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Analysis: Hearts, Minds, and Afghan Body Counts

Council on Foreign Relations

May 10, 2007
Prepared by: Lionel Beehner

The Western battle for Afghans’ hearts and minds may be suffering from large-scale collateral damage. Scores of civilians have been killed by coalition forces (Economist.com) in recent months, resulting in growing anti-Americanism among Afghans. Most recently a May 9 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air strike in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, killed at least twenty-one noncombatants, among them women and children (BBC). Previously in April, U.S. air strikes left at least fifty-seven Afghans killed in Shindand district. And in March, a convoy of U.S. Marines opened fire near the city of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, killing nineteen civilians. After the Jalalabad incident, the U.S. military issued an unusual apology for what it called a “terrible, terrible mistake” and promised a complete investigation.

These attacks have prompted a number of anti-U.S. protests, while Afghan newspapers have published blistering editorials accusing NATO and the United States of “war crimes.” Lawmakers are calling for more oversight. Even President Hamid Karzai condemned the attacks and said his patience with foreign forces was “wearing thin.”

The dramatic rise in civilian casualties reflects the fact that the Taliban are hiding out among civilian populations in greater numbers. More civilians are also dying in suicide bombings, according to an April 2007 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. “As in Iraq, suicide bombers in Afghanistan have driven a wedge between ordinary people and the government,” writes Newsweek. The HRW study finds that roughly seven hundred Afghan civilians died at the hands of the Taliban and other groups last year, while about 230 innocents were killed—unintentionally—by U.S. or coalition forces. So far in 2007, 238 civilians have been killed by the fighting, over a hundred of them the result of U.S. or NATO attacks, according to the Associated Press.

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Copyright 2007 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on GlobalSecurity.org with specific permission from the cfr.org. Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to cfr.org.

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