As U.S. air war in Afghanistan surged, investigations into civilian harm plunged

Asadullah Mubaris, 31, stands near the graves of people whose families say they were killed by a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan's Herat province in January. At least 10 civilians died in the strike, according to Afghan officials. The U.S. military assessed that no civilians were killed. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that cuts to the personnel who assessed allegations of civilian casualties included a reduction in the Civilian Casualty Mitigation Team. That team of four people was not diminished in size when a review board of civilian and military officials was dissolved in 2019. The article has been corrected.

KABUL — Last year, American warplanes dropped a record number of bombs on Taliban targets in Afghanistan, part of an effort that started in late 2018 to push the Taliban toward a deal to end nearly 20 years of conflict.

In the same period, allegations of civilian casualties reviewed by the Pentagon doubled. But the number of in-depth investigations into those allegations dropped by half. Hundreds of charges of Afghan civilian deaths and injuries as a result of airstrikes received only an initial assessment.

Investigating claims of death or injury is key to ensuring civilians in conflict are protected in the future. But as the war in Afghanistan was becoming increasingly deadly, the decline in U.S. military investigations produced an incomplete account of the missteps that resulted in civilian harm, according to Afghan officials and former U.S. officials. The lack of information also leaves Afghan families with little recourse to appeal for compensation for their loss.

“One thing is clear: The U.S. has not learned from its past,” said Larry Lewis, a former State Department official and expert on civilian casualties who last worked in Afghanistan in 2017. He said data from inquiries “was key to reducing civilian casualties earlier in the Afghanistan campaign,” and without that data now, “the civilian toll in Afghanistan is surely greater as a result.”

The U.S. military command in Kabul, known as Resolute Support, declined to grant an interview on the subject of civilian casualties and instead responded to some of The Washington Post’s questions submitted by email.

When asked about the drop in investigations, a U.S. military spokesman said the assertion that Resolute Support conducted fewer investigations is “inaccurate.” “Resolute Support investigates every claim of civilian casualties of which we are aware, either through direct reporting, field reporting or reported on social media,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.

When an allegation of a civilian casualty resulting from U.S. military action is raised, Resolute Support said, it conducts an initial review within 72 hours to determine whether it is “credible.” The U.S. military labels an allegation credible if the information reviewed in that 72-hour window shows it is “more likely than not” civilians were harmed by U.S. strikes. If additional evidence is provided to Resolute Support at a later time, some allegations can be reexamined.

Of 563 allegations, only 74 were deemed credible in 2019. (The number of allegations reviewed in 2018 was 223.) Most credible accusations undergo either an assessment called a CCAR or an in-depth investigation.

Resolute Support would not provide the number of CCARs carried out in 2019, saying one was carried out “in most cases.” But it conducted only 14 in-depth investigations in 2019, down from 23 in 2018, according to U.S. military data provided to the United Nations.

An initial assessment is far from a full investigation. It aims to determine what happened but not gather information that could mitigate future harm, as full investigations do.

The drop in the number of investigations came after the overall number of people tasked with reviewing the accusations was slashed.

Before 2019, a board of about a dozen U.S. civilian and military officials worked with a group of U.S. military investigators called the Civilian Casualty Mitigation Team to assesses allegations. But Resolute Support dissolved the board during the first half of 2019, citing efficiency concerns, according to the U.N. report. A “backlog” of allegations developed as the pace of airstrikes increased, and the board was abolished in an attempt to accelerate the review process, the report said.

The move left only the four people who make up the Civilian Casualty Mitigation Team, whose size remained unchanged when the review board was dissolved, to process hundreds of allegations of casualties.

Resolute Support declined to respond to questions about why the board was cut. When asked about the drop in in-depth investigations, Resolute Support declined to respond to further written questions and instead provided a statement from Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

“We use every tool at our disposal to avoid civilian casualties, and we spend more time and resources than any military in the history of warfare trying protect civilians,” Miller said, adding that it’s “impossible” to completely avoid civilian casualties.

Men take a photo with Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, after a news conference Feb. 29 at the presidential palace in Kabul. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

“Any time you drop a munition, there is a chance there are going to be civilian casualties. We take that responsibility seriously — we investigate every claim of civilian casualties and we take responsibility and attempt to make amends in situations where it appears we have committed harm to civilians,” he said.

In its statement, Resolute Support also pointed to an effort to expand monitoring on social media and local Afghan media in 2019 that brought more allegations of civilian casualties before the Civilian Casualty Mitigation Team.

As the number of in-depth investigations dropped, the gulf grew between U.S. military and U.N. data on civilian casualties.

For 2019, U.N. data on civilian casualties from American bombs is more than five times as high as that collected by the Pentagon. Ninety-eight civilians were killed by U.S. airstrikes in 2019, according to the Pentagon’s annual report submitted to Congress. For the same period, U.N. reporting found 546 civilians were killed in airstrikes by “international military forces.” The United States is the only international military force that carries out airstrikes in Afghanistan.

Resolute Support is less transparent about civilian casualties than other U.S. military commands. In Iraq and Syria, for example, the command overseeing operations against the Islamic State releases monthly updates on civilian casualties. In Africa, the command established a public website where allegations can be logged. In Afghanistan, the U.S. military doesn’t regularly release any information regarding civilian harm.

Civilian deaths at the hands of U.S. forces have been a powerful rallying cry for anti-American and anti-Afghan government sentiment during the two decades of war. The Taliban capitalizes on such incidents to win support, and as allegations soared over the past two years, so did their use in Taliban propaganda.

In one tweet, the picture of a small child wrapped in a funeral shroud is captioned “martyred by the savage soldier of the enemy.” In another, a report titled “War crimes of the foreign occupying forces and their internal mercenaries” is accompanied by a photograph of bodies wrapped in blankets.

Weakened U.S. accountability mechanisms only gave that propaganda greater traction, undercutting the Afghan government ahead of formal talks with the militants expected to begin in the coming weeks, according to local Afghan officials.

Peace through pressure

The U.S. air war in Afghanistan ramped up in 2018, when American planes launched 7,362 weapons from the air, more than the previous three years combined, according to Air Force summaries. The next year, the total number of U.S. munitions dropped on Afghanistan inched higher, to 7,423.

(Atthar Mirza)

The ramped-up air campaign coincided with the arrival of Miller, who assumed command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in September 2018, and with the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as the U.S. envoy charged with securing a peace deal with the Taliban that would lead to the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The violence was in full swing in September 2019, when a U.S. airstrike on al-Qaeda targets struck the district of Musa Qala in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province.

A month after the strikes, Sediqullah Razik smiled shyly from his hospital bed in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital, tucking his right arm behind his back as he ate from a bowl of stew with his left hand.

The 10-year-old boy had lost his right hand when a U.S. airstrike hit the vehicle he was in with his mother as they returned home from a wedding party that September evening, said his father, Abdul Razik. The right side of the boy’s head was badly wounded by shrapnel.

Sediqullah’s injuries and his father’s account of the events in Musa Qala on the night of Sept. 23 contradict the results of a Pentagon investigation, which found that a joint U.S.-Afghan ground raid and a supporting airstrike on al-Qaeda targets killed two civilians and injured none.

Afghan villagers carry a body on a stretcher outside a hospital following a U.S. airstrike in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, on Sept. 23. (Noor Mohammad/AFP/Getty Images)

The full Pentagon investigation was never made public. The United Nations found that 18 civilians were killed and 11 injured after interviewing local officials, survivors and aid organizations. The Post interviewed family members of 10 civilians killed and two injured, including Sediqullah. His father’s account aligns with details in the U.N. annual report on civilian casualties.

“They think they can bring peace with pressure,” Razik said of the intense wave of airstrikes in Helmand in recent years. “But it has been 20 years, and if they continue like this it will be 20 years more.”

The family requested compensation for Sediqullah’s injuries from local authorities, but nearly a year after the strike, the provincial council in Helmand said central government officials have continued to refuse to put them in contact with Resolute Support. When asked to clarify the conflicting reports, a Resolute Support spokesperson declined to comment.

Although there is legal debate over whether actors in armed conflict have a duty to investigate all allegations of casualties, some experts say the international law to protect civilians in practice requires countries to understand why casualties are occurring. In Helmand, more than a dozen people interviewed by The Post said they were never contacted by U.S. or Afghan officials investigating the raid more than a month after it occurred.

That’s not unusual: Even when the United States carries out an in-depth investigation into civilian casualties, on-the-ground evidence-gathering remains limited. Most U.S. airstrikes occur far from government-controlled territory, and the relatively small footprint of U.S. forces means there are few resources for fieldwork.

Christopher Kolenda, a former senior policy adviser to Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan, said the vast majority of Pentagon investigations rely on drone and cockpit footage and interviews with U.S. and Afghan troops who were on the ground at the time of the strike.

But without interviewing witnesses and survivors, Kolenda said, “you’re just dealing with much less factual information, so you just don’t know.”

Resolute Support did not comment on its ability to conduct field visits to collect evidence of civilian casualties.

In Abdul Majid Akhundzada’s office, surrounded by portraits of family members killed by the Taliban, he scrolled through gruesome photos on his phone of civilians who he said were maimed by American bombs. Some were photos he took himself; others were sent to him by contacts inside Taliban-controlled parts of the province.

“These investigations are nothing but advertisements to the media,” Akhundzada said.

He said he had sent pictures like the ones on his phone and other evidence of civilian casualties to government officials in Helmand and Kabul. But no one ever follows up, he said.

“They have no mercy,” he said. “They only see targets to kill.”

Mir Ahmed has carried the bloodstained identification papers of his 18-year-old son, Javid, since the day he was killed in a U.S. airstrike in January, Ahmed said. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Demanding accountability

Mir Ahmed has carried his 18-year-old son’s bloodstained identification papers with him since the January day when, he says, the teenager was killed in an American drone strike in western Afghanistan’s Herat province.

Javid was a laborer, the family’s breadwinner, and his death forced them into debt and then into poverty. Ahmed hoped to find a government official who could help him apply for a compensation payment that would ease his family’s financial woes.

But he faced an uphill battle, turned away from one provincial office after another.

Javid, 18, was among the civilian victims of a U.S. airstrike in Aghanistan's Herat province, his father says. The U.S. military claims no civilians were killed and did not conduct a full investigation, while Afghanistan's Human Rights Commission said 10 civilians died. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

The U.S. military said a “defensive airstrike” was conducted in support of Afghan forces in the area but assessed that no civilians were killed and did not conduct a full investigation. The Afghan government said an investigation was opened and completed, but refused to release details. (Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission, a semi-independent entity, said the strikes killed 10 civilians.)

Resolute Support declined to respond to questions about Mir Ahmed’s allegations.

In fact, over the past two years, not a single investigation into civilian casualties ordered by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been made public, according to human rights groups and an Afghan official briefed on the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not cleared to speak to the media.

Relatives of slain civilians say bureaucracy, corruption and the inability to communicate directly with U.S. officials often prevents them from obtaining compensation payments. According to the Pentagon, such payments are not acknowledgments of wrongdoing; instead, the money is intended to “express sympathy.”

Data obtained by The Post shows that during the same time period that investigations dropped, the sum of such payments more than doubled. In 2018, some 50 condolence payments amounted to $153,000, and the following year 65 payments amounted to more than $314,000.

The lack of transparency and accountability in the aftermath of deadly airstrikes has triggered anger among family members of victims in Herat, and they say they hold the Afghan government responsible for the actions of the U.S. military.

That anger threatens to undermine the government during long-awaited formal peace talks with the Taliban, which uses civilian casualties to paint the Afghan government as uncaring for its own people and to bolster the group’s own credentials as deserving of more power in any post-peace government.

In Herat, local officials say the casualties could have easily been avoided but that without a proper investigation into the incident such mistakes will probably be repeated.

The strikes were called in when an Afghan special forces ground operation inadvertently came under fire from local armed groups, some loyal to the government, according to the provincial council head and a tribal elder from Shindand, Tor Mohammad Zarifi.

A delegation of Afghan officials from Kabul visited Herat to speak to local officials about the strike weeks later, but they did not attempt to contact to witnesses, according to six people from Shindand interviewed by The Post.

Asadullah Mubaris, 31, a civil society activist in Shindand, said he has repeatedly spoken to journalists over the years about the toll airstrikes are taking on his community. He said his childhood friend, Ghafar, a man in his 20s who like many Afghans went by a single name, was one of those killed in the recent strike.

“Many times we have done interviews like this, and our lives stay the same,” he said. “Still there are airstrikes killing us.”

Asadullah Mubaris, a 31-year-old civil society activist in Shindad, Afghanistan, stands near the graves of victims of a U.S. airstrike in Herat province. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Aziz Tassal contributed to this report. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Design by Tara McCarty. Graphic by Atthar Mirza. Copy editing by Matt Schnabel.

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