IV. Taliban Shielding and Airstrikes

This chapter examines cases of alleged “shielding” by Taliban forces. In several instances, Human Rights Watch obtained eyewitness testimonies confirming that such shielding was occurring.

International humanitarian law does not prohibit military forces from deploying or fighting in residential areas, but they are required to take all feasible steps to minimize harm to civilians. Belligerents are prohibited from using civilians to shield military targets from attack. “Shielding” refers to intentionally using the presence of civilians to render areas or forces immune from military attack.48 For instance, taking over a family’s home and not permitting the family to leave for safety so as to deter the enemy from attacking is using “human shields.”

The prohibition on shielding is distinct from the requirement that warring parties take “constant care” to protect civilians during the conduct of military operations by, among other things, taking all feasible precautions to avoid locating military forces in densely populated areas.49 Likewise, shielding by a defending force does not permit the attacker to ignore the civilian presence; constant care must be taken to minimize harm to civilians and attacks may be neither indiscriminate nor cause disproportionate civilian loss.

Arghandab District in Kandahar Province

In the summer of 2007, four civilians were killed by US airstrikes and tank fire during a firefight with Taliban insurgents in a small village in Arghandab, in Kandahar province.50  

According to local residents, five days before the fighting, Taliban forces occupied the village. They forced villagers to provide food and shelter, and would not permit them to leave. Taliban fighters spent the next three days preparing firing positions in homes and trenches around houses, and forced villagers to remain indoors.  Villagers pleaded to be allowed to leave. A farmer told Human Rights Watch, “We told them that we are Muslims and that their presence in my house would kill us. They didn’t listen to us and now my two sons and my two brothers are dead.”51

On the fourth day a small US mechanized force entered the village and was attacked by Taliban insurgents firing from homes. After a protracted gun battle, the US forces called in tactical airstrikes. The farmer told Human Rights Watch:

The Taliban came to my house and shot at the Americans from my house. The Americans believed that my house was a Taliban house. The Americans then dropped bombs near to my house because of the Taliban and two of my brothers were killed. The Taliban kept firing from my house and then an American tank fired again, killing my sons. The Taliban ran away leaving my family dead and my house destroyed.52

Chora District in Uruzgan Province

On June 16, 2007, Taliban forces attacked and occupied several villages in Chora district, Uruzgan province. NATO and Afghan forces responded in a fierce battle that lasted until June 19, 2007. Numerous civilians reportedly died in the fighting.

Villagers told Human Rights Watch that when the Taliban entered the villages they told the villagers they had to join in their fight against Afghan government forces or they would be killed. In the village of Sarab the Taliban reportedly executed approximately 30 civilians both for not joining in the fight and as a message to the local population. At least 12 civilians fled the village and fought with Afghan and NATO forces against the Taliban during the ensuing battle. One eyewitness told Human Rights Watch that his mother-in-law’s hands were first cut off and she was then set on fire. His brother-in-law and brother were also killed, and other villagers were also set on fire. His son was taken by the Taliban, tortured, and set on fire, but was able to escape and survived. The Taliban forced villagers to house and feed them, and would not allow them to leave the homes for fear of allowing NATO forces to learn of the specific locations of Taliban fighters. The eyewitness said that during the battle the Taliban forced people to remain in their homes. NATO aircraft bombed the homes from which the Taliban were firing, causing the deaths of at least 15 civilians in his village. He estimated that at least 30 civilians were killed in the battle.53

The battle spread and a resident of the nearby village of Qala-e-Ragh said his village was attacked by the Taliban on June 16. The Taliban shelled the village, but the villagers put up armed resistance until learning from Afghan forces that NATO was going to counterattack with airstrikes, at which point they took shelter. One hour later, NATO aircraft bombed the village. Taliban forces, apparently realizing that the villagers must have received advance warning of the air attack, beheaded two villagers and shot another one. On June 19,Afghan forces told the residents they could return to their village but the Taliban resumed their attack later that same day, and NATO bombings killed another three civilians and injured five.

A resident of another village in Chora district told Human Rights Watch that during the same battle his village was caught in the crossfire between the Taliban and NATO forces on June 19. Taliban fighters came to his village and told the residents they had to join in the fight against government and NATO forces or they would be killed. The Taliban deployed in the homes but would not allow villagers to leave. The resident believed the Taliban wanted to have NATO attacks kill civilians so the village elders would turn away from NATO and support the Taliban. He said bombs fell on civilian homes between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. on June 17, without NATO giving warning so they could leave. He said that 13 members of his family were killed in the bombing and he was the sole survivor.54

Zhare District in Kandahar Province

On June 10, 2007, US airstrikes on Zhare District in Kandahar Province resulted in at least eight civilian deaths. 

Villagers told Human Rights Watch that in the days before the attack numerous Taliban insurgents arrived in the village. They forced the villagers to shelter their fighters and feed them. When US ground forces were in the vicinity, Taliban fighters fired at them from occupied civilian homes. The US forces responded with airstrikes, destroying several homes and killing both Taliban fighters and villagers.

One farmer told Human Rights Watch:

The Taliban came to my village and forced us to stay close to them. The Taliban then came into my house and forced me and my family to stay with them. They then started firing their weapons at the Americans. The Americans then bombed my village. People in my village were getting killed because the Taliban would not let us leave.55 

Once the Taliban withdrew, the villagers fled their homes to the surrounding countryside for fear of being caught in further airstrikes. The same farmer told Human Rights Watch: “We fled after the Taliban left my house because we knew the Americans would bomb my house. They did. My house was completely destroyed because of the Taliban.” The farmer’s father, mother, and sons were all killed in the attack.

48 Human Rights Watch, Lebanon – Why They Died: Civilian Casualties in Lebanon during the 2006 War, vol. 19, no. 5(E), September 2007,

49 Ibid.

50 Human Rights Watch interview with an Afghan villager (name withheld), July 29, 2007. The farmer was illiterate and was unsure of the date.

51 Ibid.

52 Ibid.

53 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with a witness to the battle in Chora District, August 2007.

54 Human Rights Watch interview with survivor (name withheld), Kabul, July 25, 2007.

55 Human Rights Watch interview with Afghan farmer (name withheld), Kabul, July 29, 2007.