Afghans blame civilian deaths on U.S. despite spike from insurgent violence

Two security workers were killed in an attack on Hart Security in Kabul this week.
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 2010

KABUL -- During the first six months of the year, 1,271 Afghan civilians had been killed in an increasingly violent war. On Tuesday, Hafizullah Azizi, a handsome 22-year-old who financially supported his mother and five younger siblings, was added to the list.

Azizi, a driver for a British personal security firm, was returning to the company's fortified 16-room compound in central Kabul when armed masked men sprinted toward the house. The attackers shot Azizi and another driver with assault rifles and then engaged in a firefight with a guard, according to police and witnesses. Failing to breach the exterior wall, an attacker detonated an explosive device strapped to his waist, blowing out windows and rocking cars. The two Afghan drivers and two attackers lay dead.

The next day, Azizi's mother buried her son in the family graveyard near his father, an Afghan soldier who died in battle 17 years earlier.

Azizi is representative of an alarming spike in civilian deaths, up 21 percent this year largely because of an increase in insurgent violence, according to a U.N. report this week. (Add 1,997 injured, and the spike in overall civilian casualties is 31 percent.) Although NATO forces have largely made good on the pledge last year from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal to decrease civilian casualties caused by their actions, the Taliban have ramped up their aggression, killing 920 civilians this year through suicide bombings, targeted assassinations and improvised explosive devices.

U.S. and NATO officials have used the figures to denounce the Taliban to win popular support for an increased presence that aims to clear out Taliban strongholds this fall. But ordinary Afghans have largely rejected this good guy-bad guy narrative and continue blaming the civilian deaths on the international forces, said experts who have studied the issue.

"What we found was that regardless of the region, province, education level or political views, in many cases Afghans blamed international forces as much as the insurgents for the increase," said Erica Gaston, a human rights lawyer focusing on civilian casualties for the Open Society Institute who recently interviewed 250 Afghans.

Afghans contend that the troops are not doing enough to protect them; that foreigners are ensconced behind fortified walls and bulletproof vehicles while residents are out in the open; and that the presence of foreigners in their neighborhoods brings unwanted attention from insurgents.

"The [Afghan] government, NATO, the U.N., the American forces -- they make a big, big wall of cement and they are inside," said Zafar Khanbahar, 25, Azizi's cousin. "So the insurgents, to try to kill the troops, whenever they explode [a bomb], the people in the public are hit. I blame all of them, the government, NATO and the insurgents -- all."

This reaction from the public has vexed military officials, who issue several announcements weekly about civilians killed by insurgents. On the same day Azizi was killed, for example, NATO said that three civilians were killed by a roadside bomb in another province. "Insurgents continue to take innocent lives," said Col. James Dawkins, director of the ISAF Joint Command Combined Joint Operations Center. But often, it is the actions of U.S. forces that draw outrage. Last month, Afghans protested in Kabul after a U.S. contractors' SUV collided with another car, killing several civilians. Protesters set the SUV on fire and attacked the contractors when they returned for the vehicle.

Military officials said the forces' visibility makes it easier for aggrieved Afghans to find an outlet for their anger.

"A lot of Afghans will come to coalition forces alleging civilian casualties that we caused. This is to be expected. We are the only identifiable force. The insurgents aren't," said Lt. Campbell Spencer, who works with the military's Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell. "We provide medical services and compensation payments as well." Gaston said the military was taking the correct approach by fine-tuning aerial bombings and reducing night raids on homes. But by pushing deeper into Taliban-controlled areas, she said, international forces are causing more chaos. Spencer said that the Taliban has taken to holding Afghan civilians as hostages to make it more difficult for the forces to attack without killing innocent people.

"It's a great idea in theory, but in practice it is enormously risky to civilians," Gaston said.

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