KABUL — The Afghan military faced a wave of criticism Tuesday as citizens, human rights groups and government officials took stock of an airstrike carried out by the Afghan air force in the northern province of Kunduz, killing dozens of people.
A spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, Gen. Mohammad Radmanish, said Afghan helicopters attacked a Taliban stronghold in a location that was being used as a training camp for the group in Dashti Archi district, near Kunduz city and the Tajikistan border. Foreign fighters from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were among the people killed in the strike, the general added.
But other Afghan officials disputed that point. Abdullah Qarloq, a senator from the district, said the Afghan military struck the Akhundzada Gojor madrassa, or religious school, during a graduation ceremony. Several hundred people were present at the time, and those killed included both civilians and Taliban members, he said.
“What I know and have heard is that 200 people have been killed and wounded, both civilians who were studying there and armed Taliban,” the senator said.
Monday’s airstrike underscores a potential pitfall in the latest U.S. strategy in the 16-year war in Afghanistan, which calls for significant investment in the Afghan air force.
The confusion and carnage after Monday’s strike was enough for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan to launch an investigation. The mission called reports about the airstrikes “disturbing” and said Tuesday in a tweet that it had a human rights team on the ground researching the strike.
“All parties reminded of obligations to protect civilians from impact of armed conflict,” the tweet said.
Safiullah Amiri, a member of the Kunduz provincial council, said that there may have been Taliban members present when the strike occurred, but many more civilians also were there. Religious scholars and students had gathered from nine districts in Kunduz province, and others had come from Badakhshan province, he said.
“We will raise our voice,” he said. “Local and central government should take the issue seriously. Why are civilians bombarded?”
The U.S. military was not involved in the strike, U.S. and Afghan military officials said. The United States has been training Afghans for years to fly both armed helicopters and small planes armed with bombs, and in some cases, Afghans are carrying out airstrikes without U.S. involvement. U.S. and Afghan officials say that the Afghan military is concerned about civilian casualties and takes precautions to avoid them, but some continue to occur.
The U.S.-led military coalition and the Afghan army have sought to characterize the Afghan air force as on the rise. On March 22, it dropped its first laser-guided bomb, using an A-29 attack plane to strike a Taliban target in western Farah province, U.S. and Afghan military officials said.
It was not clear what kind of helicopters the Afghans used in the strike. It was carried out by the Afghan National Army’s 209th Corps, which has headquarters to the west of Dashti Archi district, outside the city of Mazar-e Sharif.
Omar Zakhilwal, the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, condemned the airstrike in a tweet Tuesday, saying that they occurred on a madrassa and killed many civilians and children. Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai also condemned the strikes, saying in a statement that “such raids, carried out in the name of fighting terrorism, on our homes, hospitals and religious facilities are against all principles.”
The strike occurred in the same province where a U.S. AC-130 gunship plane opened fire in October 2015 on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz city. That attack left at least 30 people dead, including doctors and patients, and occurred because the U.S. military did not realize the buildings involved were a hospital, U.S. military officials found. Sixteen people were disciplined, but the Pentagon found that the incident did not amount to a war crime because it was not intentional. The attack occurred as U.S. troops were attempting to help the Afghan military take back control of Kunduz city, which the Taliban had seized that spring.
Brienne Prusak, a spokeswoman for Doctors Without Borders, said Tuesday that the organization donated some medical supplies to the regional hospital in Kunduz after the latest strike and treated a couple of patients with minor injuries at its outpatient clinic in the province. It no longer maintains a full hospital in Kunduz as it did before the 2015 disaster.
Dan Lamothe reported from Camp Shorab, Afghanistan, and Sayed Salahuddin reported from Kabul. Sharif Hassan contributed to this report from Kabul.