People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 19

May 08, 2011


 Afghanistan: Civilians in the Firing Line


Yohannan Chemerapally


NOW that Osama bin Laden has been officially declared dead by the American authorities, ordinary Afghans while breathing a sigh of relief are also hoping that the Obama administration sticks to its commitment that all US troops will be withdrawn from their country. Thousands of innocent Afghan civilians have been killed in America’s so called war on terrorism since September 2001. Some recent incidents that have resulted in innocent Afghan blood being shed have further inflamed public opinion in the country.


On March 23, a US soldier, Corporal Jeremy Morlock who was assigned with an American army 5th Stryker Brigade in Southern Afghanistan, confessed to the killings of Afghan civilians last year. In his statement to the US army authorities, Morlock admitted that he along with a dozen of his fellow army combatants murdered three Afghan civilians and dismembered their body parts to keep as “war trophies”. He also confessed that the group planted Afghan army weapons to make the victims look like enemy combatants. The killings happened in Kandahar province between February and May, 2010. Morlock has been sentenced to 25 years in prison by a US military court. He has agreed to testify against the other soldiers involved in the brutal killings of innocent civilians. In the third week of March, the German magazine Der Spiegel had published three pictures of Morlock and one of his army colleagues posing with the head of an Afghan civilian they had killed in cold blood. The magazine uncovered 4000 photos and videos taken by the American kill-squad detailing their horrific activities.




The latest revelations of blatant human rights abuses in Afghanistan by US forces has brought back memories of the infamous My Lai incident during the Vietnam war and the torture in the Abu Ghraib prison following the American invasion of Iraq. At My Lai, American soldiers gunned down at least 500 children, women and old men. The noted American investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh wrote recently “that terrible things happen in a war and terrible things are happening every day in Afghanistan, as Americans continue nightly assassination raids and have escalated the number of bombing sorties”. An investigation by the Inter Press Service (IPS) published in March shows that the UN underestimated the number of civilians killed in US Special Operations Force (SOF) raids in 2010. The UN had estimated the death toll at around 80.


The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said that the figure represented the toll from only 13 incidents involving the SOF. 60 other incidents involving SOF night raids were not adequately investigated. The UN has however admitted that the targeted killings of civilians had doubled in 2010 as compared to year before that. In its annual report released in early March, the UN said that 2010 marked the most lethal year for non-combatants in Afghanistan in a war that has been going on for nearly ten years. The UN has blamed the Taliban for most of the killings involving civilians. The Taliban has been targeting government sympathisers and off-duty Afghan soldiers and policemen on a regular basis after the Obama administration ordered its military surge two years ago.


The American-NATO forces under the command of US Gen David Petraeus, has been stonewalling demands for the release of all revenant information relating to the deaths of civilians. Most Afghans believe that the number of civilians killed by the occupation forces number in the thousands. After ten years of military occupation, the security situation is only worsening. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) the security situation has worsened throughout the country. The ICRC reported that the “growing civilian casualties, internal displacement and poor medical care have created a dire humanitarian situation”.


A recent survey by the Asia Foundation showed that 83 per cent of the people in Afghanistan want a negotiated settlement with the Taliban though 55 per cent showed little sympathy with the insurgency. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll also showed that 60 per cent of the American public thought that the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting. A BBC national opinion poll on Afghanistan taken in December, 2010 showed that more Afghans felt that attacks on US/ISAF troops are justified. They were no doubt angered by the targeting of civilians in “night raids” and random attacks from the air.


The Taliban has called for the setting up of an international fact finding commission to look into the killings of civilians. A Taliban statement late last year said that the UN, the OIC, NATO and the Taliban itself could jointly probe the allegations regarding the widespread killing of innocent civilians. According to a Wikileaks cable of 2009, 2058 names were included in the target list for the SOF night raids. Mathew Hoh, a senior US State Department official based in Afghanistan who resigned in 2009 in protest against the US war strategy in Afghanistan said that on several occasions “the wrong guys” got killed in SOF night raids. “Sometimes it would be innocent families”, he said.


On March 9, a cousin of president Hamid Karzai, Yar Mohammed Karzai was killed in a US military night time raid. On March 1, nine children were killed in an air strike in Afghanistan’s north eastern Kunar province. US officials, including Barack Obama, apologised to the Afghan president, after video footage emerged about the deaths of the children, all aged below 14. Gen David Petraeus, the man in charge of the Afghan operations only admitted “to an error in the hand-off between identifying the location of the insurgents and the attack helicopters which carried out the subsequent operations”. In February, NATO helicopters bombed an Afghan village, also in Kunar province, killing 65 people, including 40 children under the age of 13. Twenty two women were also among those killed. The Afghan president has on several occasions strongly criticised the night raids by the US military on unsuspecting Afghan villages and homes. “We don’t like raids in our homes”, he had told the Washington Post last year.




The raids and killing of innocent civilians have been skilfully used by the Taliban to recruit more people for their cause. The Taliban have been insisting for some years now that their one point agenda is to evict the foreign occupation forces from the country. Once that goal is achieved, the Taliban leadership has indicated that it is willing to talk to Karzai and other Afghan individuals and parties opposed to them to find a negotiated settlement to end the long running conflict. In a statement released earlier this year, the Taliban stressed that the struggle of the Afghan people was against colonialism and requested the international community to render assistance to their “liberation struggle”. The Taliban also sent out a strong signal to neighbouring countries. “We assure all regional countries that we will maintain good relations with them — following our obtaining independence”, the statement said. The Taliban statement had come after the demands by senior US politicians that the US should retain its military bases in Afghanistan even after the scheduled military withdrawal from the country.


The Obama administration has escalated the fight against the resilient Taliban as more American soldiers die in action. After Obama took over, more American soldiers have died in action in Afghanistan than during the entire presidency of his predecessor, George W Bush. In 2010 alone, 701 foreign troops were killed, among them 492 Americans. Gen Petraeus has warned of a tough year ahead. In early March, he told the media that fighting this summer would be considerably worse. “Many intelligence estimates say that it will be as violent or perhaps even more violent” than 2010. He predicted that the Taliban “will come back in force”. He said that extra forces ordered in by president Obama have secured gains in Afghanistan but described them as “fragile and reversible”. Obama had authorised a surge of 30,000 troops for the Afghan war in October, 2009.


Under the command of Petraeus, the US army has given up on its counterinsurgency strategy and has opted for air assaults and night raids. Winning “hearts and minds” of ordinary Afghans seems no longer to be a priority for the Obama administration. In February, the US army announced that it was withdrawing from the north eastern Pech valley. Washington had previously insisted that control of the area was strategically vital. More than a hundred American soldiers have been killed there since they were first deployed there in 2003. The US had withdrawn from neighbouring Korengal valley in April last year after losing 42 soldiers. The Mujahideen were at the gates of Kabul a few months after the Soviet army withdrew from the Pech Valley in 1988.


Military analysts are of the opinion that these strategic areas are now completely under the control of the insurgent groups. Senior Afghan officials are the first to admit that their security forces are in no position to fight the Taliban in these areas. Confidential UN maps published in the Wall Street Journal in December have shown a clear deterioration of security in the country. In the two maps accessed by the newspaper, the situation in the South, the Taliban’s stronghold, remains “very high risk” and that the security situation has worsened in the North and the East.


The US has handed over responsibility for security to the Afghan forces in many provinces, including parts of volatile south western provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. This is being done under the banner of the “Afghan Local Police”. President Karzai is known to be opposed to this strategy as it will once again encourage the rise of local militias and warlords. The Obama administration is hoping that the local militias and the Afghan army, which has been mainly trained by the NATO countries, will lighten the military burden and help meet the deadline for the drawback of American forces. Washington hopes to transfer full military responsibility to the Afghan forces by 2014 as it prepares for its exit strategy.