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Investigation Clears U.S. Troops in Death of 33 Afghan Civilians

On Thursday, the U.S. military published a report on the death of 33 Afghan civilians, and wounding of 27 others, during a joint U.S. and Afghan special forces raid against the Taliban in November.

“The investigation concluded that U.S. forces acted in self-defense, in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict, and in accordance with all applicable regulations and policy,” the military said in a statement quoted by Reuters.

“It has been determined that no further action will be taken because U.S. forces acted in self-defense and followed all applicable law and policy,” the statement said.

The operation was intended to drive Taliban forces from the area around Kunduz, which they had overrun in October 2015, and partially occupied the year before that. Specifically, two senior Taliban commanders were targeted in village of Buz-e-Kandahari. (They were indeed killed during the raid, along with an estimated 26 Taliban fighters.)

The Wall Street Journal reports U.S. and Afghan forces were “led into a trap by the Taliban and ambushed on a dead-end street.” The Taliban opened fire from within civilian structures, inflicting several casualties and forcing the American and Afghan troops to call for air support. Two U.S. soldiers were killed and four wounded during the battle, while the Afghans lost three commandos and had 11 wounded.

According to the investigation, the responding aircraft appropriately used “the minimum amount of force required to neutralize the various threats from the civilian buildings.”

The report said no civilians were identified by U.S. special forces during the firefight, the dead and wounded civilians were effectively serving as human shields for the Taliban, and some of the casualties resulted from a Taliban ammo dump exploding.

The Associated Press notes that after the battle was over, local residents “carried over a dozen corpses of the dead, including children and family members of the Taliban fighters, toward a local governor’s office in a show of rage.”

“Regardless of the circumstances, I deeply regret the loss of innocent lives. On this occasion the Taliban chose to hide amongst civilians and then attacked Afghan and U.S. forces,” said General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. “I wish to assure President Ghani and the people of Afghanistan that we will take all possible measures to protect Afghan civilians. We will continue to assist the Afghan security forces in their efforts to defend their country.”

The Associated Press notes that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani criticized the Taliban for using civilians as shields shortly after the raid in November.

The Wall Street Journal offers some contextual information that doesn’t square easily with departing President Barack Obama’s self-congratulatory rhetoric about pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan:

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan increased in 2016, with more than 5,000 deaths recorded in the first half of the year, according to the United Nations. Data for the remainder of the year hasn’t been released.

The U.S. Air Force dramatically increased the number of airstrikes it carried out in Afghanistan in 2016, data released by the military shows, a further sign of growing U.S. involvement in the country’s war following the withdrawal of most coalition troops two years ago.

Just about every media report on the outcome of this military investigation mentions the controversial U.S. airstrike in the Kunduz region from October 2015, which killed 42 at a Doctors Without Borders hospital, and led to disciplinary actions against a two-star U.S. general and 15 other military personnel.

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