Monday, January 19, 2009

HRW blasts US military

Human Rights Watch takes the US military to task over its recent report on the killing of numerous civilians in Azizabad in Herat province in August 2008. (Blog posts on the bombing are here, here, here, here, here and here.)

Note that HRW appears to catch the US military in a lie. While the military's report says that the head of the Haj ministry in Afghanistan said that massacre victims were buried one per grave, officials from that same ministry say the exact opposite.

Letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on US Airstrikes in Azizabad, Afghanistan

January 15, 2008

Robert M. Gates
Secretary of Defense
100 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301-1000

Re: Investigation into US Airstrikes in Azizabad, Shindand district, Afghanistan

Dear Secretary Gates,

We write to you concerning the October 1, 2008 Executive Summary of the investigation by USAF Brig. Gen. Michael W. Callan into civilian casualties resulting from the US and Afghan engagement in Azizabad in Afghanistan on August 21-22, 2008 (Callan Report Summary)...

[We are] deeply dismayed by the Callan investigation and ensuing Report Summary on the events in Azizabad... Instead of being an exemplary US investigation derived from a new operational mandate, the Callan Report Summary appears to be little more than a return to the discredited inquiries of recent years. It simply and summarily dismisses the methodology used in the investigations by the United Nations, the government of Afghanistan, and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC); rejects information provided by villagers by arbitrarily calling into question their motivations; effectively places responsibility for preventable civilian deaths on Taliban forces; and exonerates US forces of any wrongdoing...

[The Callahan Report Summary] suggests without presenting evidence that Taliban forces deliberately used civilians as “shields,” apparently to reach an unsubstantiated conclusion that the actions taken by US and Afghan forces were “in self defense, necessary and proportional”—and thus lawful under the laws of armed conflict...

The Callan Report Summary states that according to the “General Director of the Haj, in the GIRoA [Afghan government], all casualties in this incident would have been buried one body per grave”—an assumption affecting US calculation of civilian death tolls. However, representatives from the Ministry of Haj have told Human Rights Watch that this is not the case. Villagers and human rights investigators who visited the area consistently reported that there were multiple graves where more than one person had been buried; Human Rights Watch confirmed this in interviews with villagers and human rights officials involved in the investigations.

These reports were backed by officials in the Ministry of the Haj who were involved in the investigation and with Islamic scholars in Afghanistan who told Human Rights Watch that there is no prohibition in Islam on burying several bodies per grave, particularly when many people have been killed, and when there are body parts that must be buried.

The Callan Report Summary provided limited evidence for defining 22 of the deceased as “Anti Government Militia.” The AIHRC concluded that there were 13 men of fighting age who may have been involved in the firefight. Their investigators could not establish a link with insurgent groups. As the US investigation admits, several of the dead men were employed by the British company Armor Group, working as security guards for the US military in Shindand...

Only 15 weapons were confiscated during the US “site exploitation,” and of those, at least five were legally registered to the Armor Group contractors... the evidence provided thus far on the presence of Taliban forces is problematic...

In addition, had the US had intelligence from sufficient sources, they would have been aware that there was about to be a memorial ceremony in the village where the operation was taking place. The ceremony had drawn many civilians, including persons from outside the village. Reasonable precautions should have uncovered a large civilian presence in the village. It is, therefore, questionable that the close proximity of insurgent forces to civilians was “unknown” to US and Afghan forces; if it was unknown, then the quality of US intelligence was shockingly poor...

[C]onducting airstrikes over several hours that destroy or damage 12 to 14 houses in the middle of the night makes high civilian casualties almost inevitable.

There is admittedly no simple method for determining whether a particular attack would likely cause disproportionate civilian loss or should have been halted for being disproportionate. However, an attack designed to target a mid-level enemy commander and causing (at most) 22 insurgent deaths, but coming at the expense of high numbers of civilian deaths, raises serious proportionality concerns...

Protocol I also prohibits attacks in which the weapon used is likely to strike combatants and civilians without distinction (article 51(4)). Human Rights Watch is thus concerned to learn that the AC 130H gunship’s 105mm howitzer was used in Azizabad... Human Rights Watch believes that area-effect weapons such as howitzers and other heavy artillery should never be used against targets in populated villages. These weapons have indiscriminate effects when used in populated areas because their blast and fragmentation radius is so large it puts civilians as well as combatants at risk...

The weaknesses in the Callan Report Summary call into question the depth of the Defense Department’s commitment to institute reforms that would reduce civilian casualties...

Yours sincerely,

Brad Adams
Executive Director
Asia division

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