An unconfirmed number of Afghan civilians – reportedly more than 60 – were killed along with the regional leader of a splinter Taliban faction and dozens of militants in a US drone attack in Herat province on Wednesday.
Local government officials and members of the Herat provincial council told Tolo News, Afghanistan’s leading 24/7 television news channel, that "at least 60 civilians, including women and children" died in US drone strikes in Shindand, a town in southern Herat. The outlet reported that four armed drones attacked several homes, targeting Mullah Mohammad Nangyalai, the regional leader of an insurgent faction of the Taliban led by Mullah Mohammad Rasoul. Some 30-35 Taliban fighters were also reportedly killed in the attack.
The US military newspaper Stars & Stripes reports Pentagon and Afghan government officials confirmed the strikes occurred. "US Forces-Afghanistan, at the request of Afghan Security Forces, conducted a coordinated defensive air strike in support of Afghan forces in Shindand, Herat on January 8, 2020," a US statement said. The military did not comment on the alleged civilian casualties. The Canadian private security firm GardaWorld issued an advisory after the strike, stating it was reportedly carried out in retaliation for a recent militant attack on an anti-Taliban militia in which 16 people, including 1 civilian, were killed.
According to Stars & Stripes, the attack began at 4 pm on Wednesday in an area controlled by the Afghan government. The drone strikes were reportedly launched as militants were preparing to attack a government checkpoint. Local resident Abdul Hakim told the paper that US forces carried out a "double tap" strike, in which drones or warplanes return to bomb first responders. Hakim said "a few civilians were killed and injured" in the second strike as they gathered the remains of those killed in the first attack.
Herat Public Health Director Dr. Abdul Hakim Tamana told Stars & Stripes that at least 10 victims were transported from Shindand to the regional hospital in the city of Herat, about 90 miles (145 km) away. Tamana could not say whether the patients were civilians or militants. "We will investigate the reports of civilian casualties," an Afghan Defense Ministry spokesperson told Tolo News.
Last month, the Washington Post published an in-depth investigation that found US military officials systematically undercounted the number of Afghan civilians killed by US forces. The House of Representatives subsequently included language in the $738 billion military spending bill for 2020, signed by President Donald Trump, that mandates more accurate reporting of civilian casualties. Earlier in 2019, Trump signed an executive order revoking an Obama-era requirement that the director of national intelligence publish an annual report on civilian deaths caused by drone strikes in areas "outside of war zones" that are nevertheless under US attack, including Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Libya.
Civilian casualties have soared in nearly all of the seven countries – those mentioned above plus Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – under US attack in the open-ended war against terrorism. The Trump administration has sought ways to end the US war in Afghanistan, now in its 19th year, by negotiating with the Taliban while simultaneously stepping up bombing and drone attacks against the Islamist militant group. Trump has followed through on his campaign promise to "bomb the shit" out of militant Islamists and "take out their families" – a war crime, while his administration has loosened rules of engagement meant to protect civilians, further increasing civilian casualties.
According to Brown University’s Costs of War project, an estimated 157,000 people have died as a direct result of the US-led war in Afghanistan since it began in October 2001, including more than 43,000 Afghan civilians, over 64,000 Afghan security forces, 42,000 Taliban and other insurgents, more than 7,200 US and allied foreign troops and contractors and over 500 humanitarian aid workers and journalists.
Last September, Trump raised eyebrows and ire when he suggested that a nuclear war against Afghanistan would result in a quick US victory. "If we wanted to do a certain method of war, we would win that very quickly," the president said in a joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. "But many, many – really, tens of millions of people – would be killed. And we think it’s unnecessary."
Brett Wilkins is a San Francisco-based independent journalist whose work, which covers issues of war and peace and human rights, is archived at www.brettwilkins.com.