On Monday, up to 100 Afghans lost their lives in a US air strike on Bala Baluk near the Iranian border in Afghanistan. According to the LA Times, “…dozens of people were killed as they sought shelter in a compound in the village of Gerani during coalition airstrikes and that villagers were slowly digging bodies out by hand, with only the most rudimentary of tools at their disposal.” The raid, which is currently under investigation by the Pentagon, could prove to have one of the highest known civilian death tolls since fighting in Afghanistan began in 2001.
Amidst civilian death tolls and a growing humanitarian crisis, President Obama plans to meet with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai later this week in Washington to discuss his military strategies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Obama has asked Congress for $83.4 billion in supplemental funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In announcing his new plan for Afghanistan, President Obama called for a “dramatic increase” in the civilian effort, and has acknowledged that military force alone cannot stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet the continued drone strikes and the fact that the supplemental includes ten times as much money for military as civilian tools like aid reflect a continued reliance on an overwhelmingly military approach.
US drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan are a grave concern to civilians. These unmanned aircraft are used by the American military and CIA to spy and to fire on military targets. However, they also undermine US security in the region by killing innocent civilians and displacing a substantial number of survivors, actions that fuel anti-American sentiments. In Pakistan, continued unpopular drone strikes may have the unfortunate result of undermining the civilian Pakistani government’s authority and legitimacy as it works to address the Taliban. David Kilcullen, the top advisor to the US Army’s Afghanistan chief, cautioned:
more “highly unpopular” drone strikes will lead to a “loss of Pakistani government control over its own population… We need to call off the drones,” he concluded.
In the past, the US has disputed civilian deaths such as these, compounding the outrage of the Afghan people. Because of this, a member of the local provincial council asked civilians to take photos and video of the aftermath of Monday’s Bala Baluk airstrike as proof. The LA Times reports:
In some previous disputes over civilian deaths, the emergence of cellphone videos of the dead has persuaded authorities to reexamine claims that were initially dismissed. In the best-known recent case, villagers — backed by the Afghan government, human rights groups and the United Nations — said that as many as 90 people, mainly women and children, were killed last summer in U.S. airstrikes in the village of Azizabad in Herat province.
The U.S. military said at first that nearly all of those killed in Azizabad were insurgents, but acknowledged after a high-level inquiry and a public outcry that 33 of the dead were civilians.
Drone raids have also left a decisive mark on the Pakistani landscape. To date, 546,000 Pakistanis have registered as internally displaced citizens, many of whom now live in tented camps. Disturbingly, estimates suggest that as many as 1 million have fled their homes as a result of the fighting. Not surprisingly, this has generated distrust and anger among the Pakistani people. The LA Times has recorded the voices of some of these citizens:
“These drones are very bad,” said Ashraf Bhatti, an apparel merchant, drinking tea in his shop with several friends in the Anjuman bazaar in Lahore. “What would America think if someone started shooting rockets and killing people in their land?”
Though the CIA has apparently gotten better at hitting its targets without killing as many innocent civilians, the anger and resentment remain so great, some here argue, that America loses far more in goodwill than it gains in assassinated militants.
“It just hits everyday people like us,” said Mohammed Yasin, a retired shopkeeper, wearing a white beard and traditional shalwar kameez outfit.
According to the Guardian:
A girl named Shafiqa wounded in the fighting told Associated Press Television News: “We were at home when the bombing started. Seven members of my family were killed.”
Everyday people are likely to be hit even harder in the coming months. As Obama’s additional 21,000 troops begin arriving in Afghanistan, civilian deaths are expected to increase as well. Air strikes are often called in to support US forces engaged in battles on the ground.
You can help ensure that Congress funds a new strategy in Afghanistan that puts the emphasis on civilian and non-military tools by writing to your member of Congress and asking that they help shift funding in the supplemental to reflect these priorities. Take action by clicking here.