Civilian Deaths Imperil Support for Afghan War

American airstrikes that Afghan officials and villagers said Wednesday had killed dozens and perhaps more than 100 civilians in western Afghanistan threaten to stiffen Afghan opposition to the war just as the Obama administration is sending 20,000 more troops to the country.

The reports offered a grim backdrop to talks on Wednesday afternoon in Washington between President Obama and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, whose office called the civilian deaths “unjustifiable and unacceptable.”

If the higher toll proves true, the bombardment, which took place late Monday, will almost certainly be the worst in terms of civilian deaths since the American intervention began in 2001. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said there would be a joint investigation and she expressed regret at the loss of civilian lives, although she cautioned that the full circumstances were not known. Defense Department officials said investigators were looking into the possibility that Taliban militants were responsible for the civilian deaths.

One villager reached by telephone, Sayed Ghusuldin Agha, described body parts littered around the landscape. “It would scare a man if he saw it in a dream,” he said.

Civilian deaths — more than 2,000 Afghans were killed last year alone, the United Nations says — have been a decisive factor in souring many Afghans on the war. The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed dozens dead so far in this bombing, in the western province of Farah.

The American military confirmed that it had conducted airstrikes aimed at the Taliban, but not the number of deaths or their cause.

“We have some other information that leads us to distinctly different conclusions about the cause of the civilian casualties,” said the senior American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David D. McKiernan. He would not elaborate but said American and Afghan investigators were already on the ground trying to sort out what had happened.

In a phone call played on a loudspeaker on Wednesday to outraged members of the Afghan Parliament, the governor of Farah Province, Rohul Amin, said that as many as 130 civilians had been killed, according to a legislator, Mohammad Naim Farahi. Afghan lawmakers immediately called for an agreement regulating foreign military operations in the country.

“The governor said that the villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred,” Mr. Farahi said. “Everyone at the governor’s office was crying, watching that shocking scene.”

Mr. Farahi said he had talked to someone he knew personally who had counted 113 bodies being buried, including those of many women and children. Later, more bodies were pulled from the rubble and some victims who had been taken to the hospital died, he said.

Early reports from American military forensic investigators at the scene raised questions about the Afghan account, according to a United States military official briefed on the inquiry.

Defense Department officials said late Wednesday that investigators were looking into witnesses’ reports that the Afghan civilians were killed by grenades hurled by Taliban militants, and that the militants then drove the bodies around the village claiming the dead were victims of an American airstrike.

The initial examination of the site and of some of the bodies suggested the use of armaments more like grenades than the much larger bombs used by attack planes, said the military official, who requested anonymity because the investigation was continuing.

“We cannot confirm the report that the Taliban executed these people,” said Capt. John Kirby, the spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. “We don’t know if it’s true, and we also don’t know how many civilians were killed as a result of this operation.”

Col. Greg Julian, a spokesman for the United States military in Kabul, confirmed that United States Special Operations forces had called in close air support in the area on Monday night, including bombs and strafing with heavy machine guns. “There is a heavy insurgent presence there,” he said.

Villagers reached by telephone said many were killed by aerial bombing. Muhammad Jan, a farmer, said fighting had broken out in his village, Shiwan, and another, Granai, in the Bala Baluk district. An hour after it stopped, the planes came, he said.

In Granai, he said, women and children had sought shelter in orchards and houses. “Six houses were bombed and destroyed completely, and people in the houses still remain under the rubble,” he said, “and now I am working with other villagers trying to excavate the dead bodies.”

He said that villagers, crazed with grief, were collecting mangled bodies in blankets and shawls and piling them on three tractors. People were still missing, he said.

Mr. Agha, who lives in Granai, said the bombing started at 5 p.m. on Monday and lasted until late into the night. “People were rushing to go to their relatives’ houses, where they believed they would be safe, but they were hit on the way,” he said.

Jessica Barry, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the organization had sent a team to the scene on Tuesday. It saw houses destroyed and dozens of bodies.

“It’s not the first time,” Ms. Barry said, but “really this is one of the very serious and biggest incidents for a very long time.” The dead included a volunteer for the Afghan Red Crescent and 13 of his relatives, she said.

She and Afghan officials worry that with the increase of American troops this year, the conflict is likely to intensify. “With more troops coming in, there is a risk that civilians will be more and more vulnerable,” she said.

United States and NATO forces have sought to reduce civilian casualties. After a prominent episode last year in Azizabad, General McKiernan issued a directive in December saying “all responses must be proportionate.”

The United Nations has said that figures in the first three months of this year have declined from the same period last year. Yet the concern remains.

One Western diplomat said that United States Special Operations forces should stop missions until after presidential elections here in August.

The forces have often been blamed for nighttime raids on villages, detentions and airstrikes that have brought the population in southern Afghanistan to the point of revolt.

The chairman of Parliament, Yunus Qanooni, called on the government to present a draft of a new agreement for the foreign forces in Afghanistan within a week, in order to “legalize their presence.”

Mr. Farahi, the Afghan lawmaker, blamed local officials for calling in the American forces without giving them more guidance. But he saved his most stinging criticism for President Karzai’s government. “People are ready to rise against the government,” he said.

Carlotta Gall reported from Kabul, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Reporting was contributed by Sangar Rahimi and Thom Shanker from Kabul, and Eric Schmitt and Elisabeth Bumiller from Washington.
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/07/world/asia/07afghan.html