The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, Mar. 16, 2011
U.S. General David Petraeus suspended a ground force commander after the deaths of two Afghan teenagers in a helicopter strike earlier this week, the second time this month that NATO forces mistakenly targeted children in their hunt for insurgents.
Two brothers, aged 17 and 13, were working on an irrigation ditch on the family farm abutting a main road in eastern Kunar province when they were killed by fire from the gunships, according to local Afghan officials.
A spate of civilian deaths during military operations in the past two months has severely strained the coalition’s relations with the Afghan government, especially another helicopter attack in the same province that killed nine boys gathering firewood on a mountainside.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai labelled it a ruthless attack that could not be wiped away by “excuses” from foreign officials. Four days later, tensions ratcheted higher when a cousin of the President was killed during a night raid in Kandahar province that is also under investigation.
The response by Gen. Petraeus to the latest apparent accidental killing of civilians underscored NATO fears that it could become a new flash point for tensions, antagonizing ordinary Afghans and undermining the American-led coalition’s efforts to subdue the Taliban.
It was the first time that he or any of his predecessors in command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan personally took pre-emptive disciplinary action against soldiers in the field, according to an ISAF spokesman.
Gen. Petraeus also grounded the crew of the helicopter gunship involved in the attack, promised a full investigation and is reviewing the tactical directive on use of force by attack helicopter crews, according to an ISAF statement.
The general was in Washington for consultations with President Barack Obama and testified Tuesday on the possible start of American support-troop withdrawals from Afghanistan this summer. But the statement quoted him as saying, “We will take all necessary steps to get to the bottom of this.”
ISAF also said the investigation into the deaths of the boys could result in punishment for the NATO troops involved, a new element in its press releases. Generally, NATO pays compensation to families for loss of life and property damage in the course of military operations, but has not publicized or reported disciplinary action against soldiers involved in botched operations or accidental civilian deaths.
Afghan civilian casualties have skyrocketed in the past year as NATO forces, supplemented by the infusion of more than 30,000 newly deployed American troops, intensified their operations.
The vast majority of deaths were due to insurgent bombings and attacks, according to the United Nations and the NATO command.
A study by the UN and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission found that 75 per cent of the 2,777 civilian casualties in 2010 were attributable to anti-government fighters. Deaths due to operations by NATO forces, while still unacceptably high, declined by 26 per cent over the previous year, the study added.
A separate study based on military statistics, published in Science magazine last week, found that insurgent attacks accounted for 88 per cent of civilian casualties in 2009 and 2010.
In the incident this week, the local district police chief said the NATO helicopter crew may have believed the boys were insurgents planting roadside bombs. Abdul Marjan told Reuters news agency that the brothers were carrying spades to clear the irrigation canals in the family fields.
Angry neighbours stormed the district governor’s office after the shooting.
“People were very angry and they are still angry,” said Khalilullah Ziyaee, the provincial chief of police of Kunar province, where the Taliban maintain a strong presence. “But the governor and the provincial governor talked to them and calmed them down. He told them it’s useless to protest.”
In the earlier shooting of the nine boys in a different area of the same province, ISAF officials said the helicopter gunships were firing on an area that was believed to the source of a rocket attack on a NATO base.
The mistake was acknowledged quickly by coalition commanders, who said in a statement that “regrettably, there appears to have been an error in the handoff between identifying the location of the insurgents and the attack helicopters that carried out subsequent operations.”
Local residents, in a rare show of public protest, held anti-American demonstrations following the shootings. Mr. Karzai, weeping as he met young survivors of air attacks in the province last week, demanded that NATO forces stop operations that put civilians in the crossfire.