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U.N. Report: Apache Helicopters to Blame for Afghan Civilian Deaths

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Despite recent statements from top Obama administration civilians and military brass that progress is being made in Afghanistan, the United Nations reported Thursday that “civilians experienced a downward spiral in protection” in the first six months of this year, and that the war “brought increasingly grim impacts and a bleak outlook for Afghan civilians.”

  • The number of documented civilians killed during the first six months of 2011 stood at 1,462, up 15 percent compared to the same time period last year, according to the U.N. report.
  • The U.N. found that 80 percent of all civilian deaths were from attacks by anti-government elements, a 28 percent increase over last year, many by IEDs, suicide bombers, and targeted assassinations.
  • The U.S. military, Afghan security forces, and other coalition members were responsible for 14 percent of the civilian deaths, a decrease of 9 percent from last year. Six percent of the civilian deaths were unattributed.

U.N. officials believe the uptick in insurgent attacks is aimed at undercutting the security transition — slated for later this month — from U.S. to Afghan forces in seven cities and provinces throughout the country.

The insurgents are trying to “challenge the whole transition process,” according to Georgette Gagnon, the director of human rights at the U.N. Mission in Afghanistan. Gagnon told the NewsHour this week that anti-government insurgents were “trying to show the Afghans can’t manage security on their own.”

She added that “combined with efforts to undermine peace and reconciliation efforts, this rising violence and bloodshed” has reached unprecedented levels.

According to the U.N., “air strikes remained the leading cause of Afghan civilian deaths,” in terms of those caused by the U.S. and coalition partners, with 79 civilians killed so far this year, a 14 percent rise over to the same time period last year. “Apache helicopters are responsible for the majority of civilian deaths from air strikes,” the report noted.

In all of 2009, 25 civilians were killed by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) helicopter strikes; last year, 56 civilians were killed by ISAF helicopter strikes. The U.N. found that bystanders are becoming casualties at a much higher rate this year. The report says that in the first six months of 2011, at least 44 civilians were killed by Apache helicopters.

Meanwhile, civilian casualties from fixed-wing aircraft “decreased over the last three years, even though the number” of air strikes has increased.

The U.N. found that bystanders are becoming casualties at a much higher rate this year. The report says that in the first six months of 2011, at least 44 civilians were killed by Apache helicopters.

The report cited a number of examples in which civilians were accidentally killed by Apache helicopters.

In one instance in March in Kunar province, “an Apache helicopter fired a Hellfire missile and canon rounds at two children, killing both. The boys had been irrigating their farm when the Apache mistook them for planting IEDs.”

In another March case in the same province, “an Apache helicopter strike targeting anti-government elements killed nine children and injured one. The children were collecting firewood when they were killed,” the report states. In another incident that took place in Helmand province in February, “one child and one adult were killed when an Apache fired a Hellfire missile, hitting their home.”

The U.N. noted that it was not clear “whether the increase in civilian casualties from helicopters is due to an increase in the number of helicopter strikes or due to problems in tactics, techniques, and procedures,” and “that it is possible an increase in helicopter missions led to an increase in civilian deaths.” But it noted that civilian causalities from fixed wing attack aircraft had decreased — even though they dropped 50 percent more bombs than last year.

“ISAF regrets the loss of any innocent civilians in aerial strikes, and is working hard at all levels to limit the use of aerial attacks,” Lt. Commander Colete Murphy, an ISAF spokeswoman, told the NewsHour in an e-mailed response to questions.

However, ISAF “cannot say exactly why” the number of civilians killed by Apaches was rising while those from fixed-wing aircraft were decreasing, she said. “There are significantly more helicopters in Afghanistan than there was in the earlier part of last year, with 33,000 more U.S. forces and total ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) forces of about 300,000. Our operation tempo is also up fairly significantly from the early part of 2010,” Murphy said.

Retired Air Force Col. Gary Crowder points to the manner in which Army helicopters operate as a factor in the different casualty numbers.

“Helicopters, particularly in the Army, do not face the same restrictions or scrutiny as fixed-wing air,” said Crowder, who commanded the Air Operations Center and was responsible for air operations in Afghanistan, as well as Iraq and the Gulf, between 2006 to 2008. In an email, he said Army Apache aircraft “do not follow the same doctrinal guidance as all other U.S. attack aviation,” and that “those differences increase the likelihood of errors on the battlefield.”

With fixed-wing aircraft, there is a “formal hand-off from a ground commander to an airman” in which very precise description and locations of targets are provided to the aircraft. The Army has “deliberately resisted” using the same template for conveying information to the Apaches, he said.

Given the mounting casualties, “there is sufficient anecdotal evidence to examine these differences and assess if they are potentially causal,” Crowder asserted.

At the same time, he stressed that the number of civilian causalities caused by the coalition was extremely low given the number of U.S. and coalition forces operating in Afghanistan.

According to Retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, the problem is that the Apache helicopters are “too far away to know with absolute certainty what they are shooting at in most cases.” He added that he doesn’t know how that can be fixed “other than to ask the pilot to fly closer to the enemy.” But he said this has been “a long-term problem that has been going on for 20 years.”

But Macgregor said the Army had good reasons to not follow the Air Forces procedures for attacking targets on the ground.

“You want that Apache to be responsive to the ground force in ways that other forms of air power are not. And Apache can be summoned to a location, he’s a soldier, works with in the framework of the Army, he knows the people on the ground in many cases. And as a result there is a comfort zone with employing the Apache aircraft in terms of responsiveness you don’t get with the Air Force. Even on a good day you are lucky to get the (fixed wing) aircraft to show up with in 10-15-20 minutes of your initial call depending on where you are in Afghanistan,” he said.

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