Wakil, 48, lost 11 members of his family in an air strike by the U.S. forces in the Pul-e-Alam district of Logar on August 31, a day before the festival of Id. Since he was travelling to Kabul that day, Mr. Wakil survived the attack. “They [the authorities] told me they were targeting the Taliban, but three of those who died were children and eight were women; there were no Taliban in my house,” he told this writer.
At least 16 others were injured in that incident and five of them remain in a critical condition, he informed. Government officials claim that two key Taliban commanders were killed that day. “But we are not Taliban; why would they [the U.S.] hurt us like that?” Mr. Wakil reiterated with a mix of anguish and grief in his voice, blaming the U.S. for bringing the battle to his doorsteps.
29 deaths in two weeks
In just the last two weeks, 29 Afghan civilians are estimated to have lost theirs lives to U.S. air strikes, a substantial spike since U.S. President Donald Trump announced his strategy for Afghanistan. The other casualties were a result of air operations conducted by the NATO forces in the province of Herat and, like Logar, they were also targeting Taliban bases in those areas. Resolute Support (RS) and the Afghan government have acknowledged the Logar and Herat incidents and launched investigations into both attacks. Wakil, however, strongly believes that wrong and faulty intelligence on the part of the U.S. has led to the deaths of his loved ones.
Despite what it may seem from the growing outrage against U.S. air strikes across Afghanistan, the initial reactions to Mr. Trump’s plan to bolster troops, and eliminate a withdrawal timeline, were largely positive. Mr. Trump’s rhetoric against Pakistan was also cheered by a cross section of Afghans who have insisted on holding the Pakistan Army accountable for hosting and fostering insurgency in Afghanistan. Also, the battle-weary Afghan forces had found themselves left in the lurch, under-equipped and under-prepared, when the U.S. and foreign troops started to withdraw in 2014.
However, with the increasing number of civilian casualties, the approach to the Afghan war is being reviewed with a critical eye and deep concerns. “The rules of engagement have been loosened again,” explained Thomas Ruttig, senior analyst at Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Indeed, casualties related to air strikes had seen a steep rise much before the strategic push initiated by the Trump administration. In 2016, a report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) revealed that air strikes carried out by international and Afghan forces caused 590 civilian casualties, nearly double that recorded in 2015. Meanwhile, the first half of 2017 has seen 232 civilian casualties, according to the UNAMA.
That said, air power remains an important strategic advantage that the Afghans and the NATO forces have over the insurgents. “Air support (is) understood to be an important factor keeping the Afghan government forces from losing to the Taliban,” Mr. Ruttig said.
In fact, following the Trump plan, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced that the government would spend close to $6 billion on boosting Afghanistan’s Air Force in the next four years.
However, as the casualties mount, it has become imperative for the U.S. forces to take measures to prevent the rise in civilian deaths and injuries. “It is not that (because) they ‘can’ take lessons, they must. It is a requirement under international humanitarian law,” Mr. Ruttig emphasised.
Ruchi Kumar is a freelance journalist based in Kabul.