The rush of incoming aircraft roused Waheeda and her sleeping family. It was long after dark on a cool spring night in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, a Taliban stronghold of fertile valleys and stark mountains that borders Pakistan. The sound of warplanes is a familiar echo across the skies here, but it had never come so close to Waheeda’s mud-brick home. Her father, a village doctor named Nazar Gul, got up to see what was going on when the first bomb struck the family compound, killing five of her cousins. Her father was moving toward the blast site when a second bomb exploded, she says. In an instant, both of her parents and five of her sisters vanished. “It was dark and dusty, and nothing was visible,” the 14-year-old remembers. “I just knew they were all martyred.”
Two of Waheeda’s little sisters, one of them just five days old, lay crying on the ground as helicopter gunships began strafing what remained of the compound. Waheeda was hit in the leg. She wanted to flee, but it was impossible to discern a clear path out in the darkness, so she swept up her sisters and took cover under an eave of the blown-out kitchen. When the attack finally ended, Waheeda picked her way over mounds of dirt and rubble and made it to the village center to find help. Under the light of cellphones, relatives and neighbors worked past dawn to retrieve the bodies. Twelve people in all.
“When I saw my nieces and sister-in-law, I could not control myself,” Waheeda’s uncle and now guardian, Sherif Khan, recalls, breaking into sobs at the memory. “I thought that my heart would explode, but human beings have tough hearts.” The March 9th, 2019, attack was carried out by U.S. air support, the American-led NATO mission would later confirm, and had been called in by Afghan forces in an operation against the Taliban. But more than a year later, Khan has not received answers from the U.S. military as to why the home of his brother, the only doctor in the village, was targeted. He says the U.S.-led mission, Resolute Support, has made no recognition of his loss. “We Afghans are very kind and compassionate people. Our hearts are full of mercy,” he says. “But no one has come.”
We heard the same story from several families in Afghanistan while making an Al Jazeera English documentary in March, in partnership with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent news organization based in London that has been tracking civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes since 2015. Civilians are being wiped out by U.S. bombs, with zero acknowledgment made, much less an apology or compensation. It is a stark departure from the first half of the decade, when civilian deaths were declining and allegations of harm were more thoroughly examined on the ground. “Survivors are often left completely in the dark over the results of U.S. investigations into their case,” says Jessica Purkiss, a reporter with the BIJ. “This is about owning your mistakes and saying sorry. And this is about accountability, in a largely unaccountable war.”
Last year, the U.S. dropped more bombs on Afghanistan than in any year in the past decade. There were more than 1,000 civilian casualties, 700 dead and 345 wounded, from U.S. and Afghan airstrikes, the fifth year in a row airstrike casualties have risen, according to the U.N. But by the Pentagon’s tally, U.S. military operations killed only 108 civilians, a vast disparity that watchdogs who conduct on-the-ground investigations contend is part of a consistent pattern of grossly undercounting casualties. Confronted by journalists and human rights monitors with witness testimonies, visual and material evidence, and timelines of attacks that confirm U.S. military involvement, the U.S. frequently provides no response or denies responsibility. (Resolute Support officials declined our requests for an interview.)
According to the U.N., more than 35,000 Afghans have perished since it began tracking civilian casualties, in 2009. And while insurgents continue to be responsible for the vast majority of these deaths, the first half of 2019 marked a grim milestone: For the first time, the U.S. and Afghan militaries were responsible for more civilian deaths than the Taliban.
Since Donald Trump was elected in 2016 on a pledge to end endless wars, he has compensated for the drawdown of U.S. ground forces — there are around 10,000 in Afghanistan, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2010-11 — by loosening restrictions on airstrikes. The ramped-up air war was intended to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with the U.S., which finally happened in February, when the two sides set conditions for the U.S. withdrawal. But experts say the airstrikes and resultant spike in civilian deaths only help the Taliban’s cause and undermine a central government the U.S. has spent billions of dollars propping up over almost two decades. In areas where “people are not politically connected, they will support whoever can keep them safest,” says Andrea Prasow, the Washington, D.C., director of Human Rights Watch. “And when the U.S. is killing civilians, it’s not the U.S. and it’s not the Afghan government that can keep them safe.”
A 2017 change in U.S. policy dictated that instead of having to be in contact with enemy combatants to call in a strike, U.S. forces can now remotely order them on areas where the Taliban is known to mix with the civilian population. The drastic spike in civilian deaths has been the predictable result. “Almost no civilian in Afghanistan has escaped being personally affected in some way by the ongoing violence,” Tadamichi Yamamoto, the U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, said in February. Trump’s gloves-off attitude was perhaps epitomized by the April 2017 dropping of the Mother of All Bombs, a $16 million, 21,600-pound explosive deployed against Islamic State fighters in Nangarhar. The U.S. military insisted it “took every precaution to avoid civilian casualties,” but within days local politicians were reporting several people killed.
There has also been a change of protocol that allows Afghan army forces, which are now doing the bulk of the fighting, to radio for U.S. air support on their own. Poorly trained and often outgunned by battle-hardened Taliban fighters, Afghan soldiers are calling in more airstrikes than ever before, often based on less reliable intelligence, according to Human Rights Watch.
Meanwhile, with fewer U.S. troops on the ground, the onus of investigating allegations of civilian harm is increasingly falling on Afghan authorities with limited capacity and political will. In the rare instances when cases have been reopened by the U.S. military, it’s usually thanks to third-party reporting by independent investigators and journalists. In response to a query by the BIJ regarding the airstrike that hit Waheeda’s village, a U.S. military representative ultimately said it was “possible” there were civilian casualties in the attack, and that their investigation was closed.
“There was a time when U.S. forces would actually investigate on-the-ground civilian harm in Afghanistan,” says Marc Garlasco, a former civilian-protection officer for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan and a veteran war-crimes investigator. “Today, that just doesn’t happen anymore.” Instead of visiting attack sites and hospitals and interviewing survivors, the U.S. military relies primarily on Afghan-military accounts, pilot testimonies, satellite images, and drone feeds. “They’re getting an inadequate picture, frequently concluding that no civilians have been harmed in strikes, where, in fact, they have been,” says Prasow.
“Well-substantiated incidents can be discarded if they cannot be independently proven with U.S. internal data,” which is often limited, according to Larry Lewis, a researcher at the Center for Naval Analyses and the co-author of a landmark 2010 study on civilian protection in Afghanistan commissioned by the U.S. military. Lewis believes “U.S. numbers tend to be too low, and outside estimates tend to be too high. The truth is in the middle.”
“While the Trump administration expanded the use of lethal strikes,” adds Lewis, “both the Trump and Obama administrations were marked by a fatal flaw in their counterterrorism policies: an overemphasis on killing individuals, which is a holding action at best, while neglecting accompanying actions to reduce the factors that lead to violent extremism in the first place. We are no better off than when we started counterterrorism operations after 9/11, and arguably in a worse position because of that narrow and flawed approach.”
Absent lessons learned, avoidable errors that kill civilians are compounding the torment of Afghans, whose support was once seen as critical to defeating the Taliban. And civilian survivors like Waheeda, searching for answers as to why their families were targeted, are condemned to grieve without closure, enduring a collective trauma that has locked Afghanistan in a cycle of war for the past four decades. “In our time, there’s only been war — we haven’t had a peaceful life for one day,” says Waheeda. “Innocent people are killed. Why does this happen?”
On a brisk morning, we drive through Kunduz City, a northern provincial capital of more than 300,000 people. In the absence of U.S. and NATO ground forces, Kunduz has degenerated under the heel of corrupt, abusive local militias and ethnic rivalries. In 2015, the Taliban seized the city for 15 days, the first takeover of any Afghan city since the U.S. invasion, and a shocking indictment of the Afghan army’s capacity to defend vital urban centers. Though the government generally has more support in cities, Kunduz remains one of the most contested. A bomb detonates overnight during our stay, said to be part of a militant attack that never materializes. Afghan army convoys of pickups and armored Humvees topped with masked gunners swiveling .50-caliber machine guns patrol the streets. We pass the derelict Doctors Without Borders trauma hospital, where at least 42 people were killed in an October 2015 errant airstrike by the U.S.
About 20 miles southwest of the city, we turn onto a dirt track that rumbles past fallow fields, bullet-pocked walls, and earthen army bunkers with tattered Afghan flags: This is where the writ of the government ends and Taliban country begins. A few minutes later and we pull into a destroyed compound that was once the home of a government agriculture employee named Imamulldin (some Afghan men use only one name), who joins us along with a half-dozen of his family members.
An elegant man with a salt-white beard and striped black turban, Imamulldin surveys the rubble. “There was my brother’s wife along with her two kids,” he points to a patch of ground. “She held them tightly in her arms.” The compound had been destroyed by a U.S. airstrike in July 2018. “I pulled 12 family members out myself,” he says. Among them were his sister and her children. His nephew, Abdul Jabar, lost his wife and two daughters; Jabar’s two-year-old son somehow survived. Since that day, Imamulldin feels like “a walking dead body,” he says. “I move around, but I don’t feel alive.”
Abdul Jabar is holding up family belongings left over from the bombing — a shredded blue tunic, part of a refrigerator, a suitcase — when the hum of an airplane snaps everyone’s head to the sky. We are standing in the open between two front lines. Feet begin to shift, uneasy.
A neighbor who was present the day of the bombing walks up and introduces himself. “It was the worst incident I ever witnessed in my life,” says Qari Fazal Hadi, a local teacher. “The ground and soil [from the explosion] reached our house.” But he stresses that airstrikes like it had done nothing to diminish the Taliban’s power around Kunduz. Two days after the U.S. signed a deal with the militants in February, he added, “the Taliban were coming here and carrying out attacks on checkpoints.” In late May, there was another attempt to take the city.
Another plane passes high overhead, followed by the incoming thump of a pair of Afghan army helicopters. Suddenly, a burst of gunfire rings out from the Taliban position, no more than a hundred yards away. It is time to leave.
The Afghan army and U.S. military at first asserted that all the casualties at Imamulldin’s compound were Taliban fighters. But the bodies of women and children delivered to Kunduz’s main hospital said otherwise, moving local officials to declare that civilians had died in the attack. The Afghan military then acknowledged the civilian deaths, but claimed the Taliban, not the U.S., must have been responsible. In yet another version of events, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul maintained there were no civilian casualties (without providing any details as to how that assessment was conducted), but did confirm there were U.S. airstrikes.
It was not the first time doubts were cast on the rigor of U.S.-military investigations in Kunduz, where airstrikes have been blamed for civilian deaths at least six times since 2015. Seven months before the attack on Imamulldin’s home, a strike in the Chahar Dara district killed civilians during fierce clashes between the Taliban and U.S. and Afghan forces. Faiz Mohammad, an elderly milk seller with a gentle smile, tells us he arrived at the scene to find his son Bashir Ahmad “in pieces” on the ground. “I collected
him in my shirt, and then we buried him,” he says. The nine-year-old son of neighbor Mohammad Nabi lost part of his right leg in the attack.
The U.N. mission said at least 10 civilians had been killed (district officials said it was 16 civilians, according to documents we reviewed). But the U.S. military insisted there were no civilian deaths, and that it confirmed this after speaking to hospitals and clinics in the region. Yet when the BIJ contacted regional medical facilities, they all confirmed that they had, in fact, treated civilian casualties but had not heard from the U.S. military. Indeed, the director of the Kunduz Regional Hospital, Dr. Naeem Mangal, told us that the U.S. military had never contacted him about any airstrikes alleged to have harmed civilians in the region.
Imamulldin eventually had a bit more luck. Unlike many poor Afghans who are easily brushed aside, he is educated and well-connected in Kunduz. He and other families petitioned provincial officials and the Afghan Ministry of Defense to investigate, and they ultimately confirmed that 14 civilians — and no Taliban — were killed in the strike on his compound. But the U.S. military, fully aware of the Afghans’ about-face, reiterated its position that no civilians were killed. “It was hard to take,” says Abdul Jabar of the U.S. dismissal. “The entire world knows there were no Taliban; they were all my family.”
Several months later, they learned that the U.N. had succeeded in pushing the U.S. military to reopen its investigation — and admit civilians were killed. The U.S. admission of guilt was buried on page 41 of the annual U.N. report on civilian harm. Imamulldin and his family have received condolence payments from the Afghan government, but they have still not received what they want most: an acknowledgment from those responsible for their loss and an explanation as to why their home was hit.
The dwindling number of ground troops helps explain some of the U.S. military’s failure to conduct thorough on-scene investigations of civilian airstrikes, but critics say it’s not an excuse. Officers could easily create more direct ways for people to report civilian harm, and could cooperate better with the U.N. and Afghan monitors. They could interview witnesses and relatives by phone, or bring them to safe places for questioning, common-sense protocol that the U.S. military is not carrying out.
“The U.S. has shown and proven in the past that it can implement tactics, techniques, and procedures that minimize civilian harm,” says Garlasco, the former U.N. investigator. “You can’t always zero out civilian casualties, but we owe the Afghan population better than what we’re doing now.”
When the war began in 2001, U.S. military planners saw the Taliban as a ragtag movement that could be bombed into oblivion for harboring the Al Qaeda leaders behind the September 11th attacks. But with each passing year, civilian casualties from U.S. and NATO airstrikes climbed steadily. By 2008, the death toll from the airstrikes reached a then-high of 552, according to the U.N., with overall civilian deaths jumping nearly 40 percent from the previous year. Public outrage helped propel a Taliban resurgence in the backcountry and inflamed tensions with the Afghan government, compelling U.S. war planners to take civilian harm more seriously. The next summer, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, introduced new counterinsurgency tactics that championed boots-on-the-ground engagement and protecting civilians at all costs — a “tactical directive” to limit airstrikes that were corroding public support.
“I don’t think we understood the level of frustration among the civilian population,” says a former senior Defense Department official who served in Afghanistan. “McChrystal was the one commander I truly believed had a civilian-first mindset and knew that civilian casualties hurt us over the long run in terms of making more enemies. It was not about a body count, and we could not shoot our way to a solution.” A year later, Gen. David Petraeus, McChrystal’s replacement, ordered a study on the patterns of errant airstrikes that resulted in even stricter guidelines.
Between 2008 and 2011, “we see people like McChrystal and Petraeus putting in tactical directives, constantly saying ‘You will not kill civilians’ — and it works,” says Garlasco. In 2011, the civilian death toll from U.S. airstrikes plummeted to around 100 people, a pattern that would hold for several years. “Leadership makes a difference,” says Garlasco. “Then when the Trump administration comes in, we see a complete flip. And it really goes to the idea that we’re going to bomb the Taliban into submission and bomb them to the peace table.”
The Pentagon is in the process of developing a new policy to improve transparency and the rigor of investigations following a 2018 study that found U.S. civilian-casualty assessments in Iraq and Syria were unrealistically low. But Afghanistan was not included
in that study, notes Lewis of the Center for Naval Analyses, “and there seems to be little appetite for additional assessments” there as the Trump administration pulls out. “The danger now,” says Jason Lyall, a professor of transnational studies at Dartmouth who has advised the U.S. government on Afghanistan, “is that U.S. airpower is becoming increasingly indiscriminate as local sources of intelligence dry up in the face of a hasty U.S. withdrawal.”
The Trump administration insists the airstrike strategy forced the Taliban to the negotiating table, but the fallout from civilian casualties suggests the opposite. “The Taliban clearly did not come to the table out of desperation,” says Andrew Watkins of the International Crisis Group. “They continue to operate at a high capacity around the country and control wide swaths of the rural countryside.”
Indeed, as public trust in the Afghan central government, mired in corruption and infighting, is at a nadir, the insurgency is as robust as ever, with the Taliban controlling or holding sway over roughly half the country. Under the terms of the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February, the U.S. pledged to withdraw all its troops within 14 months if the Taliban reduces violence, enters peace talks with the Afghan government, and assures the country will not become a safe haven for terrorists. But nowhere does the U.S. state it will abandon its commitment to leave if the Taliban violates its promises, which it is already doing. “I wouldn’t call it a ‘strategy’ so much as a fast walk to the exit,” says Lyall. “There’s no real conditions-based thinking here.”
Moreover, should the Taliban enter serious negotiations with the Afghan government, there are no provisions in the U.S. deal to protect Afghans from the Taliban’s extremist agenda, nor guarantees for women’s rights or any kind of transitional justice. All these years later, at a cost of more than 2,400 American soldiers, tens of thousands of Afghan lives, and some $2 trillion dollars, the U.S. is getting no more out of the agreement than political cover to get out of a war most Americans have forgotten.
With prospects for official recognition of civilian deaths receding, some Afghans who have lost family members to violence are coming together to acknowledge one another. In a cool, dimly-lit basement in the capital, Kabul, the Memory Box project aims to dignify the dead and let their families decide how their stories will be recorded and remembered. Glass boxes hold personal mementos from civilians killed over 40 years of conflict: a father disappeared by the Soviet-backed government, a husband killed during civil-war shelling, a teenage boy executed by the Taliban, a schoolgirl blown up by an Islamic State suicide bomber. And, at the end of the exhibit, a box yet to be filled: a reminder of the families we met who may never receive any recognition of their loss.
The people gathered here are a diverse mix of ethnicities, men and women, young and old, some of them maimed by war. There are angry rants and tears, but the experience is healing: Strangers are holding space for one another, united in grief. “The majority of people in this country are war victims,” says Salim Rajabi of the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization, which launched the Memory Box project. “No one is listening to these people — they are completely forgotten. We are trying to create a shared history. This history must be told by war victims.”
Bringing the session to a close, Rajabi has everyone stand in a circle and hold hands in prayer. He leads the group in three deep breaths: One is for those who are gone, a second is for unity, and a third, “For what?” he asks the group. “For justice,” they exhale.
A hundred miles away, in the city of Jalalabad, Sherif Khan still wakes up every day aching for answers about what happened to his brother, wracked by a sense of helplessness. “You get confused and anxious when you fail to get justice,” he says, wincing. “The children left behind require bearing, and they need the love of their parents.”
Waheeda now lives under his care. “I lost my parents. I lost my sisters. I lost my home and my good life,” she says. “I have no one now.” Confined to a concrete-block apartment in a cramped corner of the city, she looks after her two younger sisters, far from the simple country life she knew, spent playing in apple orchards and watching cricket matches with her family. Now, she is haunted each day by the helicopters and planes taking off around-the-clock at a nearby military airfield, and by all the questions that seem destined to go unanswered.
Aziz Ahmad Tassal contributed reporting.