September 10, 2008 / 12:31 PM / 11 years ago

INTERVIEW-Afghans won't tolerate more civilian deaths in raids

By Sanjeev Miglani

KABUL Sept 10 (Reuters) - Afghans are seething with anger over a spate of civilian deaths in air strikes mounted by U.S.-led coalition forces, a top Afghan defence official said on Wednesday, calling for greater involvement of the Afghan army in operations.

Major-General Zaher Azimi said there was no military justification for an air strike in western Herat last month in which the government says more than 90 people, most of them women and children, were killed, a figure backed by the United Nations.

"It is difficult for the Afghan people to tolerate any more. Civilian casualties happen in war, but they are now so much on the rise," said Azimi, a former mujahideen commander and now an adviser and spokesman at the Afghan defence ministry.

The U.S. military, which plans to reinvestigate the Aug. 22 bombing in Herat’s Shindand district, says the air strike was called after coalition and Afghan army forces came under intense fire during an operation against suspected Taliban militants in the area.

It said 30 to 35 militants were killed in the raid.

But Azimi said the operation was flawed from the beginning because it was launched on the basis of intelligence input that was not coordinated with the Afghan National Army.

"If they had coordinated with the Afghan troops it wouldn’t have ended up in an air strike," he said. "I mean, what justification is there to kill 100 people because 10 rounds were fired at you?"

He said coalition and Afghan troops could have surrounded the village and forced out the Taliban if they were there. "There wasn’t really any immediate need for bombardment."

Violence has mounted in Afghanistan in the past three years with a resurgent Taliban carrying out suicide bombings and ambushes, forcing the over-stretched Western coalition forces to rely more and more on air strikes.

Twice as many tonnes of bombs were dropped in 2007 than in 2006, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report this week, citing U.S. Air Force data. More people were killed by air strikes in 2007 than by U.S. or NATO ground fire.

This year as violence hit its highest level since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 with more than 2,500 people killed, there has been a surge in the use of air power. More bombs have been dropped in the months of June and July than in the whole of 2006.

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Azimi said given Afghanistan’s harsh and rugged terrain, the use of air power was inevitable in tackling a full-blown insurgency.

But even here if the Afghans were conducting the operations, the chances of inflicting civilian casualties would be less because they were more likely to know a particular area better than foreign forces.

"We know people by name in our country, and we know their homes. We have pilots who know the villages and can identify targets themselves so that we hit our enemies, not civilians."

Afghanistan’s fledgling air force has a fleet of five Soviet-era transport planes, and a few helicopters but no combat aircraft.

Unlike the Afghan army, the rebuilding of the air force, which lost all its 500 aircraft in the Soviet invasion and the civil war later on, has been slow.

"No army in the world can have successful operations unless it has an air force to give it logistics, transport and firepower support," he said. "But especially in the kind of environment we are in Afghanistan, we need a strong Afghan air force. (Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by David Fogarty)

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