Civilian Death Toll in May 3 Airstrikes Shows Previous Measures Inadequate
May 14, 2009
Afghans have heard promises from the US before that they would take all possible steps to avoid civilian casualties. But if the US is to have any credibility, this latest outrage needs to be the last of its kind. The Petraeus review should result in measures that genuinely minimize civilian loss of life.
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

(New York) - The review announced by Gen. David Petraeus, chief of the US Central Command, into the use of airstrikes by US forces in Afghanistan needs to produce fundamental changes to reduce civilian casualties, Human Rights Watch said today.

The announcement of the review followed a US bombing in Bala Baluk district of Farah province in western Afghanistan that caused massive civilian deaths and injuries. Investigations by the United Nations and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission are not yet complete, but the government of Afghanistan says that more than 100 civilians were killed in the May 3 bombing.

"Afghans have heard promises from the US before that they would take all possible steps to avoid civilian casualties," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "But if the US is to have any credibility, this latest outrage needs to be the last of its kind. The Petraeus review should result in measures that genuinely minimize civilian loss of life."

Human Rights Watch said that the swift announcement of an investigation into the incident was welcome if it is independently conducted and the results are made public.

During a visit to Washington by President Hamid Karzai on May 6, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her regret and sympathy about the bombing. Other US officials have sought, though, to play down US responsibility for the casualties and instead to blame the Taliban for using civilians as human shields. But this contention is contradicted by most accounts villagers provided to Human Rights Watch and other human rights and government investigators.

A preliminary investigation by Human Rights Watch found that on the morning of May 3,  a large Taliban force arrived in the village of Ganj Abad in Bala Baluk district. Large areas of Farah province, in unstable southwestern Afghanistan, are under insurgent control, including areas close to where the fighting took place.

Villagers told Human Rights Watch that the insurgents demanded a share of the villagers' poppy income and took up ambush positions. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that a firefight lasting several hours ensued between the Taliban and Afghan and US forces. A small number of bombs are reported to have been dropped by US forces, after which the fighting ended, in late afternoon. As many as six civilians may have been killed during the firefight.

According to several villagers and government officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch, large groups of Taliban fighters were seen withdrawing from the area. At around 8:30 p.m., US aircraft began bombing the village of Garani, close to Ganj Abad. Villagers say that it was during these bombings that most of the civilians were killed. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations that between eight and 12 bombs were dropped. US officials have said that a total of 13 bombs were dropped during the entire day, in eight locations.

"It was like Judgment Day," Habibullah, a health worker who witnessed the attacks, told Human Rights Watch. "Words cannot describe how terrible it was. Who can bear to see so many killed, from a two-day-old baby to a 70-year-old woman?"

Villagers and local officials have told Human Rights Watch that many villagers took shelter from the bombing in the houses of local religious and tribal leaders, including the homes of Sayyed Naim and Mualem Rahmadi. Dozens of civilians are reported to have been killed when each of these compounds was bombed.

Under the laws of war, attacks may not be indiscriminate or cause disproportionate civilian loss. Indiscriminate attacks are attacks of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. Disproportionate attacks are those expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life that would be excessive compared the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the attack. In the conduct of military operations, constant care must be taken to spare the civilian population and civilian objects from the effects of hostilities.

Parties to a conflict are required to take precautionary measures with a view to minimizing loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, and damage to civilian objects. These precautions include doing everything feasible to verify that the objects to be attacked are military objectives and not civilians; and taking all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of warfare.

"The US, working with its Afghan counterparts, should have known that there was a large civilian population in the village at the time of the airstrikes," said Adams. "The US needs to answer some basic questions about the sources and quality of information it requires before authorizing these kinds of devastating bombing runs."

Under the tactical directive issued by the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, on September 8, 2008, in response to previous killings of large numbers of civilians in Azizabad, the following guideline was given to international military forces in Afghanistan:

"When taking fire from an Afghan house, on-scene commanders must satisfy themselves that every effort has been made to confirm that the Afghan facility does not shelter innocent civilians."

McKiernan also ordered commanders to consider pulling out of firefights in populated areas rather than following militants into villages or calling in airstrikes against their positions in residential areas.

The majority of villagers and government officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch and other human rights officials reported that insurgents got into their vehicles and left  the village after evening prayers, and before most of the bombs were dropped. A minority has reported that some Taliban remained in Garani and engaged in some sporadic fire during the evening.

The US spokesperson in Afghanistan, Col. Greg Julian, told Human Rights Watch that ground commanders observed fire before dropping the bombs, saying: "If they can't suppress them from the ground, then they will use bombs, and particularly when enemy fire was coming from there."

Human Rights Watch has long criticized the Taliban for using civilians as "human shields," and for deploying their forces in densely populated areas that placed civilians at unnecessary risk. However, unlawful actions by a defending force do not permit the attacker to ignore the civilian presence.

Human Rights Watch said that the new investigation should treat the bereaved with respect, place blame wherever it is deserved, and hold to account those responsible for acting improperly. The US has not yet completed its inquiry, but already has accused the Afghan government of exaggerating the number of civilian dead.

"Even if some Taliban remained in the village, dropping a dozen bombs into a residential area doesn't seem to make much sense," said Adams. "The US should do everything possible to ensure that disasters like Bala Baluk are not repeated. Afghans are reeling from so much loss, and the anger it arouses clearly fuels the insurgency."

Background

The US carried out two investigations into the biggest civilian casualty incident of 2008, in Azizabad in Herat province, where between 78 and 92 civilians were killed (according to the government, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and the United Nations). The airstrikes appear to have failed to hit their targets, were based on flawed intelligence, and resulted in a significant loss of civilian life.

The US investigation, the full report of which was not released, exonerated US forces, called into question the methodology of other investigations with different conclusions, blamed deaths on Taliban shielding without evidence, and accused witnesses of exaggerating the numbers killed for financial gain.

Although many operational changes have been made, including several revisions of Tactical Directives (including September 2008, December 2008 and January 2009), the tragedy of Bala Baluk shows that further reform is required.

As Human Rights Watch observed in its September 2008 report, "Troops in Contact: Airstrikes and Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan," US and NATO forces have been far more likely to cause civilian casualties in unplanned situations, often when ground troops call in airstrikes as tactical support when under attack from insurgent forces, or to target insurgent forces on the move after contact with ground troops. The majority of known civilian deaths and injuries from airstrikes in Afghanistan come in these situations, which are known as "Troops in Contact" (TIC). The incident in Bala Baluk appears to bear these same hallmarks.

Civilian casualties do not necessarily mean that there has been a violation of the laws of armed conflict, but any loss of civilian life can have a profoundly detrimental effect on the local population. Further efforts are needed to minimize civilian casualties. The use of high levels of military firepower in operations to kill or capture mid-level Taliban commanders has frequently resulted in civilian casualties that carry a high cost in terms of public opinion, often for limited military gain. When making proportionality assessments for such attacks, weighing anticipated civilian loss against expected military gain, US forces should consider the relative ease with which insurgent groups have been able to replace mid-level commanders.

After the bombing in Bala Baluk, President Karzai asked President Barack Obama to promise an end to US airstrikes, and instead use only ground operations. In response, Gen. James L. Jones, national security adviser to the president, said: "We're going to take a look at trying to make sure we correct those things we can correct, but certainly to tie the hands of our commanders and say we're not going to conduct airstrikes would be imprudent. We can't fight with one hand tied behind our back."

Recommendations

Human Rights Watch urges the United States to:

  • Take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian loss of life and property. Airstrikes on populated villages should be avoided. Area-effect weapons such as howitzers and other heavy artillery also should not be used against targets in populated villages - their blast and fragmentation radius is so large that they have indiscriminate effects.
  • Refrain from using airstrikes in densely populated areas.
  • Make greater efforts to ensure that intelligence is highly reliable, and avoid reliance on single sources of human intelligence.
  • Avoid carrying out airstrikes without an adequate Collateral Damage Estimate (CDE).
  • Use precision-guided, low-collateral-damage munitions whenever possible, especially on targets in populated areas.
  • End use of area-effect weapons such as 105mm howitzers against targets in densely populated areas.
  • Reduce reliance on Special Forces operations in civilian areas that are likely to result in "troops in contact" situations requiring close air support.
  • Reconsider the value of kill/capture operations against replaceable commanders when civilian loss is likely.
  • Provide accurate and timely information on civilian casualties in military operations in all cases.
  • Impartially, thoroughly, and transparently investigate all incidents of civilian casualties, take responsibility when warranted, and take appropriate disciplinary or criminal action.
  • Stop publicly claiming that Taliban use of "human shields" was responsible for civilian casualties when untrue or unproven.

Correction 

In this May 14, 2009 news release, Human Rights Watch originally cited civilian deaths in Afghanistan during airstrikes by US forces conducted on May 3, 2009. The date of May 3 was initially reported by the US military and in the international media; however, the airstrikes actually occurred on May 4, 2009.

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