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2010-02-16

Civilian Casualties Mount During US Offensive in Afghanistan

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In Afghanistan, thousands of US and NATO forces have entered the fourth day of a major offensive in Marjah in southern Helmand province. At least nineteen civilians have been killed so far, including six children who died when a missile struck their house on the outskirts of the city. Meanwhile, the Italian NGO Emergency says that dozens of seriously injured civilians are being prevented from reaching hospitals in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, due to military blockades. We speak to Wall Street Journal reporter Anand Gopal in Afghanistan. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Afghanistan, thousands of US and NATO forces have entered the fourth day of a major offensive in southern Helmand province. The assault, which is billed as an attempt to remove the Taliban from the city of Marjah, is one of the largest military offensives of the eight-year war. At least nineteen civilians have been killed so far, including six children who died when a missile struck their house on the outskirts of the city.

Meanwhile, the Italian NGO Emergency says dozens of seriously injured civilians are being prevented from reaching hospitals in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, due to military blockades. Emergency said six victims died because their evacuation was hindered and denounced what it called "severe war crimes" by Allied forces.

While US and NATO troops were reportedly targeted with heavy gunfire, sniper fire and improvised explosive devices today, the military claims most of Marjah is under their control. Many members of the Taliban are believed to have fled into Pakistan after the US warned the attack on Marjah was imminent. Many residents have also fled to nearby towns. A spokesman for the governor of Helmand said nearly a thousand displaced families had arrived in Lashkar Gah.

We go now to Afghanistan to speak with Wall Street Journal reporter Anand Gopal. He joins us on the line from Kabul.

Anand, welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us what’s happening. What do you understand has happened in Marjah?

ANAND GOPAL: Well, US forces are pushing very slowly closer to the town center of Marjah. Taking the town center would be essentially a symbolic victory of the offensive, because that’s where most of the population lives. And so, they’ve been moving very slowly and encountering increasing resistance as they get to the center. But they have taken most of the areas in which they’ve gone through.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about this charge of the Italian medical aid group Emergency, who said that residents who were trying to leave were stopped by blockades, by US-NATO forces, and those — some of those that died died as a result of not being able to get out?

ANAND GOPAL: Yeah, we think that these people that the NGO is referring to were one of the twelve people that were killed in a rocket attack a couple of days ago. This was an errant rocket that hit a house, killing everybody inside, including a number of children. And then, many locals in the area, both in Marjah and in other parts of the province, have complained that the military forces haven’t let them to move around. Military says that’s because insurgents are leaving the area and fleeing to Pakistan, so they’ve put an almost complete halt on a lot of the movement there.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the response around Afghanistan in places like where you are right now, in Kabul, to this assault on Marjah?

ANAND GOPAL: Well, you know, it’s interesting, because Marjah isn’t a particularly strategic place or even a place that holds any really strategic value. It’s a very tiny town in the Helmand province. The official estimate is around 80,000, but I think a lot of Afghans and I also think that’s a huge overestimate. And so, it’s more seen as a show of force by the coalition forces, something they can offer their home audiences of how they’ve gone into a village and retaken some Taliban. But beyond that, nothing will really change on the ground, regardless of what happens in Marjah. And that’s sort of what’s informing the reaction around the country, where people are seeing this more as business as usual and not of, you know, being [inaudible] to the war.

AMY GOODMAN: Anand Gopal, the latest news on the Taliban leader who the US and NATO forces say has been captured, though the Taliban are refusing to admit this, the top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, seized in Karachi, Pakistan, and his significance?

ANAND GOPAL: Well, Mullah Baradar, he’s the day-to-day leader of the Taliban. Mullah Omar, who’s the supreme leader, is in hiding and has very little contact with the rest of the movement. So Mullah Baradar is the person who’s actually in charge of the day-to-day activities of the movement. So, if it’s true that he actually has been captured, then it’s pretty significant a development. He would be the highest-ranking Taliban member ever captured by US or Pakistani forces.

And he’s somebody who had a lot of influence over the movement, but he’s also somebody who is seen, by some circles, as one of the more moderate elements of the Taliban. He is behind a Taliban rule book, for example, that had come out a couple years ago, which asked Taliban fighters to try to limit civilian casualties from happening. So it’s an interesting question whether his capture could actually help coalition forces’ efforts or in fact do the opposite and actually pave the way for an even more extreme leader to come and take his place.

AMY GOODMAN: And the latest news that we’re getting of the rocket attack on the house, that General McChrystal said, well, he had made a mistake, the military made a mistake and hit the wrong house, that killed, it’s believed, half a dozen children and other civilians. The latest news we have here is that General McChrystal has said that he’s apologized to Hamid Karzai, and they have said that they will stop the rocket strikes. What do you understand about the killings and this latest edict from above, the stopping of the rockets?

ANAND GOPAL: The rocket strike, in this case, were from a particular missile system that the US forces have there in the region, so they’re halting strikes from that missile system. And civilian casualties, of course, is a very sensitive issue. And so, General McChrystal and the rest of the leadership, military leadership, here were very sensitive to any sort of sense from the Afghans that civilians are being killed in the operation, and so they were very quick to apologize in this case. And the President Karzai actually put out — very quickly put out a statement denouncing the attack.

But the difficult thing in understanding what’s happening there is that we know at least twelve people were killed, but it’s very difficult for reporters to get to Marjah. Almost all the reporters who are there are the embedded reporters, so they’re only seeing one side of the story. And we won’t know for some time yet if these are the only cases or if there are many more.

AMY GOODMAN: Anand Gopal, I want to thank you for being with us. Anand Gopal is a Wall Street Journal reporter based in Afghanistan, speaking to us from Kabul.

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