Casualties soar as US steps up airstrikes

The Sunday Times

The two Afghan farmers were gathering alfalfa in their fields when a convoy of heavily armoured American vehicles rolled through the outskirts of their hamlet.

Suddenly Taliban gunmen unleashed a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and mortars at the American soldiers. As the insurgents fled, attack helicopters and fighter jets roared overhead.

Sensing danger, the farmers raced towards a cluster of mud homes. They were less than 100 yards away when a missile cut them down.

One of the men, Karimullah, 26, was killed instantly and his 30-year-old cousin Farid was lacerated by shrapnel.

“I cried so hard when I saw him,” said Ezatullah, 21, the dead man’s brother. “He was the eldest among us. I loved him deeply.”

Last week Farid, who also lost a limb in the attack, was lying in hospital, so badly brain-damaged that he did not even recognise his visitors.

His family’s outrage reflected growing resentment at a change of American tactics in the war which is being blamed for a big increase in civilian casualties. Since General David Petraeus took over as Nato’s commander in Afghanistan in June, airstrikes have been sharply escalated.

In September and October alone, Nato planes fired their weapons on 1,700 missions — an increase of 85% compared with the same period last year.

It is a significant shift for the coalition, which had limited airstrikes under General Stanley McChrystal. Petraeus’s predecessor. Now civilian casualties are up by 30%.

Ezatullah said the attack on his brother and cousin may have been the result of a tragic misunderstanding.

“When the fighting started perhaps the Americans had already seen them digging in the ground,” he said.

“Maybe they thought they were digging a mine into the ground. Perhaps the Americans thought they were Taliban when they fled. But the Taliban had all gone by the time the planes came.”

It was two months ago that Karimullah and Farid left their homes in the village of Ashergai, in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province, to bring in the harvest. They carried nothing more sinister than scythes and a pattu — a large Afghan shawl or blanket — in which to collect their crops.

When the aircraft struck, Ezatullah ran to the field. He found his brother mutilated and his wounded cousin twitching in an irrigation ditch 20 yards away.

“There was so much blood on my brother’s body that I thought his heart had exploded,” Ezatullah said.

Some other men from the hamlet helped him lift Karimullah into the pattu and carry him to the local mosque. Prayers were intoned over the body before Karimullah was buried with the other victims of the bombing.

Farid was taken first to Mirwais hospital in Kandahar city and then across the Pakistan border to Karachi for specialist treatment. He is still unable to move his remaining leg.

Mirwais hospital is packed with the war wounded. On the hospital’s admission register I counted 123 patients in two months whose wounds were attributed to “bombardment”. They were far outnumbered by “mine victims”, testament to the Taliban’s disregard for the lives of their own countrymen, but it is Nato that is bearing the brunt of public opprobrium.

The casualties, also categorised under the headings of “suicide attack” and “gunshot wound”, lie listless on dirty beds. In the wards containing amputees you can smell the flesh rotting in wounds left untended for too long.

Unfortunately for Nato, perception is key to the success or failure of counter-insurgency. “It doesn’t matter if the Taliban kill more civilians,” said a doctor called Najib (like the villagers he uses only one name). “Hard facts don’t matter here.

“The point is that many of the patients who come in here blame Nato for their injuries irrespective of who actually wounded them or killed their relatives.”

Many of those hit by airstrikes do not stay in the hospital long for fear they will be accused of links to the Taliban. If they can they seek treatment in Pakistan, Najib said.

Nazar Ali, 21, could not afford that. A missile from an American attack helicopter exploded close to him last month as he walked to a bazaar in Gereshk, Helmand, to sell the family cow.

“The Taliban attacked a checkpoint,” he said, rolling up his trousers to expose emaciated legs. “The Americans began to fire back.”

Ten hours later he woke up in Mirwais hospital. Surgeons removed the larger chunks of metal from his abdomen, legs and arms, but the smaller fragments are lodged in his spine.

“I can’t feel my lower legs any more,” he said. “They removed one of the big bones in my lower leg because it was shattered. The doctors say that they might have to remove it completely.”

The father of a heavily sedated 17-year-old boy in the next bed claimed the Americans had shot his son as he rode his bicycle to a bazaar in Sangin district, Helmand. The patient opposite had died the previous night, also from a gunshot wound blamed on US soldiers.

Afghan officials have long argued that civilian casualties boost recruitment to the Taliban. They say that lethal airstrikes whip up anger and fuel distrust over Nato’s intentions in Afghanistan.

The strikes, however, are part of Petraeus’s strategy to hammer the Taliban’s ground command so hard that its leadership in Pakistan has no option but to sue for peace.

The upsurge in airstrikes and night raids by special forces has contributed to the deaths of 385 insurgent leaders and 909 foot soldiers in three months, according to Nato.

The tactics have triggered a dispute between Petraeus and President Hamid Karzai, who has railed against Nato’s use of air power and demanded an end to the night raids.

Nato argues that precision strikes will ensure there is no repeat of incidents such as the bombing of two fuel tankers which killed 97 civilians in the northern province of Kunduz last year.

Human rights activists say that civilian casualties will continue to rise. “The intensity of action means there are a large number of small incidents,” said Rachel Reid, of Human Rights Watch.

“They’re avoiding catastrophes like bombing wedding parties but in terms of winning hearts and minds there is a serious problem.”

Some victims’ relatives acknowledged that Nato’s actions had pushed them closer to the Taliban, saying they would support the insurgents with food and shelter once they returned to their villages.

For Ezatullah, life without his brother is almost unbearable. The sole breadwinner in the family, he has moved his mother and two young sisters to Kandahar city, abandoning their farm.

He has taken a job as a cook for a construction company but says his wages cover only half the rent. His mother has not spoken since Karimullah died.

“I spend all of the time thinking about what I could have done to save my brother,” Ezatullah said. “I wish it had been me and not him.”

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