Around 80 people, many of them civilians, have been killed in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province in NATO airstrikes, underscoring yet again that civilians are bearing the brunt of the military operations against the Taliban. The airstrikes were ostensibly aimed at fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban. Scores of villagers had swarmed around the tankers to siphon off fuel when NATO jets dropped bombs on them. Ground and air operations against reported Taliban targets have often resulted in civilians getting killed. In May this year around 130 civilians were killed in sustained aerial bombing of three villages in Farah province. In the past, Pentagon officials have often dismissed civilian casualties as ‘collateral damage’ and sought to explain away civilian losses by claiming that these are unavoidable in counter-insurgency operations. The incident in Farah prompted a rethink. NATO forces operating in Afghanistan were under strict orders to restrict use of aerial operations if civilian lives are at risk. Yet targets in the vicinity of civilians were bombed at Kunduz.
The Kunduz air strikes are likely to have far-reaching impact. It has happened at a time when Afghanistan is already roiled in political uncertainty over presidential elections. President Hamid Karzai, the frontrunner in the race for the presidency, has repeatedly called on the US to halt aerial operations. His criticism of US battlefield practices has not gone down well in Washington. Simmering tension between the US and Karzai is likely to deepen. How it impact on the election outcome remains to be seen. The incident at Kunduz could strain relations between the US, which carried out the airstrike and Germany, which made the call to carry out the air strike. The high civilian casualties can be expected to erode the already flagging domestic support in Germany for troop deployment in Afghanistan.
Kunduz has been relatively free of violence so far. But public outrage over the bombing incident could fuel anger with the anti-Taliban operations. It could open space for the Taliban to make inroads here. In the past, Western officials have sought to downplay the magnitude of attacks resulting in large-scale civilian casualties by putting out smaller casualty figures or blaming Afghan officials for faulty intelligence. Instead, they should admit and examine their mistakes and avoid them in future operations. Civilian deaths are strengthening the Taliban by weakening public support for counter-insurgency operations. The war against the Taliban cannot be won without civilian support.