ISAF, Afghan officials dispute outcome of Kunar airstrike

Afghan officials claimed that an airstrike by Coalition forces in the remote province of Kunar yesterday killed 12 Afghan civilians and four Taliban fighters. From Pajhwok Afghan News:

A dozen civilians, including children and women, were reportedly killed during a NATO airstrike that also left four Taliban insurgents dead on a vehicle in eastern Kunar province, officials said on Sunday.

Foreign troops bombed the pick-up truck carrying civilians after four insurgents boarded it on a road in the Watahpur district on Saturday, Governor Shujaul Mulk Jalala told Pajhwok Afghan News. The dead included 12 civilians and four militants, he added.

Watahpur district chief Yousuf Zalmai said the Taliban boarded the vehicle in a mountainous area.

Four women and four children were among those killed, he confirmed, saying a fifth child was seriously injured.

A Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid condemned the airstrike, saying all those killed and wounded civilians, including five women and seven children.

ISAF confirmed that it carried out an airstrike but stated that it killed “10 enemy forces” and is investigating claims of civilian deaths. From ISAF’s press release:

We are aware of reports of allegations of civilian casualties in Watahpur, Kunar. We take all allegations of civilian casualties seriously. We can confirm Coalition Forces conducted a precision strike yesterday in Watahpur Dist, Kunar Province, resulting in 10 enemy forces killed. At this time, we have no reports of any civilian casualties in regards to this incident. We are continuing to look into the incident and will provide updates as appropriate.

As ISAF forces continue to draw down, they will increasingly rely on air assets to target al Qaeda and Taliban commanders. But the use of air power comes with the risk of increased civilian casualties.

Despite years of ISAF airstrikes and special operations forces raids, Kunar province remains a safe haven for al Qaeda, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and a host of other terror groups. Just two weeks ago, ISAF targeted Qari Zia Rahman, a dual-hatted al Qaeda and Taliban commander, in an airstrike in the Marawana district.

Watahpur is a known hub of al Qaeda activity in Afghanistan. ISAF has conducted three operations against al Qaeda’s network in the district since the end of May. The last reported raid netted a senior al Qaeda leader who was “responsible for conducting al Qaeda training in Watahpur district.”

In 2012, eight of the 16 raids against al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba’s networks occurred in the Watahpur district alone, according to a study by The Long War Journal. In those operations, 10 senior al Qaeda or Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders or operatives were killed, including al Qaeda’s second-in-command for Afghanistan, al Qaeda’s leader for Kunar, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s emir for Kunar. [For more information on al Qaeda’s network in Kunar, see LWJ report, ISAF targets al Qaeda leader in Kunar, from May 28.]

Unfortunately, ISAF stopped issuing press releases on its operations against the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, as of June 27. The ending of ISAF’s operational reports has denied the American public crucial information on the military’s primary mission in Afghanistan: the pursuit of al Qaeda.

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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