The US military announced on Wednesday that it was investigating an air strike on a home near the northern city of Kunduz last week that reportedly killed 14 members of a single family, including eight women and three young children.
Reuters reports Afghan officials confirmed the deaths, which resulted from July 19 combat operations conducted by Afghan forces backed by American air strikes. However, the officials said it was still unclear how the 14 relatives died. US military officials last week confirmed American warplanes bombed the area in support of Afghan forces but, as is usually the case, they said there were no indications of civilian casualties.
There were certainly such indications on the ground. Local residents and officials said there were some 20 people living in the house that was bombed, all of them from one extended family. In addition to the 14 people killed, two other children, ages 5 and 3, were hospitalized with serious injuries, while three other children managed to escape from the home when the bombing began.
"I don’t know why they attack civilians," local resident Rahimullah, who like many Afghans goes by only one name, told the New York Times. Rahimullah, who drove the tractor used to excavate the bombed home and dig up the victims’ bodies, said two of his nephews were killed in the strike.
Afghan and US officials initially denied the bombing had killed any civilians. However, the former soon admitted that there weren’t any Taliban in the home when it was bombed.
"There wasn’t a single armed person in those homes," local elder Hajji Sherin Agha told the Times.
The United Nations office in Kabul, the Afghan capital, called reports of civilian casualties "credible" and said it would investigate the incident.
Now the US military is also investigating the attack, while striking a defensive and denialist tone.
"While an on-the-ground assessment conducted by Afghan forces immediately following the strikes revealed no indications the strikes caused civilian casualties, we are investigating the incident and subsequent claims further," Army Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell, spokesperson for US forces in Afghanistan, said on Wednesday.
"[We] take all allegations of civilian casualties seriously and [are] working closely with the Afghan government and Afghan National Defense and Security Forces to determine the facts surrounding this incident," O’Donnell’s statement continued.
Last year, civilian casualties caused by US and Afghan air strikes soared more than 50 percent from 2016 levels. The United Nations found that air strike casualties jumped another 52 percent in the first six months of 2018, with 149 civilians killed and another 204 injured. This spike in what the US military has long called "collateral damage" – or, in early Iraq war parlance, "bugsplat" – follows a campaign pledge by Donald Trump to "bomb the shit out of" Islamist terrorists and kill their innocent families. Once in office, Trump loosened rules of engagement meant to protect civilian lives, leading to more innocent deaths.
However, it was under Barack Obama that Kunduz experienced its worst air strike tragedy in recent years. In October 2015, as US AC-130 gunship attacked a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 42 patients and staff and wounding dozens more in what MSF called a "war crime" meant to "kill and destroy." After altering its story several times and finally admitting there were no Taliban fighters at the hospital at the time of the incident, the US military apologized for the attack.
According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), 10,453 civilian casualties – 3,438 deaths and 7,015 injuries – occurred there in 2017. Of these, 42 percent were attributed to the Taliban, 10 percent to Islamic State, 13 percent to undetermined and other anti-government forces and two percent to the US-led international coalition.
Brown University’s Costs of War project, a team of 35 scholars, legal experts, human rights practitioners and physicians, estimates more than 100,000 Afghan civilians have been killed by all warring parties since the US-led bombing, invasion and partial occupation of the country began in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States. At over 16 years with no end in sight, the Afghan war has been the longest in US history. Some 3,550 international coalition troops, including 2,412 Americans, have died during the war.
Brett Wilkins is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist and editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. His work, which focuses on issues of war and peace and human rights, is archived at www.brettwilkins.com.