KABUL: In an unprecedented move, the US on Thursday condemned an airstrike by Afghan government forces against the Taliban in western Herat province, which reportedly killed around 45 people, including civilians.
US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said America would support a probe into Wednesday’s attack, which Afghan authorities claimed had targeted a gathering of Taliban commanders, and he called for an immediate start to peace talks.
Adraskan district chief, Ali Ahmad Faqiri, told reporters that 45 people had died and at least eight of them were civilians.
In a series of tweets on Thursday, Khalilzad said: “In Herat, photos and eyewitness accounts suggest many civilians including children are among the victims of an Afghan airstrike. We condemn the attack and support an investigation.”
The envoy emphasized the urgency of starting intra-Afghan negotiations between the Taliban and the government, talks which had been expected to take place soon after the historic peace agreement signed by the militants and the US in Doha on Feb. 29, which paved the way for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the war-torn country next year.
“The Afghan people want an immediate start of peace negotiations and a settlement that is in their best interest. More graves will not bring negotiations forward,” Khalilzad said.
Over recent years US officials, including Khalilzad, have condemned the Taliban for causing casualties among civilians, but they have never denounced attacks by the Afghan government.
Wednesday’s strike came amid increased violence in Afghanistan ahead of the delayed negotiations, with both the Taliban and the Afghan government accusing each other of not being genuine in expressing their willingness to start the talks aimed at ending decades of conflict and deciding on the country’s future political set-up.
In a statement, Qari Mohammed Yousuf Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Taliban, said the attack on Wednesday by Afghan security forces had hit a house where people had gathered to greet Khali Mohammed, a Taliban released from a government jail.
Afghan acting minister of defense, Asadullah Khalid, said that Taliban commanders had been the target of the strike and that the government would investigate.
Accusing the Taliban of stepping up attacks since the signing of the accord with the US, he added: “We will share evidence including footage with the media.”
In accordance with the deal, from which Kabul was sidelined, the Taliban have halted attacks on US-led troops, but not on Afghan government forces, as no such condition was stipulated in the agreement.
Hundreds of government forces personnel, Taliban and civilians have been killed in recent months. While the UN and human rights groups have blamed the Taliban for most civilian casualties, they have acknowledged that airstrikes by the Afghan government, which have caused fatalities among noncombatants, have also been on the rise.
“The Afghan Air Force has been responsible for an increasing number of disproportionate airstrikes in which they have shown too little regard for avoiding civilian casualties, and this (in Herat) appears (to be) another one,” Patricia Gossman, associate director for Human Rights Watch, told Arab News.
“The government also has a poor record of properly investigating such attacks to ensure they do not recur. In this case they should do so urgently and hold those responsible accountable.”
Analyst Shafiqullah Haqpal said the reported civilian deaths in Herat would further add to mistrust between the Taliban and the Afghan government and may further delay the commencement of peace talks.
“There has been an increase in the number of attacks by both sides in recent months and each such attack can cause more delay in the start of intra-Afghan dialogue. Optimism for an early start is decreasing,” he told Arab News.