Afghanistan: the air war is far from over

By Mike Phipps

As the US prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 years of futile occupation and war, a new report highlights that a major casualty of its campaign of aerial bombardment has been children.

According to a report from Action on Armed Violence, 40% of all civilian casualties from airstrikes in Afghanistan in the last five years were children.  Almost 1,600 children were killed or wounded in airstrikes.  Of that number, 785 were killed. The figures are based on data released earlier this year by the UN.

Around half of the civilian casualties from airstrikes were caused by the US and its NATO coalition partners.  The rest were by the US-trained Afghan Air Force.  And this may not end with the much-publicised pull-out of NATO forces from the country this year.

As the report explains, the gradual withdrawal of ground troops has been accompanied by an increase in aerial attacks. This has been the picture since 2017, when President Trump’s Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis loosened the rules of engagement for airstrikes.

In each of the following two years, the US dropped more bombs on Afghanistan than ever before – at a rate of more than 20 a day.

The new regulations allowed the US to strike at Taliban targets even if they were not in proximity to any NATO or Afghan forces. A 2020 report from Brown University’s Costs of War Project found that civilian deaths from airstrikes in Afghanistan dramatically rose as a result.

One infamous incident was on 19th July 2018, when the US Air Force bombed a residential compound in Chahar Dara district, Kunduz province, resulting in the death of 14 women and children.

Both the Afghan and American militaries at first denied any civilian casualties. Only after a protest from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan did the US eventually admit 12 civilians were killed and one injured.

This kind of wrangling over civilian deaths is commonplace. Worse, such activity has been harder to trace since March 2020, when the US Air Forces Central Command ceased to publish monthly aerial operations data in Afghanistan.

As in Iraq, the US leaves Afghanistan in a far worse state than when they went in. As Labour Hub reported earlier this month, in the words of one Afghan: “They spent huge amounts of money on war and made the situation dangerous and difficult for us. The Afghan people don’t know what the US army are doing here. They just made a land of war, of more guns and different ways to kill people.”

While there is genuine concern that the Taliban will fill the vacuum left by the US withdrawal, many are also only too aware of the way the US occupation has empowered and validated the Taliban’s role. Reuters reported recently that Taliban fighters have been licensed to protect western military bases in Afghanistan from attacks by rival Islamist groups for over a year as part of a deal to secure the withdrawal of all US forces.

But the reciprocal relationship between US forces and the Taliban goes back much further. A former US combat officer recalled recently: “Whenever a road was blown up—since protecting all the roads, all the time, was impossible—American forces would pay exorbitant cost-plus contracts to Afghan construction companies to rebuild it. It was common knowledge that many of these companies were owned by Afghan warlords guilty of human rights abuses. In turn, the construction companies paid a protection tribute to the Taliban. Then the Taliban would buy more bomb-making materials to destroy the road—and U.S. vehicles. We were, indirectly but also quite literally, paying the Taliban to kill us.”

But it is Afghans who have paid the highest price. Since 2001, around 50,000 civilians and 69,000 Afghan troops have been killed in the war. Some 2.7 million Afghans have fled abroad, while another 4 million are displaced within the country. On the US side, 2,442 troops have been killed and 20,666 wounded since 2001, according to the Defense Department, and over 3,800 US private security contractors killed. The conflict also has killed 1,144 personnel from the 40-nation NATO coalition, according to a tally kept by the website iCasualties.

The US has spent a total of $2.26 trillion on the venture, according to the Costs of War project. Typically for military spending, much of what was spent was poured down the drain. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said earlier this year that of $7.8 billion in spending on buildings and vehicles since 2008, only $343.2 million was spent on items that were “maintained in good condition”.  In other words, if faults developed, the assets were simply abandoned.

As the US prepares to leave, it is destroying mountains of valuable equipment, from trucks to tents, to generators, for ‘security reasons’. Impoverished Afghans are aghast and angry at the waste.  One junk dealer in Bagram said scrap yards around the country are crammed with ruined U.S. equipment. “They left us nothing,” he said. “They don’t trust us. They have destroyed our country. They are giving us only destruction.”

Despite the apparent air of finality to the pull-out, it should be emphasised that the US withdrawal is far from total. Officially, 2,500 troops are being withdrawn, leaving a further 1,000 undercover personnel in the country, along with 16,000 military contractors and an unknown number of CIA operatives.

More worryingly, there is no plan to end drone strikes or other forms of aerial bombardment. Quite the opposite:  the New York Times recently confirmed that drones and long range bombers will continue to be deployed.  And children will continue to be killed.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: Patrolling Konar Province, Afghanistan. Source: originally posted to Flickr as Patrolling Konar Province, VIRIN: 090714-A-7265M-024. Author: DVIDSHUB, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts