Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 October 2020

UN report: US airstrikes on Afghan 'drug facility' killed 39 civilians

Investigators working to verify 'credible reports' of at least 37 additional casualties as US military disputes findings

Smoke rises from US air strikes on ISIS positions in eastern Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan in 2018. AFP
Smoke rises from US air strikes on ISIS positions in eastern Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan in 2018. AFP

American air strikes on alleged drug facilities in Afghanistan earlier this year killed 39 civilians, including 14 children, a United Nations report on Wednesday found.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said it had "verified 39 civilian casualties ... due to the 5 May air strikes".

UN investigators also said they are working to verify “credible reports” of at least 37 additional casualties who were mostly women and children.

"UNAMA has assessed that the personnel working inside the drug production facilities were not performing combat functions. They were therefore entitled to protection from attack, and could only have lost this protection if, and for such time, as they had been directly participating in hostilities," the report said.

However, US Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) immediately disputed the UNAMA findings and questioned the agency's methodology.

USFOR-A insisted its "precision" strikes had accurately targeted meth labs.

"In addition to imagery collection during the precision strikes, USFOR-A conducted exhaustive assessments of the facilities and surrounding areas after the strikes," the command said.

"Combined assessments determined the strikes did not cause deaths or injuries to non-combatants."

The US military in 2017 and early 2018 carried out several strikes against Taliban opium processing plants, but the efforts had little impact on the insurgents' revenue stream and were unpopular among Afghan farmers, many of whom rely on the poppy crop.

The military then switched its focus to the more lucrative meth industry.

"USFOR-A is fighting in a complex environment against those who intentionally kill and hide behind civilians, as well as use dishonest claims of non-combatant casualties as propaganda weapons," the command said.

"USFOR–A took extraordinary measures to avoid the deaths or injuries of non-combatants."

The prevention of civilian casualties is a priority, but when they happen, they are due to the Taliban sheltering among civilians, said Rohullah Ahmadzai, a spokesman for the Afghan defence ministry. Mr Ahmadzai said he was not speaking about this specific situation.

Updated: October 9, 2019 04:43 PM

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