NATO airstrike in Kunduz kills scores

More than 90 Taliban fighters and civilians are reported to have been killed in a NATO airstrike in a region under the control of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan. Germany insists no civilians were killed in the attack, however.

NATO fighter-bombers attacked two fuel trucks after the Taliban hijacked the vehicles in Kunduz province and beheaded the drivers. The trucks stalled while crossing a riverbed in the Taliban-controlled Ali Abad district and were reportedly hit just as local villagers swarmed the tankers to siphon fuel. The Taliban reportedly encouraged the villagers to take the fuel just before the airstrike.

Casualty reports on the number of Taliban and civilians killed have varied, but 93 people have been reported killed. Kunduz Governor Engineer Mohammad Omar claimed 45 Taliban fighters as well as their commander, Mullah Abdul Rahman, were killed during the attack. Razaq Yaqoobi, the provincial chief of police, said 65 Taliban fighters were among those killed.

Haji Habibullah, the district governor of the Ali Abad district, said that “some of the dead were civilians and some were Taliban fighters.” More than a hundred people were reported to have suffered serious injuries, including burns. Civilians have been seen burying their dead and have taken the wounded to local hospitals; some are being transported to Kabul for treatment.

The Germans, who make up the biggest NATO contingent in Kunduz, said the strike occurred at 2:30 AM local time and that civilians were not present.

“According to the information available to us there have been no civilian casualties,” ministry spokesman Christian Dienst said. “Had civilians been present, the air strikes could not have been called in.”

The strike was ordered by the Kunduz Operational Command Center after the fuel tankers were reported stolen and the local commander assessed that civilians were not in the area.

“After ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] observed the insurgent activity and assessed civilians were not in the area, a local ISAF commander authorized an air strike,” the initial ISAF press release on the incident stated. “A large number of insurgents were reported killed or injured and the fuel trucks were destroyed in the attack.”

ISAF later stated that it was investigating the attack to determine exactly what happened. “While the air strike was clearly directed at the insurgents, ISAF will do whatever is necessary to help the community including medical assistance and evacuation as requested,” Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, the ISAF spokesperson, said in a press release. “ISAF regrets any unnecessary loss of human life and is deeply concerned for the suffering that this action may have caused to our Afghan friends.”

The strike takes place as NATO is seeking to limit civilian casualties and has tightened the rules of engagement when confronting the Taliban. Coalition aircraft are not to fire on Taliban targets if civilians are thought to be present.

Kunduz the new northern battleground


Map of Afghanistan showing Taliban control. Kunduz and Baghlan provinces are directly north of Kabul. Data from Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry; map from Reuters.

Today’s airstrike in Kunduz highlights the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the northern province, as well as in neighboring Bahglan province.

Of the seven districts in Kunduz province, only two are considered under government control; the rest of the districts – Chahara Dara, Dashti Archi, Ali Abab, Khan Abad, and Iman Sahib – are considered contested or under Taliban control, according to a map produced by Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry. Two districts in neighboring Baghlan province – Baghlan-i-Jadid and Burka – are under the control of the Taliban [see LWJ report, Afghan forces and Taliban clash in Kunduz, and Threat Matrix report, Afghanistan’s wild-wild North].

Fighting in Kunduz has intensified over the past month despite a series of operations launched in the spring and summer to drive out the Taliban.

The Taliban have conducted assaults against police checkpoints, killed senior political and military leaders, and kidnapped civilians sending their daughters to school.

Just yesterday, Afghan security forces claimed they killed 15 Taliban fighters, including Mullah Abdul Salam, the Taliban’s shadow governor for the province. The Taliban denied Salam was killed.

The Taliban, along with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, have sought to put pressure on the Afghan government in the north while opening a corridor into the Central Asian countries.

List of major incidents in Kunduz since Aug. 3

Sept. 4, 2009: A NATO airstrike in the Ali Abad district killed 93 people after the Taliban hijacked two oil tankers and beheaded the drivers.

Sept. 3, 2009: Afghan security forces killed 15 Taliban fighters, and claimed the Taliban’s Shadow governor was also killed.

Sept. 1, 2009: Afghan police killed a Taliban commander and wounded his driver in the Qala-i-Zal district.

Aug. 28, 2009: Afghan forces killed seven Taliban fighters and captured four members of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Kunduz province.

Aug. 26, 2009: A director of the justice department was killed in a bomb attack on his car in Kunduz province.

Aug. 26, 2009: Security forces killed seven Taliban fighters during an operation in the Hazrat-e-Sultan area of Kunduz.

Aug. 25, 2009: The Taliban killed a policeman in Kunduz.

Aug. 18, 2009: A Taliban commander and nine fighters were killed during a joint operation of Afghan and US forces in Kunduz province.

Aug. 16, 2009: One Afghan Army soldier was killed and four more were wounded during a Taliban ambush.

Aug. 13, 2009: Former President Rabbani survived an ambush on his convoy in Kunduz. Also, police killed and wounded more than 20 Taliban fighters after the Taliban attacked a police station.

Aug. 13, 2009: Eight Taliban fighters and two Afghan security personnel were killed and more than a dozen more fighters and four security men were wounded during an operation in Kunduz province.

Aug. 12, 2009: Taliban fighters attacked the Dashti Archi district headquarters and killed the district police chief and three other policemen.

Aug. 10, 2009: A suicide bomber detonated his explosives-filled car close to an ISAF convoy in Kunduz City.

Aug. 3, 2009: The Taliban kidnapped a woman as she took her daughter to a school in the Bagh Shirkat area of Kunduz province. The Taliban warned families not to send their daughters to schools.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Max says:

    I’m not saying that no civilians were killed in this attack, but no matter what really happened, it seems that the news media seizes on any report of “civilians” being killed and that is the only story worth reporting, and then the US is left looking like the bad guy while the enemy gets away scott free as far as any negative publicity goes. Is it any wonder that we are left wondering whose side the news media is on?

  • Klosck says:

    Please say that this isn’t another mass-civilian casualty incident. Although the details in this aren’t clear, and I obviously wasn’t there to see what happened, it seems that its possible this could be the case..The details seem to point to civilians bein g killed..For one, what were 90 insurgents doing surrounding the fuel trucks? Fuel trucks can only carry about 5 personnel at the most…If there were a large convoy traveling together they would of had to dismount their vehicles and surround the fuel trucks..but why would they do that?
    Villagers on the other hand seem the most likely to be the ones to gather around the fuel trucks…

  • T Ruth says:

    Bloomberg is reporting that Germany is saying that no civilians were killed. Further that the strike was called in at 2.30am local time, not at dawn.
    While it would seem there were some civilians caught in the fire, one sincerely hopes its not dozens as some are reporting.
    One can guess that the insurgents were in a convoy and were also syphoning out fuel to lighten the tankers in order to push them out of the mud.

  • pedestrian says:

    No! Not you don’t call these bombed people civilians! You call these idiots who approached the truck to steal are get some oil criminals!

  • jim2 says:

    By dusk today, the news reports will say that it was a wedding party using the tanker as a limo.

  • Tayyab says:

    Some of the relatives of these idiots might do another silly thing and join taliban ranks to do further silly things like planting IED’s, doing suicide attacks etc. But that’s nothing to be worried of for intellectuals like us.

  • klosck says:

    @ T ruth – That Bloomberg report helps provides a lot of clarification…I was wasn’t understanding how two different trucks would “stall out” exactly the same time..turns out they were stuck in the mud, which makes a lot of sense.
    @jim 2 – lol
    @Tayyab – agreed, which was why I was initially surprised that NATO blew the trucks up as civilians were approaching…even if they didn’t have a right to the fuel, it still probably frustrated them that they were about to get free fuel from the Taliban and we and went and blew it up..we lost that battle for hearts and

  • Rational Enquirer says:

    Klosck — The incident happened around 2:30 in the morning local time. What makes you think NATO forces had any idea that civilians were in the vicinity at that time? All of the reports so far say NATO thought it was only Taliban near the trucks at that point.

  • Render says:

    Kunduz AB has been getting pounded with rockets since at least December of last year.
    I wonder where the Talib has been getting all those 107mm rockets? And the freedom to move around within range setting up all those rockets?

  • My2cents says:

    I wonder if they are installing Lo-Jack systems in the trucks?
    When the fuel truckis stolen, wait for it to stop moving and hit it with a JDAM. The load of fuel gives a nice secondary incendiary effect. Odds are the only people around were the Taliban/thieves, possibly their ‘fence’, and maybe some of their families.
    Moral of the story: Do not steal, especially from people with high tech and lost of firepower.

  • doug says:

    If the Taliban had control of the fuel tankers it seems logical to me that they would take all the fuel they could possibly use before letting any “civilians” take any. Fuel is valuable and the Taliban aren’t in the habit of giving away value for nothing.

  • Neo says:

    Things do get a bit murky in Taliban controlled areas. If the Taliban has control over the area than in all probability they can draw from most of the male population over the age of 10. It’s the middle of the night and their stuck in the middle stream. Time to call in the bucket brigade with every container they can find. The majority of these guy’s are probably marginal as fighters but if the Taliban needs some help they will show up within hours to help out. It’s kind of a tragedy waiting to happen, there’s going to be lots of diesel slopped over all those long beards.
    It’s not exactly a good hearts and minds approach. One would prefer a more circumspect approach, but a large portion of the Talibans local support base may now be toast, at least in this immediate area. I do suppose this will be huge in the German press with all sorts of recriminations.

  • KP says:

    More details here.
    It seems the drivers weren’t beheaded either. One survived. One was killed in the air strike.
    The primary reason for the airstrike was that the German forces believed the tankers would be converted into bombs so they wanted them destroyed. The German election is coming up and I’m sure the Talibs would like to see the Germans out of Kunduz. Their initial unmanned recce showed no civilians present. The air strike too place 40 minutes after that.
    Don’t forget it’s Ramadan too … people do stay up late. Though they do roll out the “late-night wedding party” comment too.
    The info also says 4 Chechens killed plus the local commander and that most of the killed were Taliban or their families.
    I suspect it will turn out to be similar to previous strikes. A significant number (smaller than the Afghani estimates) will be Taliban and there will be a non-trivial number of civilians.

  • KW64 says:

    Sounds like a legitimate target to me. If some punks break the locks off a gasoline pump and offer to let you fill your car on them, do you have a real legitimate beef if the cops bust you? Besides, do you want to leave fuel trucks in the hands of suicide bombers?
    Either these guys were called out after the trucks got stuck or these “civilians were told ahead of time that they could get free fuel. I suspect the former.

  • Paul Hirsch says:

    You got it, Jim2: Another tragedy.

  • Render says:

    Both local Taliban and embedded Expeditionary Taliban (the Chechens) got hit. None of the reports have mentioned women among the victims.
    Tactically from the Talib point of view the entire operation was a disaster. It started out well for them with the hijacking of the two fuel trucks with no casualties. But it all went pear shaped the moment the decision was made to cross over the Kunduz River which snakes its way from north on the Tajik border and south past the Baghlan Provincial border twelve miles south of Kunduz AB. The river itself isn’t very deep or very wide in most places and has no bridges but it does provide the anchor to the provinces primary green zone. It generally passes just slightly to the West of Kunduz City and the German held Kunduz AB.
    Fully loaded fuel tankers and soft riverbeds are not a good combination and the results were quite inevitable. Both tankers stuck fast in the soft sandy mud of the shallow river bottom to the south of Kunduz AB. The hijack team (apparently five Chechens from the embedded Expeditionary Talib (ET) unit including the team leader) called for backup instead of abandoning and destroying the now hopelessly mired trucks. First to arrive was the back-up platoon from the ET with the plan to off load enough of the fuel to lighten up the trucks. Part of the ET platoon was sent off to round up all the local Talib within walking distance to help with the off loading. The remainder of the ET platoon and the five man strike team remained with their prize. This is apparently when the German UAV coverage found them. It took forty minutes before an air strike using one of the six German Tornados located 100 miles away at Mazar-e-Sharif was authorized, armed, launched, and arrived. In that forty minutes the other ET half platoon had returned with their local Talib reinforcements (a hundred or more including civilian volunteers, showing their local strength) and the off loading had begun with much attendant spillage flowing down river. A bucket brigade is a really bad idea for emptying a fuel tanker.
    The Tornado pilot didn’t really even have to “bomb”

  • pedestrian says:

    The map from the Interior Minister gives a good picture about the Taliban structure and strategy in Afghan.

  • zotz says:

    I read that it was an F-15E not a Tornado. Now, I am reading that villagers are coming forward in droves to claim their relatives were killed. NATO has a policy of reimbursing civilians whose relatives were killed by NATO thousands of dollars. Obviously, this gives them a strong motivation to exaggerate the death toll. Also, these villages are firmly under Taliban control so giving them a lot of money would be unwise in the extreme. NATO should first drive out the Taliban from these villages and then hold them. Reparations should be made by building a health clinic or school, not in cash payments. And the Germans got to get their act together. I have read nothing good about their operations.

  • Render says:

    Zotz: You may very well be correct that it was an American aircraft. I’ll try to explain…
    The Germans are indeed claiming that it was an “American aircraft” in the MSNBC article linked in comments above.
    There are F-15E’s in Afghanistan but all are reportedly tasked with supporting operations in other, more southern and eastern regions.
    The six Tornado’s at Mazar-e-Sharif are, at least officially, the air support for the German commanded northern area (RC North). The Germans have already been playing fast and loose with the air units involved. Officially the six German aircraft are all from a recon squadron (31st Immelmann) but at least one German pilot of those six aircraft has been identified as being from a strike squadron not officially in Afghanistan (51st Boelke).
    Ultimately the only difference between a US or German aircraft conducting this strike will be the German government explaining why they are paying to keep six Tornados in country while asking the US to provide air support from their own southern RC responsibilities. But the German government is going to have a good bit of explaining to do as to why and how the Talib were able to steal two fuel tankers from right in front of the German base and (as I’ve noted above) were able to raise a one hundred man plus unit of Talib reinforcements less then 12 miles away with less then 40 minutes notice (newest reporting says the strike took place 7 kilometers south of Kunduz AB, or inside 107mm rocket range).

  • chatiii says:

    instead of gaining hearts and minds, nato are deterring hearts and minds by conducting ridiculous airstrike operations such as this that end up killing scores of civillians, but at the same time, em-power the taliban with a massive recruitment tool to use in the aftermath. Just put it this way, we can say that 70 “taliban” or “taliban supporters” were killed in the airstrike………in 6-12 months time, those killed will be replaced by 500/600 “taliban” or “taliban supporters” thirsty for nato blood. I have always said and always will say that the war is being lost due to incidents such as this, that end up severly undermining the effort. It creates an anti Western/U.S/Nato feeling that will only make more everyday afghan support the taliban with shelter, supplies, intel, recruits and most imortantly……..conversion to their ideology! AND REMEMBER, THATS WHERE THE REAL BATTLE MUST BE FOUGHT

  • KnightHawk says:

    Render’s account seems most plausible to me which means there should be no apologizing or reparations. Quite the opposite, let the message that if you assist the enemy you might get dead stand.

  • Render says:

    Actually one of the locals interviewed mentioned something along the lines that two or three more strikes like that and the entire Kunduz region would be free of Taliban.
    Violent intimidation trumps ideology – everytime.

  • Paul Hirsch says:

    chatiii: Maybe that’s how it works, but I doubt it. I think most Afghans will take the lesson that when the Taliban steal the Great Satan’s fuel trucks the wise ones will stay well away from those trucks. And if the Taliban press-gang your relatives into working on those trucks, who is it that got them killed?

  • Render says:

    The Talib conduct numerous operations that kill scores of civilians.
    What’s the difference?

  • Dan says:

    There seems to be differences in who flew the air strike. Do you have any insight into weather or not it was USAF or Luftwaffe?

  • chatiii says:

    You’re weak chatiii, I’m sure your idea of war is one where you pat all the bad guys on the head and tell them to behave as long as they haven’t murdered thousands of people… oh wait.
    … or supported their murderers… oh wait, the strictest RoEs in the history of man?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Everything I’ve seen indicated it was indeed an F15E vectored to conduct the strike.

  • Render says:

    Concour with Bill.
    Everything I’ve read since I posted that early analysis indicates that it was an F-15E Strike Eagle using two 500lb JDAM’s.
    There was also a B-1 involved, but apparently it ran low on fuel shortly after finding the hijacked trucks. Waiting for the F-15’s to arrive on station was supposedly part of the delay.
    “…waiting for an F-15” sure sounds like a contradiction in terms, don’t it? How many people can say they’ve had to wait on an F-15?

  • Master Jedi says:

    Fox telephone interview with Captain James Peck who led the search operations is of course very different from the
    terrorist propaganda. Obviously the Afghan Swedish aid agency did not want to become victims of Taliban terrorist attacks and threats.

  • chatiii says:

    “The Talib conduct numerous operations that kill scores of civilians.
    What’s the difference?”
    an invading/occupying force killing civillians is 10 times worse than the taliban doing it. remember, their mullahs have gave fatwas that allow conducting operations which may put civillians at risk (hence suicide attacks), as long as the target is high profile such as a politician or someone high in the military
    and remember one thing, the afghans see Nato as an invading/occupying force…..and they see taliban as their afghan/pashtun brothers, you tell me who they are likely to forgive in the case of civillians being killed?
    even hamid karzai refered to the taliban as “our afghan brothers” in one of his speeches regarding taliban laying down weapons and joining the political system
    “Maybe that’s how it works, but I doubt it. I think most Afghans will take the lesson that when the Taliban steal the Great Satan’s fuel trucks the wise ones will stay well away from those trucks. And if the Taliban press-gang your relatives into working on those trucks, who is it that got them killed?”
    i very much doubt the taliban are “press-ganging” the local population into helping them. remember, many taliban fighters have emerged as recruits from villages and towns with-in afghan provinces……so why would these taliban gang-press their own people? their own families, friends and tribesmen.
    i personally think afghans go out of their way in helping the taliban in anyway possible…WHY IS THAT YOU MIGHT BE THINKING? its because of these airstrikes that kill dozens of people that create anti U.S feelings
    AND RENDER – “Violent intimidation trumps ideology – everytime.”……………….why did the insurgents in Iraq turn against zarqawi’s “violent intimidation”?
    just like the afghans are turning against their Nato occupiers… – //
    to further understand what im talking about
    the statistics say it all, the population is the back-bone of an insurgency. the taliban have gained considerable strength over the years and just look at the casualty figures for july and august, they resemble the darkest days of the Iraqi insurgency, just check out.
    maybe Bill should have a spot on this website for Nato death counts in Afghanistan to make you guys realise what were dealing with

  • chatiii says:

    and to the person who decided to hide his username and instead, use my username:
    tell me the new strategy Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal is employing in Afghanistan?
    tell me how he has changed the fight strategy to try and win hearts and minds, instead of trying to kill the enemy?
    tell me whether or not reducing civillian deaths will encourage the everyday afghan to reject the taliban war path and accept karzai as a legitimate goverment.
    let me tell you one thing son, even dropping a nuke on afghanistan wouldn’t work, it would probably make the situation MANY times worse, seen as tho such acts would seriously radicalize over 1.5 BILLION muslims around the world…..and not mention the danger from taliban sympathizers with-in the ISI who have full access to Nukes themselves


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