A week or so ago, we were hearing a lot about how decisive the current surge over Marja in Afghanistan would be. Of course, we were hearing all sorts of things – including a lot of happy talk about how well things were going. This week we learn that the fight is not so easy with US forces still facing “strong resistance” even though the US/NATO/Afghan force is 15,000+ while the reported “taliban” presence before the attack was estimated at 400. US officers are now saying that the military component of the campaign will take at least a month. They have also told the Guardian that Marja is just a “confidence building” action leading to the new “decisive” battle which they are beginning to plan for Kandahar.
Of course, for many local residents of Marja, the battle is decisive indeed. While US forces have only reported 12 civilian casualties, multiple sources report the total is now over 20:
Harun, who spoke to IWPR in the hospital in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, … said the incident began when the Taleban opened fire at the western forces from a location 100 metres away from their house. He said that his brothers were shot at and wounded as they ran from the house because they were afraid it would be shelled.
“My wounded brother Fazel Omar got married six months ago. When he was wounded, his wife came out of the house and ran towards her husband, but [they] shot at her from their tank and [killed] her,” he said.
He added angrily, “That moment was very difficult for me because I could not go out of the house; I could not take my wounded brothers to the hospital and could not bring my dead sister-in-law’s body home.”
In a second incident in Qari Sada village, a rocket reportedly fired by coalition forces hit a house. Relatives traveled to Bost Hospital in Lashkar Gah to accompany the bodies of two young women.
Most were too grief–stricken to speak to the media but Gula Jan told IWPR, “My two little sisters were martyred by the foreigners’ rocket and I will not reconcile with the infidels until I can avenge my sisters.”
There were reports of a fourth civilian fatality in Karwa Square. A driver living there is said to have been killed by fire from foreign forces when he left his home to buy food.
Ahmad, his son said, “The body of my father was left inside our home for two days because the foreigners did not let us out to bury the body in the cemetery. We were scared of being killed. They are cruel and the infidels have no sympathy for us.”
Radio Free Europe provides this account from a Maja farmer who fled before the fighting began:
“The civilians are trapped because although they had planned to leave after the fighting started in cars or anything they could find, all the roads are mined now and they cannot leave their homes,” said Rahman. “Their food supplies are running out and they face thirst and hunger. People are slaughtering and eating up their cattle. All the shops are closed even as most people stayed behind. Less than 10 percent of the residents left. We have information that civilians have also suffered deaths and injuries and they cannot bury their dead or help their wounded.”
In all the hype pre-battle, very little attention seems to have been paid to the effects on the local residents:
”We are seriously worried about the safety of civilians, especially in the Marja area,” Ajmal Samadi, the head of the independent group Afghan Rights Monitor, said.
”People who are ill cannot get to hospitals, and others cannot bring them medicines. They cannot get food, or even go outside to look after their farms.”
He said that food prices were rising and people with medical needs – from war wounds to pregnancy – were largely unable to get treatment…
Norine MacDonald, the president of the International Council for Security and Development, which has an office in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, said planners had paid little regard to civilian well-being.
”The forward planning we heard so much about did not include ensuring that the local population would be able to leave and live elsewhere in decent conditions, with access to food and medical care,” she said.
More than 2800 families – averaging about five members each – had been displaced before and during the fighting, said Abdul Rahman Hutaki, the head of the Human Rights and Environment Organisation, an independent Afghan group.
Back in Marja, those left behind cannot even get clear information on conditions around them:
One resident of Marja district, Zaher Jan, said on the phone, “They governor announces on the radio that bombardments will not take place, but [they are] going on as we speak. If these bombardments are not stopped, there will be many civilian casualties.”
Civilian casualties are not just an issue in the Marja offensive. A US airstrike this week also killed 7 Afghan policemen during a separate operation in Kunduz. We’ve announced we’re investigating but Afghan officials are reminding US forces that the Rules of Engagement call for coordination with Afghan forces.
Meanwhile in post-“surge” Iraq, there’s more trouble brewing. Steve Hynd over at Newshoggers shares my opinion that Gen Odierno, who has no desire to leave Iraq, is once again stirring the pot. With Chalabi overseeing the election and Odierno continuing to insert himself into the process, hopes for a fair election and end to US occupation there seem far away indeed.