off or that they don’t care about civilians,” Daniel Mahanty, a former State Department official at the Centre for Civilians in Conflict, a Washington-based nonprofit group, told me. “It’s that they want to execute these operations in a way that focuses on speed, agility and overwhelming force.”
When the core US strategy in Afghanistan or Iraq was “counterinsurgency,” winning the hearts and minds of civilians was an essential military goal. It’s no longer central.
Local militias and special operations units, some of them directed by the CIA, are partly to blame for the increase in civilian casualties.
One such unit, the Khost Protection Force in eastern Afghanistan, has been accused of a series of abusive actions. On Aug. 11, according to Afghan reports, the force captured and executed 11 unarmed civilians, including several students. Last week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fired his national intelligence chief, who helped direct the units.
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