KABUL // Nato yesterday promised an investigation into the deaths of scores of civilians killed in an air strike in the northern province of Kunduz. According to Afghan officials, around 90 people were killed when two fuel tankers were blown up when German and Afghan forces called in a strike against two fuel tankers which had been hijacked by insurgents. Although dozens of rebels were said to have been among the casualties, reports also emerged of innocent villagers with horrific wounds being rushed to the local hospital, clothes burnt to their flesh.
President Hamid Karzai said targeting civilians was "unacceptable" and announced his own investigation. The attack followed new guidelines issued by Gen Stanley McChrystal which stated that more care should be taken to avoid civilian casualties. Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence, acknowledged the situation was "deteriorating", even if it was not "slipping through the administration's fingers" yet.
Meanwhile, in Britain a senior civil servant and former soldier resigned from his government position in protest over the conflict and demanded a timetable for the withdrawal of the British forces. All this comes with the backdrop of Afghanistan's disputed presidential election and record numbers of American deaths in the month of August. Yesterday's bloodshed is another grim reminder of just how badly the war is going politically and militarily.
The air strikes are believed to have taken place after the Taliban stole two Nato tankers on Thursday night. The next morning one of the lorries got stuck and the insurgents decided to empty some of the fuel in an effort to reduce its weight. Civilians crowded around with buckets and containers, when they were fatally caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nato said the mission was ordered after it observed that no innocent people were in the area, but that explanation will not appease Afghans. Indeed, past events suggest that the alliance's account of what happened may change in the near future.
Reports of civilian casualties are often denied soon after air strikes, only for strong evidence of the deaths to then emerge. This most famously occurred following a massacre in Herat last summer. The fact that yesterday's attack was in Kunduz is also important as it exposes the myth that the insurgency is only a serious issue in the south, east and small pockets of the west. For more than a year, the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami have been making significant inroads in the north. Rebels are now a severe threat in the provinces of Baghlan and Kapisa.
It is, however, in Kunduz that the war is well and truly raging. When The National visited there in spring, locals gave a clear picture of what was about to unfold. Lawlessness was spreading across the countryside, they said, and the government had little power outside the main town. Mujahideen commanders from the Soviet era, along with the Taliban, were behind much of the violence. Foreign militants were also arriving in the region. Yesterday's air strikes will surely add to the fear and anger that was already developing back then.
Afghans talk about the modern military technology of Nato and, in particular, the US with a kind of awe, and they wonder how civilians can keep being killed by mistake. They have come to the conclusion that it must be because their lives are not valued. @Email:email@example.com