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UN report: Afghan air strike causes 107 casualties

May 8, 2018

Summary: A UN report into an Afghan Air Force rocket and machine gun attack in Kunduz province finds that 107 civilian casualties were caused, including 30 children killed.  The attack hit a religious ceremony by a madrassa.  The Afghan Air Force, now equipped with powerful rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, is actively flexing its new muscles.  Its ability to control and account for these muscles, however, looks poor.     

Image result for Afghanistan air force new attack helicopter MD-530

MD-530 AAF attack helicopters

The United Nations Aid Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has released a report on the 2 April 2018 Afghan Air Force (AAF) air strikes that caused multiple civilian casualties.  UNAMA claim to have verified 107 casualties, 36 killed and 71 injured, of which 81 victims were children (30 killed and 51 injured).

The airstrikes, using rockets and heavy machine gun fire, struck a religious ceremony taking place next to a madrassa in Laghmani village, Dasht-e Archi district of Kunduz province.  The operation was understood to be targeting senior Taliban leadership in the area, including members of a Taliban “Red Unit” believed to be gathering to launch an attack.

Analysis and Outlook

Air strikes inflicting civilian casualties have been a regular and tragic feature of this conflict.  The incident echoes the US bombings in the early period of the campaign: weddings, religious gatherings and those holding weapons were being struck regularly.  The incidents are too numerous to mention comprehensively here.  In July 2008 US aircraft struck a wedding ceremony in Nangarhar, killing The German air force achieved notoriety when it hit a fuel tanker that Afghan civilians had clustered around.  Some of these errors by the international community were a failing to misunderstand aspects of Afghan culture, some due to a “gung ho” aggressive approach (particularly in the early stages of the campaign) and poor procedures.  Others still were simply because it will always be difficult to clearly identify viable targets or separate armed combatant from civilians during an insurgency where “good” and “bad” humans are intermingled.  ISAF learnt the lesson quite early: kill civilians and you create more Taliban.  But it is still hard to fix.  Strenuous multi-stage clearances processes were instigated to restrict the release of munitions only when targets were clearly identified.  Not a perfect process but improvement in performance was made.

UNAMA Report: Additionally, the use of rockets and heavy machine fire from MD-530 helicopters in the context of such an event attended by a large number of civilians, with no apparent warning issued prior to the attack, is especially concerning. Such weapons do not allow for precision targeting and the impact area of the rockets extended over approximately 400 meters. The imprecise nature of the weapons that were used make it difficult for an attacking party to distinguish between the military objective of an attack and civilians or civilian objects, which is required to limit the attack’s effects as required by international humanitarian law.  Considering such circumstances, UNAMA finds that it was reasonably foreseeable that an attack against this area, using imprecise weapons, during a religious ceremony would have caused a large number of civilian casualties, with lethal indiscriminate effects.

However, the Afghan security forces do not have the level of training and capability that ISAF did, suggesting a “new era” of civilian casualties from air and artillery strikes may be arriving.  Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of turning the war over to national Afghan forces.  These are obviously highly controversial issues and can turn local populations against the government.  The bitter media battle between Taliban, civilians, government and NGOs will confuse and complicate analysis of what happened and ultimate culpability.  It also seems unlikely that the Afghan government will be able to produce a clear and impartial assessment of their role because they are not sufficiently competent and impartial.  Deny, denounce and deflect, followed by a late, grudging and partial acknowledgement is the most likely outcome.

It feels as if this aspect of the counter-insurgency campaign has lurched backwards at least ten years.

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