KABUL: International troops fighting the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan killed six civilians, Nato said on Saturday, a day after conceding that six Afghan soldiers had died in a “friendly fire” incident. Civilian casualties are an incendiary topic with Afghans, who increasingly regard the presence of international troops in their country as the main cause of violence that has wracked Afghanistan for almost nine years. A brief statement from Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) said “artillery fire from an Isaf unit killed six civilians and wounded several others in Jani Khel on Thursday,” referring to a district of Paktia province, south of Kabul.
The dead had been removed before Isaf units had arrived on the scene, the force said, and so it was not immediately clear that people had been killed by what it said were “errant rounds”. Isaf had accepted “responsibility for the actions that led to this tragic incident” and apologised, it said. The statement comes after Isaf said a helicopter patrol in southern Ghazni province had opened fire on a group of Afghan soldiers on Tuesday, after mistaking them for militants planting bombs by a roadside.
Six of the soldiers were killed and another was injured, it said, as a “result of miscommunication” between Isaf and the Afghan army about where the Afghans would be patrolling that night. While reports of friendly fire incidents are not common in Afghanistan, they add to a perception that the foreign forces fighting the insurgency do not take enough care to avoid killing Afghans, military or civilian.
Command of the 140,000 troops in Afghanistan has just been taken over by US General David Petraeus who is under some pressure to change the rules of engagement, as some soldiers believe they restrict defensive action. Petraeus has not publicly ruled out making changes, though observers in Kabul said he is unlikely to alter rules he was instrumental in formulating and which are credited with cutting civilian casualties.
The United Nations said in a recent report that most civilian casualties in Afghanistan are caused by the Taliban, using roadside bombs or in suicide attacks. The country’s intelligence service said on Saturday it had captured a six-man “terrorist cell” in Kabul, thwarting attacks on the capital involving almost half a ton of explosives.
National Directorate of Security (NDS) spokesman Sayeed Ansari told reporters the gang had prepared attacks on the capital, and had been involved in attacks in other areas in the past. “They were planning to carry out an attack in the coming days,” he said, adding that the gang was linked to the brutal Pakistan-based Haqqani network, blamed for major attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Two other groups that had carried out attacks were also arrested, he said, without further detail. Separately, a remote-controlled bomb rigged up to a motorbike detonated in the centre of southern Kandahar city on Saturday, killing at least one person, the deputy police chief for Kandahar province, Fazel Ahmad Khan Shairzad said.
Kandahar is the focus of the insurgency and heartland of the Taliban, who have thrown a veil of terror over the provincial capital with suicide bomb attacks and targeted assassinations to counter a troop build-up.
Most newly-deployed troops are heading to Kandahar and neighbouring Helmand where the fighting is fiercest. Another 10,000 US soldiers are due to arrive in the coming weeks to beef up operations against the Taliban in the region.
US troops are also deploying to Helmand as the British, with almost 10,000 troops in the country, prepare to withdraw from Sangin, one of the hottest spots of the insurgency.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2010.