KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Afghan elders on Saturday claimed that 108 civilians were killed in a bombing campaign in western Afghanistan, while villagers in the northeast said 25 Afghans died in airstrikes, including some killed while burying dead relatives.
U.S. and NATO leaders, however, said they have no information to substantiate the claims, and a U.S. official said Taliban fighters are forcing villagers to say civilians died in fighting – whether or not it is true.
Even the government officials who reported the deaths Saturday could not confirm the claims, which came from dangerous and remote regions inaccessible to journalists and other independent researchers.
The claims and denials of civilian casualties are part of an increasing campaign of information warfare the Taliban and Western militaries have engaged in alongside conventional fighting.
“It is a very problematic information environment,” said Adrian Edwards, the U.N. spokesman in Afghanistan.
He said the reliability of government reports is crucial to addressing the very real problem of civilian casualties. The U.N. also has not been able to confirm the most recent casualty claims.
“If figures are coming up quickly, it’s my sense that they probably need to be taken with a pinch of salt,” Edwards said. “But it also doesn’t help if it’s two or three weeks before the information comes out.”
Civilian deaths are a recurring problem that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly deplored.
The latest reports come at a time of increasing concern in European capitals over Afghan casualties, an issue that threatens to derail the NATO mission here.
Lt. Col. Rob Pollack, a U.S. officer at the main American base in Bagram, said Taliban militants have been told to fight in civilian areas because civilian deaths caused by the U.S. or NATO give the fighters a propaganda victory.
“In the south, villagers are being told by the Taliban that if they do not call in and report civilian casualties, they will be punished,” said Pollack, who said payments to the families of Afghans killed or wounded in fighting could also be fueling the claims.
Qari Yousef Ahmadi, who claims to speak for the militants, said there was “no need” to use civilian homes during fighting. He denied militants were forcing villagers to inflate claims of casualties.
Independent counts of civilian deaths by the U.N. and The Associated Press both show that the U.S. and NATO have caused more civilians deaths this year than the Taliban.
As of July 1, a U.N. tally showed that of civilian deaths this year, 314 were caused by international or Afghan security forces, and 279 by insurgents. A similar AP count, though lower, shows the same trend: 213 killed by the U.S. or NATO and 180 by the Taliban.
More than 3,100 people, mostly militants, have died in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an AP count based on Western and Afghan officials.
In the west, in Farah province, Abdul Qadir Daqeq, chief of the provincial council, said elders from the Bala Baluk district delivered a letter to his office saying that 108 civilians, including women and children, were killed in airstrikes Thursday and Friday. Thirty-three militants were also reported killed. Eleven police were also found beheaded on the battlefield.
“The area is under the control of the enemy,” Daqeq said. “No one can go to Bala Baluk to find out the exact number of casualties. I cannot go there, human rights officers can’t go there, government officials can’t go there.”
Maj. John Thomas, a NATO spokesman, said airstrikes were called in to assist Afghan forces in Farah but that officials have “no information” to support the civilian casualty claims. He said there was a “significant effort” to move civilians out of the area before the fighting.
In the northeast, in Kunar province, Gov. Shelzai Dedar said villagers told him that 25 civilians had been killed during fighting that also left two NATO soldiers and two Afghan soldiers killed over the last several days. Dedar said 20 militants were killed; the Ministry of Defense said 37 were.
Other government officials have said that some of the civilians in Wata Pur district were killed by an airstrike while burying dead relatives. Dedar called that claim a rumor.
“It’s too dangerous to go there, but we heard these rumors from the people,” he said.
Thomas said NATO was “as confident as we can be at this point that we struck only at firing positions in a remote area and the only individuals who died were insurgents.” He said officials were “keenly interested” in any information that would substantiate the claims of civilian deaths.