KABUL, Afghanistan – A suicide bombing at a wedding, a deadly airstrike on a village, grenades in a mosque – hundreds of Afghan civilians are dying violently this summer, while the Taliban and the NATO coalition wage verbal warfare.
A U.N. report says 1,145 civilians were killed and 1,954 others injured during the first half of the year, 80 percent of them by militants.
But like other aspects of this decade-long war, facts are often obscured by perception and propaganda.
That has left both sides locked in a battle of words, crafted to win the Afghan public’s support.
The foreign forces and Taliban fighters have been issuing dueling statements ever since the conflict began more than a decade ago. Civilian casualties are the latest focus of the information war.
In a message ahead of Eid al-Fitr, the feast that marks the end of Ramadan this weekend, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar instructed his fighters once again to avoid killing or wounding Afghan civilians.
“Employ tactics that do not cause harm to the life and property of the common countrymen,” the one-eyed chieftain of the insurgency said in an eight-page message released to news organizations.
It came days after at least 50 people were killed in bombings and gun battles that erupted on either end of the country in the deadliest day of violence for civilians this year. The Taliban has not yet claimed responsibility for carrying out the attacks Tuesday in Kunduz and Nimroz provinces, but the coalition wasted no time in hanging the blame on Omar’s shoulders.
“Omar once again writes that his thugs should `pay close attention to the protection of life, property and honor ... employ tactics that do not cause harm to life and property of the common countrymen,”’ U.S. Gen. John Allen, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said Friday in his written response to Omar’s message.
“Yet, as we saw in Nimroz and Kunduz provinces just days ago, Omar sent his assassins to slaughter dozens of innocent Afghan men, women and children.”
“Either Omar is lying, or his henchmen are not listening to him.”
The U.N. figures represented a 15 percent decrease in overall deaths and injuries from the previous year, but U.N. officials cautioned that civilian casualties were spiking as summer fighting continues.
Those attributed to foreign and Afghan forces declined as both groups strengthened policies to protect civilians, the U.N. said – 165 civilians killed in the first half of the year, down 35 percent from 255 in 2011. The majority – 127 – came from airstrikes, though that was also a reduction from the previous year.
Beyond statistics, however, the conflict is as much a “war of perceptions” as it is a fight on the battlefield, said Thomas Ruttig, who co-directs the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul.
“The Taliban are attacking what they consider legitimate targets,” such as the Afghan police and army, foreign troops as well as Afghan government officials and their supporters, he said. “When they are attacking what they say are legitimate targets, they often do not care about bystanders.”
Insurgents aren’t bothered by civilian casualties, even during Ramadan, said Khalid Pashtun, a member of parliament from Kandahar province, the spiritual birthplace of the insurgency.
Many insurgents actually consider Ramadan appropriate because they believe any foe they kill will go to hell while a civilian fatality will go to heaven, he said. “I’ve heard them say many times that the civilians who get killed will go to heaven – that this is good,” he said.
The Taliban say that international soldiers’ mere presence in Afghan cities and towns puts citizens at risk. The insurgents denounce coalition aerial attacks that have inadvertently killed civilians. And they condemn international forces for razing villages in the south – areas the coalition claims were impossible to otherwise clear because they were so booby-trapped with bombs.
The Taliban exploited a rapid-fire succession of coalition setbacks earlier this year to further their information war:
–In January, a video purportedly showing American Marines laughing and urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters surfaced on the Web.
–In February, Muslim holy books were burned at a U.S. base, sparking deadly riots across the nation.
–In March, a U.S. soldier allegedly went on a shooting rampage in two villages in Kandahar province, killing nine children, four men and three women and burning some of their bodies.
–In June, Allen flew to Logar province to personally apologize for the deaths of 18 women, children and village elders killed in an airstrike during a pre-dawn raid to capture a Taliban operative.
“Your troops mercilessly martyr women and children in our country, destroy villages and houses, desecrate our religious sanctities, vilify our national honors and culture, set fire to our houses and green orchards or bulldoze them until they become leveled with the ground,” Omar’s statement said.
Stepping up its war of words with the Taliban, the coalition has issued a dozen or more statements in recent weeks accusing the Taliban of civilian carnage.
After a suicide bomber blew himself up last month at a wedding in Samangan province in northern Afghanistan, killing 23 people including an Afghan lawmaker who was the father of the bride, Allen said: “Once again the Taliban have murdered Afghans in cold blood with complete disregard for innocent life or to the sanctity of a wedding. Their depravity clearly knows no bounds.”
In June, after Taliban gunmen stormed a lakeside hotel near Kabul, leaving 18 dead, Allen said: “There is no doubt that innocent Afghan civilians were the intended targets of this unspeakably brutal attack,” Allen said.
Earlier this month, a bomb exploded in a mosque in eastern Nangarhar, injuring 21 people including the mullah who was addressing the worshippers. The explosion, which shattered windows, doors and the roof of the mosque, occurred near where the mullah was standing and most of the other people injured were elders in the front rows.
Allen condemned what he said was a “senseless act of terror against Afghans who were simply trying to practice their faith” during Ramadan.
Mohammad Nahim Lalai Hamidzai, another legislator from Kandahar, said the Taliban consists of several factions, some of which care more about civilian casualties than others, he said. The Haqqani network, which is affiliated with al-Qaida, is aligned with the Taliban, yet often operate independently.
“The ordinary Taliban don’t want to kill civilians – they are fighting an emotional battle against the foreigners,” he said. “When civilians get killed everybody blames the Taliban, but we have a network of insurgents and nobody knows for sure who is doing which killings.”
Arturo Munoz, an Afghan expert at the RAND Corporation, said the key issue is whether Afghans accept and are swayed by the coalition’s condemnations of civilian deaths caused by militant attacks.
“It does seem that the Afghan people are reacting negatively to the terrorist tactics used by the Taliban and the Haqqani network, which undeniably kill and maim far more civilians than U.S. or coalition operations,” Munoz said.
But he said the coalition’s attempt to highlight civilian casualties caused by militants has been hampered by incidents like the Quran burnings, which sparked more public outrage across Afghanistan than the shooting rampage in Kandahar province.
“Attacks on people can be seen as a normal part of war, but an attack on Islam is not normal and is not excusable,” Munoz said, adding that the U.S. was right to apologize and taking steps to prevent future desecration of Muslim holy texts. “Nonetheless, the legitimacy of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was damaged.”
Associated Press Writer Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.