ISAF suspends ground commander, helicopter crew during investigation into civilian deaths in Kunar

The top military commander in Afghanistan has suspended a commander and a helicopter crew during an investigation into possible civilian casualties in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar.

General David Petraeus, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, suspended a ground forces commander and the helicopter air weapons team that opened fire on two people thought to be planting a roadside bomb during the night of March 14 in the Sawakai district in Kunar. Afghan officials said that two boys, aged 10 and 15, were watering their field when they were killed.

“I cannot overstate how seriously we take all instances of civilian casualties,” General Petraeus said in a press release. “I take personal interest in every case, and have recently ordered a review of our tactical directive on the use of force by all aircrews of attack helicopters. We will take all necessary steps to get to the bottom of this. We know we cannot succeed if we harm the people we are striving to protect.”

ISAF stated that “the results of the formal investigation could lead to disciplinary action for those involved,” and also noted that prior investigations into other alleged incidents of civilian casualties in airstrikes are awaiting final legal review.

General Petraeus has already apologized for a March 1 incident in the Pech district of Kunar province that accidentally killed nine boys who were gathering firewood on a mountainside. US attack helicopters opened fire on what they believed to be armed Taliban fighters after reacting to an attack on a US combat outpost.

“The coalition dispatched two helicopters to the location they were told the attack came from,” Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, the commander of ISAF’s Joint Command, said in a press release apologizing for the incident. “The helicopters identified what they thought were insurgents, killing nine, [but] shortly thereafter, we received word that these young men were not insurgents.”

In another incident in Kunar, on Feb. 18, an air weapons team opened fire on “a large number of armed insurgents” in a remote area of the Ghaziabad district. ISAF claimed that more than 35 Taliban fighters were killed during a four-hour-long engagement. But Afghan officials later maintained that more than 65 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed in the clash.

ISAF has insisted that the Feb. 18 clash killed only Taliban fighters and said video exists to prove that the dead were not civilians.

“ISAF reporting and weapons system video shows 36 insurgents, who were carrying weapons, were killed,” an ISAF press release defending the incident said. “This operation took place in a very remote valley in Kunar province, over very rugged terrain in the late night/early morning hours.”

On a number of occasions, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has criticized the US for civilian casualties. In a recent visit to Ghaziabad, Karzai castigated the US and called for an end to military operations in the country. He did so despite the fact that ISAF is responsible for only 12 percent of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan; the Taliban is responsible for 88 percent of the civilian casualties, according to a report issued by the United Nations.

ISAF has stepped up the use of air strikes in Kunar after withdrawing from combat outposts in the Korengal valley in early 2010, and from the Pech Valley starting in mid-February of this year.

The recent suspension of an air weapons crew and a ground forces commander may put a chill on the use of air weapons teams to battle the Taliban and allied terror groups in remote areas outside of Afghan government control.

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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