Rising Afghan Civilian Casualties Complicate US Mission

 Ghulam Rabani, left, and his nephew Fardin, stand in a second-story room of their home in Kabul on Oct. 8. (Phillip Walter Wellman/Stars and Stripes)
Ghulam Rabani, left, and his nephew Fardin, stand in a second-story room of their home in Kabul on Oct. 8. (Phillip Walter Wellman/Stars and Stripes)

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Ghulam Rabani was in his bathroom washing for prayer on a warm afternoon last month when a wall collapsed on him.

An errant U.S. missile, directed at Taliban militants who launched an attack on Kabul's airport as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was visiting, accidentally hit Rabani's nearby house.

"There was dust everywhere and for a few seconds; I couldn't see anything. I could only hear my family screaming," said Rabani, a taxi driver.

Strikes like this one are adding to fears that the new U.S. strategy for the Afghan war, which loosens restrictions on air support, could cause more civilian casualties and undermine coalition efforts in the country. Meanwhile, newly released United Nations data indicates that the airstrike casualty rate was already headed upward.

Civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes in the first nine months of this year rose by about 80 percent, to about 180 from some 100 in the same period last year, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a report released on Thursday.

Fighting the Taliban has become more difficult as the insurgents increasingly operate in residential areas like Rabani's neighborhood, deliberately putting civilians at risk.

During the Taliban's Sept. 27 attack on the airport, the U.S. conducted an airstrike to help Afghan forces battle the insurgents. Rabani's house was hit by a malfunctioning missile. The U.S. military said in a statement it deeply regretted the incident.

"They had to target the attackers. We understand that," said Fardin, Rabani's nephew, who also lived in the house and like many Afghans uses just one name. "But they never met with us afterward to apologize. We heard their comments on TV like everyone else. They should at least come talk to us to see what happened here."

Fardin and Rabani gave a tour of their destroyed home about a week and a half after the missile struck.

Glass, broken concrete and other debris littered every room. In one room, they pointed to a spot where Rabani's nearly 3-year-old granddaughter was found buried under a pile of rubble. In another spot, his 6-year-old grandson was trapped under a piece of furniture.

The boy later walked over to show wounds on his arm before going to a broken desk, where he flipped through a children's book with burnt pages. The 3-year-old also survived the strike.

Nine members of the family were injured and taken to the hospital, Rabani said. Three remain there. The family had to move into another relative's house, where space is limited.

Speaking from a second-floor room at his house, now exposed after two walls and the ceiling fell away, Rabani described how his neighbors were angry with the U.S. for not reaching out and providing compensation.

"We don't have money to treat our wounded family members, let alone rebuild this house," he said. "And people are angry about it. People in the community wanted to hold a demonstration and block roads, but I told them to wait and be patient."

U.S. Forces-Afghanistan was unavailable for comment about compensation for the family. Afghan officials said they had given Rabani an undisclosed amount of money, which Rabani said was about $1,470.

Mounting civilian casualties from airstrikes risk undermining coalition efforts at stabilizing Afghanistan and have been used by the Taliban as a recruiting tool in the past. During President Barack Obama's troop surge after 2010, frequent civilian casualties were a main cause for strained relations between Washington and President Hamid Karzai's government.

Besides a troop increase of over 3,000, the Trump administration's new strategy for Afghanistan includes more firepower and relaxed restrictions on targeting Taliban insurgents. Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month that he had removed "proximity requirements" for strikes against the Taliban, which will likely result in more U.S. bombs dropped, continuing a rising trend already seen this year.

In September, U.S. warplanes dropped 751 weapons in Afghanistan, a nearly 50 percent increase from the previous month and the highest monthly tally since October 2010, according to Air Force data. The U.S. dropped 3,238 bombs in Afghanistan between January and September, more than double of last year's total.

Afghan and U.S. airstrikes together caused 466 civilian casualties during the first nine months of 2017, a 52 percent spike from the same period last year, UNAMA said. Of those 205 deaths and 261 injuries, 38 percent were attributed to international military forces -- meaning the United States, which is the only foreign force conducing airstrikes in the country.

UNAMA said women and children made up more than two-thirds of civilian casualties caused by airstrikes.

Total civilian casualties by all causes are down slightly, though deaths increased by 1 percent, according to UNAMA.

The overall dip was largely due to fewer casualties caused by pro-government forces, UNAMA said.

Insurgents were responsible for more than 60 percent of the civilian deaths and injuries, UNAMA said. Besides aerial attacks, the causes of death this year include suicide and complex attacks, targeted and deliberate killings, and pressure-plate bombs.

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