Afghans’ Toll Shakes Generals: Soviet Lesson Was Civilian Deaths Can Destroy Strategy

KABUL, Afghanistan — A generation ago, when the Soviets were in Afghanistan, they lost the battle for hearts and minds quickly by showing scant concern for human rights. Estimates run as high as 1.5 million dead and 10,000 villages destroyed. Now, Americans labor in the shadow of that history, and that helps to explain why alarm bells are ringing in the NATO headquarters here over the latest accounts of air raids that went wrong, causing dozens of civilian casualties.
When such things happen, within an Afghan population deeply traumatized by the Soviet years, there is a quick resort to comparisons of the past occupier with the present one, even though the scale of casualties caused by Western forces — even taking the worst figures compiled by human rights groups — are but a fraction of the abuses committed by the Russians.

For Gen. David D. McKiernan, the American who commands 65,000 foreign troops from 39 nations in Afghanistan, concern over civilian casualties, especially from aircraft-launched bombs and missiles, has become the issue of the moment. Only if it is tackled effectively, senior officers here are now saying, can the hearts and minds of 30 million Afghans — many of them increasingly skeptical about the Western military presence, and angry about the civilian death toll — be won.

The NATO command has been intently focused on the issue since an attack in western Afghanistan on Aug. 22, when an AC-130 gunship mounted a nighttime raid on what the United States intelligence has identified as a meeting of about 30 Taliban fighters with a “high value” Taliban commander. Lethal cannon fire from the aircraft devastated several buildings in the mud-brick village of Azizabad, leaving more civilians dead than Taliban.

A similar pattern, according to Afghan officials and townspeople, was seen Thursday in the Nadali district of Helmand Province, where a coalition airstrike hit three houses sheltering families who had fled a Taliban assault. According to the Afghan accounts, the strike killed between 25 and 30 civilians, most of them women and children. The NATO command acknowledged that an airstrike had taken place and announced there would be an investigation, but said it could not confirm that there had been civilian casualties.

The timing of the airstrike and the ensuing accusations could scarcely have been worse for the NATO command. At the very moment when the Nadali incident was taking place, senior American and British officers were briefing Western aid representatives and reporters in Kabul on a new, more-thorough system for reducing civilian casualties.

Read the rest:
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/19/weekin
review/19burns.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slogin

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