| Ander Nieuws week 12 / Midden-Oosten 2011 |
Toll from helicopter strikes climbs

The Wall Street Journal
March 9, 2011
Dion Nissenbaum
Last week's errant aerial strike on children cutting firewood underscores an emerging problem for American forces in Afghanistan: Even as U.S.-led forces have reduced the overall number of noncombatants they mistakenly kill or injure, deadly helicopter attacks on civilians have surged.
The March 1 helicopter strike that killed nine boys, ages 8 to 14, sparked anti-American sentiment and elicited apologies from U.S. military officials. It also added to a growing source of civilian casualties: In 2010, coalition helicopters killed 44 Afghan civilians, up from 10 in 2009, according to internal military statistics viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
As a part of a push to reduce civilian casualties and bolster Afghan support, the U.S.-led coalition sought to shift away from fixed-wing aircraft that had been involved in high-profile incidents, including a 2008 strike that hit an Afghan wedding party, killing more than two dozen civilians.
In the 2010 U.S. military surge into Afghanistan, American forces imported scores of Apache and Kiowa helicopters to help hunt insurgents. Such helicopters, military officials said, could help cut down on civilian casualties because pilots could better see their targets.
The emerging problem comes as coalition forces in Afghanistan are reducing the overall number of civilian casualty incidents and the number of civilians injured in the attacks, according to the military figures. But the rise in civilian deaths from helicopters contributes to an increased overall death toll: In all, 202 Afghan civilians were killed in action in 2010, up from 181 in 2009.
U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Greg Smith, the coalition's departing deputy chief of staff for communications, said there could be no justification for killing the nine Afghan boys last week but that the numbers had to be put in the larger context.
He also said Taliban-led insurgents were responsible for killing more than 1,000 Afghan civilians in 2010, five times the number killed by U.S.-led forces, according to the coalition figures. The Taliban dispute these statistics, saying that the U.S. is causing a much higher civilian toll.
U.S. investigators are trying to figure out what happened on March 1 in northeastern Afghanistan, where helicopters apparently mistook the group of Afghan boys cutting firewood for dangerous insurgents.
One theory pursued by the investigators is that soldiers involved in the attack may have misdirected the helicopters in search of insurgents who had launched a mortar attack an hour earlier on a remote U.S. military base.
Military officials said it isn't yet clear if the soldiers in the March 1 incident followed rules issued last August by U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan. Military officials said that in such cases, pilots are supposed to have grid coordinates for the attack and a physical description of their target.
"It's the responsibility of the individual who orders the strike to get a positive ID," said Adm. Smith. "But if there's something [problematic] about our training procedures or techniques, we'll change them."
Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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