2008 A Deadly Year For Afghan Civilians During the most violent year in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, civilians often paid the highest price. Some 1,200 men, women and children considered non-combatants died in 2008. Many expect the toll to increase in 2009 as more U.S. troops arrive to fight a revived Taliban.
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2008 A Deadly Year For Afghan Civilians

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2008 A Deadly Year For Afghan Civilians

2008 A Deadly Year For Afghan Civilians

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. During the month of December, we broadcast a series of stories and conversations about the impact of war on U.S. military personnel and their families. Now we're going to examine the war's effects on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Next Sunday, Iraq will be the subject. Today, we focus on Afghanistan.

2008 was the most violent year in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, especially for civilians. Some 1,200 innocent men, women, and children were killed last year, most of them by militants. This is some of what happened in the southern city of Kandahar.

(Soundbite of ambulance sirens and people shouting)

HANSEN: NPR's Afghanistan correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson recorded those sounds of ambulances and voices of private citizens ferrying scores of wounded to the main hospital after a Taliban suicide bomber attacked a crowd at a dogfight on the outskirts of the city last February. It was the worst suicide bombing ever in Afghanistan. More than 100 people were killed.

Taliban fighters are not the only ones killing civilians in Afghanistan. The number of innocent Afghans dying at the hands of Western forces also climbed dramatically in 2008, up 21 percent, according to a United Nations tally. Most of the people died in military air strikes and during Western missions to target insurgents. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is with us. And Soraya, I mean, after hearing your tape, how are the Afghans, given the numbers we just gave for 2008, how are they reacting to this growing death toll?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, Liane, Afghans are very, very angry. But surprisingly, perhaps, their anger is directed mainly at Western forces because many people here feel that the West is leaving a trail of innocent victims in their war on terror. A good example is tribal elder Abdul Rashid(ph), who I interviewed in August, a few days after his village was badly damaged in a U.S. ground and air operation. Basically, this operation had gone after a Taliban leader in the village.

And what happened was, when U.S. Special Forces and Afghan Special Forces showed up to arrest the man, he and his men apparently fired first, and this resulted in a battle that lasted for many hours. And by the time it was over, 90 civilians were dead, according to the U.N. and Afghan government counts. But that count is still disputed by American authorities.

Mr. ABDUL RASHID (Tribal Leader, Afghanistan): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Here, a tearful and frustrated Rashid shows me a woman's headscarf that he's just pulled out of the rubble. He wants to know if this is something the Taliban would wear, and he asked how something like this can happen in a free and democratic Afghanistan. He's not the only one asking these kinds of questions. President Karzai has publicly lambasted the West on many occasions, and certainly after Azizabad, saying that the West is not doing enough to prevent civilian casualties.

It even got to the point where he was - he and his government were talking about perhaps changing the status of forces agreement, which would basically restrict what the West does here on the ground in their fight against terror. And arguably, this attack in Azizabad did more to damage U.S and Afghan relations than any other in 2008.

HANSEN: So, Soraya, what accounts for the increasing death toll at the hands of U.S. and NATO troops?

NELSON: Well, one problem is that there just are not enough troops to deal with the mountainous terrain in Afghanistan, which basically means that NATO and U.S. forces have to use air strikes to cover more ground to be able to get at the insurgents and the terrorists that they're trying to get rid of. Another problem seems to be bad information - basically, bad information being provided by informants.

And also, because Special Forces, when they do their operations, they just swoop into an area without consulting with local authorities, which is something that actually a lot of other troops that are on the ground will not do. They will try to coordinate to avoid incidents like the one in Azizabad.

Of course, complicating it even further is that a lot of these Afghan households in these rural and bad areas, basically every Afghan has a gun, because this is how they - there are no police or whatever to protect them. So they protect themselves. And so if they see these foreigners coming in, especially if they are approaching women in the compound, that sort of thing, they will open fire. And of course, what are the troops going to do? They're going to have to fire back. And if they need help, they'll call in air strikes and you end up with a lot of civilian casualties.

But another big problem is that when in fact the Taliban do engage the West, which is quite often, they will do so from villagers' homes, and they will use people as human shields. And certainly that's what happened in the Azizabad case, according to the Americans.

HANSEN: Why aren't the Afghans expressing more anger, then, toward the Taliban fighters who are purposely putting Afghan civilians in harm's way?

NELSON: Well, one thing is fear. I mean, these Taliban are not very nice people. And so if people were to publicly complain and say, what are you doing? I mean, the fear is that the Taliban would come and kill them afterwards. I think there's less expectation that the West would come and kill them if they did that. Also, I think because we are talking about insurgents being the enemy and Westerns allies being friends, they kind of expect the West to take more care in preventing civilian casualties.

And I think there's also a third thing at play here and that is that Westerners in uniforms remind a lot of Afghans here of when the Soviets were here. And the Soviets did not have a reputation for taking great care about civilian rights and lives either. And so I think a combination of these three factors is what's creating more of the anger and resistance to what the West is doing.

HANSEN: So what are the U.S. and NATO forces doing to prevent these civilian deaths and ease the Afghans' anger?

NELSON: Well, to ease the anger, Americans do something that many other NATO countries do not and that is make condolence payments when there is an incident of civilian death that's caused that's proven. And they do this quite liberally and quite frequently. Also, in general, the West has changed its rule of engagement in the past year or so, really addressing the need to be more careful and perhaps look before you shoot and that sort of thing.

They've also improved public outreach and have started conducting joint investigations since Azizabad to sort of avoid this, you know, Americans saying so many died and everybody else is saying so many died and, you know, creating conflict that way. It's also noteworthy that Taliban leaders have issued fatwas, or religious decrees, demanding that their fighters not kill innocent Afghans, that it's sinful for them to do so.

Yet, even with all these efforts afoot, it seems a lot of people here widely expect that the civilian death toll is going to go up this year, especially with at least 20,000 more American troops coming in and increased pressure to clear out insurgents and improve security before the Afghan presidential elections this fall.

HANSEN: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Afghanistan. Thank you so much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Liane.

HANSEN: Next week, our Baghdad correspondent, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, will join us to talk about the impact of war in Iraq on its citizens.

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