President Hamid Karzai asserted Monday that up to 52 civilians had been killed by NATO rocket fire in southern Afghanistan, a controversy that erupted just as thousands of leaked military documents depicted a pervasive pattern of underreported civilian deaths and injuries in the course of the long conflict.
Karzai’s claim of civilian casualties last week in Helmand province was sharply disputed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force. Provincial authorities said the incident was still being investigated, and that neither the number of deaths nor culpability had been established.
But taken together, the leaked documents and the familiar scenario of conflicting claims emanating from a remote battle zone underscore that civilian casualties remain one of the most bitterly divisive issues between Western forces and Karzai’s government.
Afghan human rights activists vowed to investigate civilian casualty cases described in documents posted Sunday on the Internet by the watchdog group WikiLeaks.
Most of the documents, from 2004 through 2009, are reports from field-level commanders. Many offer detailed descriptions of lethal encounters between Western forces and Afghan civilians.
“We will look to see how much of the information about these incidents provided by the military at the time matches up with what is in the leaked documents,” said Nader Nadery of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, told reporters in London that he believed some of the documents, particularly those involving civilian deaths, could be used as evidence in war crimes cases. The group has said it will release more of the classified reports.
According to the British newspaper the Guardian, the military reports contain 144 entries describing civilian deaths, in incidents ranging from shootings at checkpoints to airstrikes. The Guardian, the New York Times and the German magazine Der Spiegel were given advance access to tens of thousands of documents and spent weeks analyzing them before they were published Sunday.
Some of those incidents were big enough to make headlines and raise questions at the time; others were wrenching episodes that went all but unnoticed. One report describes the shooting in March 2007 of a villager who ran away from a Western military convoy. It turned out he was deaf and did not hear orders to stop.
Most Afghans have no way to view the leaked military documents, but word of their existence stirred intense curiosity, especially among those who lost loved ones in the fighting. The field reports, with harrowing tragedies rendered in impersonal and abbreviated military jargon, are likely to spur fresh outrage.
The Afghan government said the documents underscored what it described as longtime Western inattentiveness.
“Over the years, we have raised the issue of civilian casualties and how harmful these can be to achieving our joint objective of defeating terrorism,” presidential spokesman Waheed Omar told reporters in Kabul, the capital, on Monday. “We have had a hard time trying to communicate this to our international partners.”
But Omar also pointed to improvements during the last year and a half. The proportion of civilians accidentally killed by Western troops, as opposed to those killed by insurgents, declined significantly during that period, even as overall deaths continued to rise.
The leaked military documents suggest that some civilian fatalities were deliberately covered up, but also reflect how difficult it can be to determine circumstances in the heat of battle. Isolated locations and the tradition of swift burials can add to the confusion.
The latest dispute is a case in point. An undetermined number of villagers were reported killed Friday in a remote part of Sangin district in Helmand province, which has been the scene of near-constant battles between Western troops and insurgents.
Provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said Monday that an investigating team had been sent to the village of Rigi, but had not yet returned. It was not yet known how many people were killed or who was responsible, he said.
Karzai’s office, however, issued a statement saying that reports by the National Directorate of Security intelligence agency indicated that a house had been hit by a rocket fired by Western troops, killing up to 52 civilians, including women and children. He and the Cabinet condemned the strike “in the strongest possible terms.”
Karzai has made civilian casualties one of the most high-profile issues of his presidency. He once wept publicly while decrying civilian deaths. But he also is capable of making political use of his complaints that NATO is careless in safeguarding civilian life. Often his most impassioned rhetoric on the subject coincides with Western pressure over government corruption -- an issue that also received considerable attention in the leaked documents.
The NATO force said a joint investigation by Afghan officials and the Western military had thus far revealed no evidence of civilians injured or killed in last week’s incident.
“Any speculation at this point of an alleged civilian casualty in Rigi village is completely unfounded,” said U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a senior spokesman.
Fierce fighting was taking place at the time, the military said, but about seven miles away. Afghan and Western forces were attacked with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, it said, and hit back with attack helicopters and precision-guided missiles. The statement said six insurgents were killed, including a Taliban commander.