American commanders are deeply concerned that mounting civilian casualties in Afghanistan could undermine public support for the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban, including a major offensive planned for Kandahar.
Hundreds of Afghan civilians have lost their lives every year since the U.S. invaded in late 2001. The U.S. military has taken steps to prevent this, but the casualties continue.
That has left Afghans like Hajee Sharabudin of Khatabeh, a village in the eastern province of Paktia, with stories of shattering loss.
In the early morning hours of Feb. 12, it was quiet at Sharabudin's house. Earlier in the evening, there had been a party celebrating the birth of another grandson, and a few men stayed up to talk. Around 4 a.m., they heard a sound. Sharabudin says it was U.S. Special Forces.
"The Special Forces climbed our roof. One of my sons went out to see what happened. They shot him without asking anything," Sharabudin says.
Another son, hearing the shots, ran outside, Sharabudin says.
"He went out and told the forces, 'What is happening? Why are you shooting? We are government officials.' ... Then they killed my second son, too. They also killed three women ... They bring complete disaster and misery to our home. They left a big number of orphans for me. I am absolutely broken."
Two of the females killed in the raid were pregnant; the third was a teenager. One of the sons who died was a policeman; the other a district prosecutor.
First accounts of the incident by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force indicated that the U.S. Special Forces arrived after the family members had been killed by insurgents. At the time, a press release from ISAF described it as a "gruesome" find.
But over the past two months, after two investigations, a different story has unfolded about what happened that night, says U.S. Army Col. Wayne Shanks, an ISAF spokesman.
"There were some unfortunate casualties, and we have determined that, yes, we did kill civilians there," he says. "However, we want to figure out why that happened. What were the actions that were taken? What were the precautions that should have been taken there?"
Now there is yet another investigation to determine if U.S. Special Forces tampered with evidence at Sharabudin's home, as some local officials claim -- including digging bullets out of the victims' bodies.
"Now, I can't get really into specifics of it, but so far what we have learned in our initial investigation did not show that," says Shanks. "However, at this point in the game, everything is being relooked."
In the meantime, a top U.S. Special Forces commander visited Sharabudin, asking for forgiveness, offering him two sheep and roughly $30,000 in compensation.
Efforts To Limit Casualties
Last year, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, laid down stringent new rules of engagement in a bid to minimize civilian casualties. He reduced the number of airstrikes, which accounted for more than 60 percent of civilian deaths.
Rachel Reid with Human Rights Watch in Kabul says that has helped.
"We did see, in 2009, a slight reduction in the number of civilians being killed by U.S. and NATO forces by about 25 percent, which brought it back down to 2007 levels. But we're still talking about hundreds of civilians dying, nearly 600 last year," she says.
Reid says more needs to be done to limit the number of civilian casualties, particularly at roadside checkpoints and when Afghan vehicles don't slow down or stop when told.
Earlier this week, NATO troops opened fire on a vehicle in Khost province, killing four unarmed civilians, including three teenagers. Last week, a military convoy shot up a large passenger bus in the southern city of Kandahar, killing at least five civilians and wounding 18 others. That incident is still under investigation. ISAF and local officials say the bus was speeding, the convoy directed it to slow down, and when it didn't, troops strafed the bus with bullets.
"It's very hard for people to now believe that you could not recognize a bus full of people and shoot it," says Nader Nadery, with the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission. He says incidents like this help feed conspiracy theories that abound in Afghanistan.
"So if it happens once, it happens second, people can go away with these kind of justification," he says. "But if it happens so many times, then it's difficult for people to believe it was just a miscalculation."
Rising Concerns About Roadside Bombs
The bus shooting led to protests in Kandahar. Streets were blocked off, tires were burned, and hundreds of protesters chanted "Death to America."
The deaths came just as a major U.S.-led offensive is getting under way in Kandahar -- a major stronghold of the Taliban. There are concerns this type of incident could undermine public support for the mission. Already, Western and Afghan troops are conducting operations in the surrounding districts.
Reid, of Human Rights Watch, says there are fears that the push into Kandahar will create even more civilian casualties.
"When they move into areas, particularly residential areas as they are doing at the moment in Kandahar province, they put civilians at risk because they are like a magnet for those anti-government elements, who come in with their roadside bombs, with their suicide attacks," she says.
The roadside bombs -- known as IEDs, or improvised explosive devices -- are the weapons of choice for the Taliban and other Islamist insurgents. Bijan Farnoudi, with the International Committee of the Red Cross, says that already this year, the number of injuries from IEDs and the like has soared by nearly 40 percent in Kandahar and Marjah, where another U.S.-led offensive is under way.
Farnoudi says it appears to be a trend occurring throughout the country.
"There is more IEDs and improvised bombs and improvised mines being used today. ... And, secondly, the IEDs and the mines tend to be heavier in load. So the IED used today carries more explosive load than the IED used two to three years ago," he says.
At a busy orthopedic center in Kabul, one of six run by the International Committee of the Red Cross throughout Afghanistan, heavily veiled women wait patiently to receive or get fitted for prosthetics, usually to replace a leg.
In the next room, roughly the same number of men wait their turn. Every month, at least 40 new patients show up here. Eighty percent of the injuries are from IEDs laid by the Taliban.
Last year, the Taliban were blamed for killing more than 1,600 of their countrymen -- nearly three times the number blamed on U.S. and NATO troops.
And yet there is little said about the Taliban's culpability. Nadery says people do hold the Taliban responsible, but the reaction is different.
"They hold these forces ... the U.S. and the international forces and the Afghan forces, they hold them to a higher standard, they expect them more to try to minimize civilian casualty," he says.
And Afghans feel safe enough demonstrating against Western troops. They don't feel safe, says Nadery, when it comes to the Taliban, who intimidate, threaten and kill anyone who opposes them.
Shanks, the ISAF spokesman, says there's no question the Taliban kill a disproportionate number of civilians. But that only means the Western forces haven't been able to protect the people, he says, which after all, is the key element in the counterinsurgency strategy. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.