UN says US drone strike killed 15 civilians in Afghanistan

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan says at least 15 civilians were killed and 13 others injured in the US drone strike that reportedly intended to target DAESH but struck a civilian home on Wednesday.

Photo by: Reuters (Archive)
Photo by: Reuters (Archive)

There has been an increase in US aerial strikes, including drones, in Afghanistan during the past year.

Updated Sep 29, 2016

United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has condemned the killing of at least 15 civilians in a US drone strike in Afghanistan’s Achin district and called international military forces to conduct independent inquiry into the incident.

“UNAMA condemns the killing of at least 15 civilian men and the injuring of at least 13 others, including at least one boy, in the strike,” the UN mission said in a statement.

It said, in the early morning of 28 September, an international military forces' unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) conducted an airstrike in the eastern district of Achin, reportedly targeting members of DAESH.

But, the strike hit a civilian home instead, killing 15 civilians.

The same day United States Force-Afghanistan acknowledged conducting the airstrike but refrained from elaborating further while they “are still reviewing all materials related to the strike.”

UNAMA said the civilians had gathered in a village to celebrate the return of a tribal elder from the Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah and were reportedly sleeping in a guesthouse of the elder when the airstrike occurred.

Civilian victims of the strike included students and a teacher, as well as members of families considered to be pro-Government.  Government sources reported that DAESH terrorists also died in the attack.

“UNAMA calls on the Government and international military forces to launch a prompt, independent, impartial, transparent, and effective investigation into this incident,” the statement said.

The US-led coalition and Afghan officials confirmed that the strike on Wednesday took place in the Achin District of eastern Nangarhar Province.

"US forces did conduct one counter-terrorism air strike in Achin district, Nangarhar province, September 28," Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, spokesman for the US forces in Afghanistan, told TRT World.

Citing "operational security reasons," Cleveland said the details of the attack could not be made public. However, he went on to say that they "are aware of some claims of Afghan casualties, and are currently reviewing all materials related to this strike."

Cleveland did not make clear whether the strike was conducted by an unmanned drone.

Attaullah Khogyani, a spokesman for the provincial governor, told Reuters the local government is "aware of some claims of Afghan casualties" and that they are "currently reviewing all materials related to this strike."

The eastern province of Nangarhar has seen an influx of fighters claiming allegiance to DAESH in the last 18 months. (TRT)

Sources speaking to TRT World, however, said that civilians were in fact killed in the strike.

"There was a coalition air strike and civilians were killed, but we do not yet know the exact number, but it could be as high as 12 or 13," said a source familiar with the matter.

The source went on to say that "high-level" DAESH fighters were also among those killed.

Esmatullah Shinwari, a Nangarhar lawmaker, told The Associated Press that at least 13 civilians were killed in the attack.

Initial reports published by the Pajhwok News Agency, a Kabul-based wire service, also said that at least 13 of those killed were civilians.

Increased aerial attacks

Achin District, near the border with Pakistan, has been called a "DAESH factory," due to the heavy presence of fighters claiming allegiance to the Iraq and Syria-based group.

The last year has seen the US increase its use of aerial strikes, including drones, in Afghanistan.

According to a US Air Force report, unmanned aircraft accounted for 56 percent of the 530 bombs and missiles deployed by the Air Force in Afghanistan in 2015. By contrast, drones only accounted for five percent of the weapons fired by US forces in 2011. 

In a February report, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism said that in 2015, the rate of civilians killed in US air strikes is at its highest point since 2008.

On average, one civilian was killed for every fourth drone or jet strike in 2015 – up from one in 11 attacks the year before and the first time the casualty rate has risen since 2011.

In 2016, drones accounted for 61 percent of the 300 weapons fired by US forces in Afghanistan in the first quarter of the year. 

According to the Bureau of Investigative of Journalism, there were at least 1,670 reported cases of drone strikes in the country between 2001 and 2013.

Identifying victims

The use of aerial strikes, particularly drones, has also increased the difficulty of identifying victims.

In April, US forces claimed responsibility for a strike that killed at least 17 people in the eastern province of Paktika. 

Local residents and officials said all of the dead were civilians.

The US Army, however, denied there were any civilian deaths in the strikes.

Afghan officials said, "militants," not civilians, were killed in the strike. 

Emran Feroz, an Afghan-Austrian journalist based in Germany, said the recent strikes in Nangarhar and Paktika highlight the difficulty of clarifying who exactly has been killed in these aerial attacks.

"The most difficult thing is actually finding the names, there really is no easily accessible information source out there."

As the creator of dronememorial.com – a list of more than 300 names of people killed in unmanned aerial assaults – Feroz says both foreign and local media often named the victims only as "militants," "fighters," "suspected Taliban," or more recently "DAESH fighters." 

"Afghanistan is the most heavily drone-bombed country in the world … Yet there is no public record of when and where these strikes took place, or who they killed. Strangely, more is understood of the US’s secret campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia than about how drone use has evolved in Afghanistan," Alice K. Ross, a former writer and researcher for the Bureau of Investigative Reporting, wrote regarding the lack of information about drone strikes in the nation.

As most drone strikes take place in hard to reach, remote areas, Feroz said many families must make due with what little information local and foreign officials provide them.

Mohsin Khan Mohmand, a native of Nangarhar – who worked with a documentary film crew in 2010 to track down a family in Pacha Aw Agam district of Nangarhar who were the victims of a drone strike – agrees that more should be done to document the victims of aerial strikes in the nation.

Though many of the attacks take place in remote areas that have a large presence of fighters claiming allegiance to the Taliban and DAESH, Mohmand said there can be no excuse for the lack of information on foreign military attacks on Afghan soil.

"There is no way officials don’t know specifically who is being killed in any of these attacks."

Author: Ali M Latifi

TRTWorld and agencies