Leaks fuel civilian casualty debate - Omaha.com
Published Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 8:00 am / Updated at 8:34 am
Leaks fuel civilian casualty debate

Raheem Yaseer didn't need the release of nearly 92,000 classified documents to tell him that Afghans tend to turn against the American war effort when one of their friends, relatives or co-workers is accidentally killed by coalition troops.

Yaseer, the assistant director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, hears the stories whenever he travels to Kabul.

Stories of coalition forces bombarding a village in Helmand province — trying to kill the Taliban responsible for attacking a military convoy — and accidentally killing a dozen villagers instead.

Stories of Afghans who drove too close to a Humvee, or drove too fast toward a military checkpoint, and found themselves under fire.

“It's actually improving, but it's very difficult to repair past mistakes,” said Yaseer, a former Kabul University professor who fled to the United States during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

“These kind of mistakes, when repeated over and over and over ... The resentment gets stronger. You feel, every day, a little bit more added to their cynicism.”

The website WikiLeaks.org on Sunday released hundreds of thousands of pages of classified U.S. military documents related to the Afghan war — possibly the largest top-secret data dump in military history.

Some of those pages contain news of the accidental killings of Afghan civilians.

The sheer size of the information release, coupled with several revelations of previously unknown incidents, threatens to reignite the debate both in the United States and Afghanistan over civilian casualties.

Local experts interviewed Monday said every civilian killing reverberates in Afghanistan — bad news that's often seized upon by the insurgents. The Taliban, reportedly helped secretly by Pakistani military leaders, often play up or embellish the news of civilian deaths.

But they also pointed out that it's difficult and in some cases extremely dangerous for an American soldier to distinguish between an insurgent and a regular Afghan. Split-second decisions are made far tougher by the Taliban, who hide in Afghan villages, blending into the local population.

“It's exceptionally difficult for the soldiers on the ground,” said Bob Kerrey, the former U.S. senator from Nebraska and Vietnam War veteran who has written about being haunted by his squad's attack on a Vietnamese village where at least 13 women and children were killed.

The soldiers tend to be scared young people simply trying to survive, Kerrey said, and their jobs are even tougher now that the military has increased its scrutiny of incidents involving civilian casualties.

“Which, just again, makes it all the more difficult,” he said. “It's one thing to go over there and say ‘(expletive), I might die,' but quite another to say ‘I might live and spend time in a military prison.'”

One classified report released by WikiLeaks details the bombing of two abandoned trucks — an air attack that mistakenly killed dozens of Afghan civilians.

The reports suggest that Afghan police and then coalition forces somehow mistook the civilians for insurgents. They believed, incorrectly, that the insurgents were attempting to loot or move the trucks.

A German commander, after “ensuring that no civilians were in the vicinity,” ordered that two 500-pound guided bombs be dropped on the area. The people — at least 60 were killed in the blast — turned out to be regular Afghans siphoning fuel out of the abandoned trucks.

Another report described raids carried out by a secret U.S. special operations unit, Task Force 373, that specializes in killing high-level Taliban and al-Qaida leaders. The group's missions also resulted in a number of civilian deaths, according to the classified reports. One such raid killed a senior commander but also caused the deaths of seven children, one report said.

The reports also described smaller incidents of regular Afghans shot or killed because they failed to recognize that they had accidentally run afoul of the coalition forces.

In one such report, an Afghan man sped through a police checkpoint without stopping. An Afghan police officer, thinking he was a suicide bomber, shot and killed the driver. A search of the car turned up no evidence of a bomb or weapons.

In another incident, a man ran away from a military convoy, not stopping even when members of a CIA unit shouted at him to stop, then fired warning shots. The man was then shot in the ankle, the report says. Unit members later learned the man was deaf, the report says.

In the past two years, U.S. military leaders have taken pains to avoid civilian casualties. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, until recently America's top commander in Afghanistan, implemented a set of strict rules of engagement last year that made it far harder to call in large airstrikes and also set stricter limits on when and how Americans could use deadly force. Some soldiers complain that the new rules make it more likely that an American soldier will be killed while deciding whether to fire.

And the coalition forces have begun employing “human terrain teams” — basically, groups of Army advisers. Educated in Afghan languages, culture and history, these teams deploy with U.S. Army units and serve as cultural liaisons between Afghan villages and military leaders.

Maj. Robert Holbert, the regional director of the Human Terrain System, based at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., is a former Lincoln High School history teacher. He thinks Americans are learning from the early years of the Afghan war, which were fraught with misunderstandings that turned deadly.

“We're steeped in examples of how we made lousy decisions, stupid decisions, negligent decisions, because we didn't pay attention to the culture,” he said in an interview last year with The World-Herald. “And people got killed because of it.”

Holbert couldn't get Army clearance to answer questions Monday. A Nebraska National Guard spokesman said no Guard leader was available to talk about the WikiLeaks release and civilian casualties.

Yaseer and Kerrey both agree that the civilian casualties tend to produce anger at the local level, undercut popular support for the mission among Afghans and create tensions between U.S. and Afghan forces.

But they also agree on this: It's the insurgents, not the Americans, who are responsible for killing most innocent Afghans.

Yaseer said he knows people who were shot at by U.S. forces, but far more who were killed in the Indian Embassy bombing. That attack, believed to be planned in part by Pakistani intelligence officials, killed or wounded nearly 200 people.

Yaseer has long believed that Pakistani military and intelligence leaders are behind the Taliban's more sophisticated and deadly attacks. “The Taliban are a bunch of illiterate, uneducated people, but they are guided and supplied by some very powerful people,” Yaseer said.

Nearly 7,000 Afghan civilians were killed or injured last year in terrorist attacks, according to the National Counterterrorism Center. Taliban leaders “don't consider civilians to be collateral damage,” Kerrey said. “They consider civilian casualties to be the primary objective.”

World-Herald staff writer Joseph Morton contributed to this report.

Contact the writer:

444-1064, matthew.hansen@owh.com

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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