The Afghani Air Force conducted a targeted strike on a madrassa in Taliban territory in Northeast Afghanistan, in the Kunduz Province. Current news reports are circulating of over 50 killed and 150 wounded, though the reports have been particularly conflicting as time goes on — this has sparked international outrage, as many of the victims included children. The UN has expressed deep concern on what appears to be an attack that was initially reported as an enemy stronghold, and then turned out to be a religious school, or a madrassa — though those things are not always mutually exclusive in Afghanistan. Exactly how many of the casualties were civilians and how many were members of the Taliban is not yet known, though the Afghan government has conceded that civilians were killed.
Mohammad Radmanish, deputy spokesman for the defense ministry, said that 18 senior Taliban personnel perished in the strike, along with 17 other members of the Taliban. He would insist that the people treated on the ground had sustained injuries from bullets, not from an airstrike, and that he believes the Taliban to have fired on civilians to make the Afghani government appear culpable. The Taliban responded by insisting that the air strikes had mostly hit children.
UNAMA actively looking in to disturbing reports of serious harm to civilians yesterday from airstrike at #DashtiArchi, #Kunduz. Human Rights team on ground establishing facts. All parties reminded of obligations to protect civilians from impact of armed conflict. #Afghanistan pic.twitter.com/aRANBzOBzO
— UNAMA News (@UNAMAnews) April 3, 2018
This type of back and forth in Afghanistan is more common than most people hear about — some sides claiming high civilian deaths, while other sides say the stories are fabricated. Sometimes the apparent conflicting reports are apparent in the news, sometimes it is more difficult to tell. Whenever it comes to news regarding air or drone strikes in places like Afghanistan, I always take it with a grain of salt. Airstrikes and drone strikes are often particularly hot topics: they sometimes hit civilians, that’s a fact, and sometimes you can’t even really argue a legitimate tactical reasoning behind it — a fatal mistake, for which people ought to be held accountable.
But there are also many, many times when I’ve seen “reports on the ground” of a drone strike or airstrike that never even happened. I’ve seen reports of a dozen civilian casualties, backed up by (Taliban threatened) townspeople claiming a drone hit them, when in reality is was a firefight on the ground with one or even zero civilian casualties. Anyone in the village who has a different story to tell quickly winds up becoming one of the additional casualties, convenient for the Taliban. It’s a difficult situation, since even a self-respecting journalist could talk to multiple, first-hand sources on the ground and get the same story, and so there is no way they could know any better. After all, the only evidence of “deaths” are often just the word of the people in the town.
What do I think of this particular story? It’s hard to tell. The UN looks like it is going to conduct an investigation, and though I am skeptical of any action the UN claims to be doing, they are often quite good at gathering information. Most of the instances I have seen, where the Taliban directs the news to fit their agenda, could have been cleared up with a fairly cursory investigation — though those places are usually too dangerous for prying, skeptical minds from the outside that might sing a different tune than the Taliban wants. However, the UN has more power than a couple of journalists, especially if the Taliban are trying to convince everyone that they are the victim here. It sounds as if the crux of the investigation depends on whether or not the wounds were in fact, inflicted by guns or from an airstrike. If it was actually an airstrike that targeted a madrassa known for housing dozens upon dozens of children, and the Afghan authorities chose to hit the school instead of waiting for their targets to pop up elsewhere, then they will have to answer for that — though I would be skeptical that the UN would actually do anything about it.
Regardless, it seems likely to me that this airstrike was what everyone says it is — I just always retain some level of skepticism in these matters until the investigation is complete.
Featured Image Courtesy of the Associated Press.