The New York Times, September 23, 2019
40 civilians, including children, reported killed in Afghan commando strike
The attack killed 15 women and children in one vehicle and five men in another
By David Zucchino & Taimoor Shah
KABUL, Afghanistan — Government officials in the southern Afghan province of Helmand said on Monday that as many as 40 civilians, including children, may have been killed during a government commando raid on an insurgent stronghold the night before.
Accounts from the scene were fragmentary and contradictory, typical of violent clashes in which civilians are reported killed in remote areas late at night. Scores of civilians have died in recent weeks in Taliban suicide attacks in civilian areas and in American and Afghan airstrikes targeting insurgents.
The fighting on Sunday took place in an area controlled by the Taliban, making it difficult to reach witnesses.
Relatives on Monday moving the body of one of the people killed in a clash carried out by Afghan forces in Helmand Province. (Photo: Watan Yar/EPA/Shutterstock)
Violence has surged in Afghanistan since months of peace negotiations between the United States and the Taliban were aborted on Sept. 7, just after the American envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, said an agreement “in principle” had been reached.
Omar Zwak, a spokesman for the Helmand governor, said an undetermined number of civilians were killed after an explosion at an insurgent weapons depot that had been targeted by government forces late Sunday. But Haji Attaullah Afghan, head of the provincial council in Helmand, said a two-vehicle wedding convoy was fired upon by military helicopters, and that civilians were killed in both vehicles.
The Afghan Defense Ministry confirmed a commando operation Sunday night that officials said killed 22 Taliban fighters from Pakistan and Bangladesh and captured 14 others in Musa Qala district, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand. Such operations are typically supported by American commandos and intelligence specialists.
In a statement, the Defense Ministry said officials would investigate reports of civilian casualties and “share the findings with media and the people.”
The Afghan National Army’s 215th Maiwand Corps in Helmand said that Afghan forces had attacked a joint Taliban-Al Qaeda compound and captured five Al Qaeda members. In a statement, the corps said that an insurgent suicide bomber had killed two women, and that a third woman had died when the weapons depot exploded.
The statement said government forces ordered the militants to surrender, but they responded by opening fire. It accused the Taliban and Al Qaeda of using civilians as shields.
The Helmand governor’s office said that four top Taliban commanders and the Taliban shadow governor of Musa Qala were killed. Intelligence reports led the commandos to a compound that held weapons and suicide vests, the governor said in a statement.
The United States military issued a statement on Monday confirming its role in the operation and the presence of foreign fighters.
“U.S. forces partnered with Afghan security forces in an operation against Al Qaeda terrorists in Musa Qala in Helmand last night,” the military said, adding that “several foreigners associated with Al Qaeda were detained, including multiple persons from Pakistan and one from Bangladesh.”
It said that American forces had conducted “precision strikes against barricaded terrorists firing on Afghan and U.S. forces,” and that most of those killed were believed to have “died from Al Qaeda weapons” or insurgents’ suicide vests and other explosives.
“The incident is under investigation with our Afghan partners,” the military said.
In a separate incident Monday, three coalition service members were wounded when a member of the Afghan Civil Order Police opened fire on their convoy in Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan, an American military spokesman said.
The spokesman, Col. Sonny Leggett, said troops in the convoy returned fire and killed the police officer, and that the incident was under review. A defense official in Washington said the three wounded soldiers were Americans.
Abdul Motalib, a villager in Helmand, said on Monday that he was traveling in a two-vehicle wedding party convoy in Musa Qala the night before when military helicopters opened fire. He said the party was on its way to the bride’s home.
The attack killed 15 women and children in one vehicle and five men in another just after the vehicles had stopped and turned on their flashers as the helicopters dropped flares, Mr. Motalib said.
“First they targeted the vehicle carrying women and children, then the vehicle with the men,” he said. He survived because he had exited one of the stopped vehicles to seek cover in a corn field, he said.
Mr. Afghan, the provincial council leader, said up to 40 civilians died in the vehicle attacks and in a separate incident nearby. He said 12 civilians were wounded.
“This is inhumane, whoever carried out this airstrike,” Mr. Afghan said. He said the wedding party vehicles were fired upon even though they had shown security forces that they were civilians.
On Sept. 19, as many as 30 civilians were reported killed in an American drone strike in eastern Afghanistan that an American military spokesman said had targeted Islamic State insurgents. The spokesman said the military was working with local officials to determine what had happened during the strike, in which local officials said civilian victims had been gathering pine nuts.
The same day, a Taliban suicide bombing leveled a hospital in Zabul Province in southern Afghanistan, killing at least 39 civilians, most of them patients and relatives crushed or burned to death inside the hospital.
A United Nations report released on June 30 said that 717 civilian deaths were attributed to American and Afghan government forces during the first six months of the year. That total exceeded the 531 civilian deaths attributed to the Taliban and other antigovernment extremists — though the total number of deaths and injuries attributed to extremists exceeded those attributed to pro-government forces.
The report noted that many extremist attacks deliberately targeted civilians.
American and Afghan airstrikes killed 363 civilians and wounded 156 between January and the end of June, the report said. Through Aug. 31, American warplanes launched 4,483 bombs and other munitions in Afghanistan this year, just over 100 more than during the same period a year earlier.
Also Monday, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced in Beijing that officials had met a delegation of Taliban envoys to discuss the peace talks. A spokesman, Geng Shuang, called on the United States and the Taliban to continue negotiations and said that China was prepared to play a constructive role.
Mr. Geng provided few details, and it was not clear what role Chinese officials could play, given the tensions already complicating relations with the United States.
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