By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 3, 2007
KABUL, May 2 -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai declared Wednesday that his government can "no longer accept" civilian casualties caused by U.S.-led operations, shortly before news spread that as many as 51 civilians may have died during clashes this week in far western Afghanistan.
Civilian deaths are "becoming a heavy burden and we are not happy about it," Karzai told reporters here.
His remarks came two days after rioting broke out following a protracted battle in western Herat province, where police said as many as 30 residents had been killed during three days of fighting between U.S.-led forces and Taliban insurgents. Several government buildings were stormed by demonstrators, some of whom were wounded by police in the incidents.
Then, on Wednesday, local officials visiting villages in the battle area, in the Shindand district, reported that 45 to 51 civilians had died and that bodies were still being dug out of mud houses that had collapsed in U.S.-led bombing raids.
"So far the people have buried 45 bodies, and they are still taking out more," said Ghulam Nabi Hakak, the Herat representative of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, reached by telephone Wednesday night. "Yesterday they buried 12 children. They told us some women and children ran away and got lost and drowned. The exact number of dead is not clear, but the people are very angry."
Spokesmen for the U.S. military said that they had no reports of civilian casualties but that 136 suspected Taliban fighters had been killed in operations in Herat. One spokesman said that he could not comment on specific incidents but that U.S. forces "take every precaution to prevent injury to innocent civilians in every operation we do."
Public anger has been mounting steadily over a string of civilian deaths in the past month during U.S.-led counterterrorist operations. Increasingly, that anger has been directed both at Karzai and at the international forces that are here to back his government as well as hunt down Islamic insurgents.
In eastern Nangahar province this week, hundreds of demonstrators repeatedly blocked a main highway, accusing U.S.-led forces of killing six civilians, including a woman and child, during a counterinsurgency raid. Some students burned President Bush in effigy and shouted "Death to America"; they also demanded that Karzai resign.
Karzai, who has previously expressed regret for such deaths but continued to praise U.S.-led forces for their work in combating insurgents, displayed frustration and anguish when he met with journalists Wednesday after returning from a fence-mending meeting in Ankara, Turkey, with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
"The intention may be very good to fight terrorism, sometimes mistakes are made, but five years on, it is very difficult for us to continue to accept civilian casualties," Karzai said. "It's not understandable anymore." He said he had worked hard to improve coordination between foreign and Afghan forces, especially during raids on villages. "Unfortunately, that has not given results, and we are not happy about that."
According to an Associated Press tally, 151 civilians were killed in violence during the first four months of this year, including at least 51 blamed on the U.S.-led coalition and NATO. The figures do not include the most recent operation in Herat.
The civilian deaths are a byproduct of the intensifying conflict over the past year between thousands of Taliban fighters and about 47,000 U.S.-led and NATO forces. Significant armed clashes now occur regularly in a half-dozen provinces, and the Taliban has launched a campaign of suicide blasts and bombings triggered by remote control in urban areas, as well as against military targets.
Although opinion polls show that most Afghans do not support the Taliban or other violent guerrilla groups, analysts here say the issue of civilian deaths is being manipulated by insurgent leaders to foment anger against both the Karzai government and the foreign forces who were once widely welcomed here.
"The casualties are an easy propaganda tool for the Taliban to use in the affected areas," said Nader Nadery, vice president of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. "People feel under attack by both sides. This does not win hearts and minds. If we want to win the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the coalition must take precautionary measures to prevent more civilian casualties."
Maj. Chris Belcher, a U.S. military spokesman, said the U.S. forces are "doing everything we can to reduce civilian casualties. We take it very seriously. We are here at the invitation of the Afghan people and we value their participation in the fight against the Taliban."
None of the most recent incidents that caused civilian casualties has involved NATO troops, who are engaged in heavy fighting in the southern region that is the major Taliban stronghold. A NATO military spokeswoman said Wednesday that the alliance's role here is "counterinsurgency but not counterterrorism," meaning it does not aggressively track and kill suspected insurgents as U.S. Special Operations forces do here constantly.
"Our policy is always to minimize civilian casualties and damage. In some cases, we have actually canceled operations or maneuvers if they pose too much risk," said the spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Maria Carl.
As the Taliban insurgency grows and patience for foreign forces wears thin, much of the blame for the country's deteriorating situation has fallen on Karzai. In recent months he has come under increasing domestic and foreign criticism as an ineffectual leader who has failed to bring security and honest government to the nation.
Karzai has repeatedly blamed Afghanistan's neighbor, Pakistan, for harboring and supporting Islamic extremists, while Musharraf has accused him of doing nothing to solve his domestic insurgency problems.
In their meeting, Karzai and Musharraf produced a joint statement in which they agreed to share intelligence and pledged not to allow the financing, training or promoting of extremist militants. Karzai said Wednesday he was "very hopeful" that the agreement would bear fruit.
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.