Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Disputed Casualties in Kushk: The cost of blurring lines between fighters and civilians

S Reza Kazemi 9 min

The government continues to deny reports about the killing of at least five civilians in one or several airstrikes by Afghan or NATO forces in Kushk district in the north of Herat province on 17 February 2020. The following day, a group of Kushk residents staged a protest in front of the governor’s compound in Herat city, bringing with them barely-recognisable dead bodies. Despite multiple reports that show civilians also lost their lives in the airstrike, the government insists the attack killed what it calls a prominent local Taleban commander and some of his men. AAN researcher Reza Kazemi, who observed part of the demonstration, pieces together existing data about a case that is yet another indication of a practical lack of distinction between fighters and civilians in a violent conflict that, according to the UN’s latest annual 2019 reporting, has caused over 10,000 civilian deaths and injured for the sixth year in a row.

Kushk residents protest in front of the governor's compound in Herat city, 18 February 2020. Photo: Pedram Qazizadeh.

What happened?

There are contradictory accounts of the air attack that took place in the north of Herat province on 17 February 2020 and its outcome. Jilani Farhad, spokesman of Herat governor, told the media that an airstrike by Afghan and NATO forces killed “Mullah Ahmad, a dangerous Taleban commander, and two of his men” in Kushk district (for a detailed map of the district, see page 13 here). (There are two Kushks in Herat: Kushk district, aka Kushk-e Robat-e Sangi, and Kushk-e Kohna district). (1) Farhad also said, “We will investigate seriously the claim about the infliction of casualties on civilians [in the attack].” In a conversation with AAN, the spokesman, however, said it was not clear whether the attack was carried out by the Afghan government air force or NATO Resolute Support mission or both.

Herat province and its neighbourhood. Map: Roger Helms.
Herat province and its neighbourhood. Map: Roger Helms.

All other sources, including Afghan media, Herat representatives in the parliament and provincial council and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), have reported between five and ten civilian deaths in the air attack, but differ significantly over how and where it happened and who was targeted. The private TV channel Tolo News reported that “at least eleven civilians” including “eight children” were killed in what it called “a drone strike” in the neighbouring Kushk-e Kohna district. The private newspaper Afghanistan Times reported: “several extensive airstrikes” that killed ten people, including women and children, in Kushk district. Ufoq News , an Afghan news agency, quoted “a relative of the victims” as saying that “an American drone struck a vehicle carrying civilians in the border between Kushk and Kushk-e Kohna districts.” It put civilian deaths at 11.

A more detailed report containing several contradictory accounts came from the Dari section of the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle. It cited Herat governor’s spokesman, Farhad, as saying that the airstrike targeted the Taleban commander and two of his fighters while they were “in a saracha (Toyota Corolla) vehicle,” without specifying whether the vehicle was parked or in motion. The spokesman also said the incident happened in a mountainous, far-flung area between Kushk and Kushk-e Kohna districts where the Taleban are more present than the Afghan government security forces. In the same report, Herat MP Sayyed Azim Kabarzani said the attack targeted the house of a Taleban commander, killing him and his family, whose numbers he put at ten. However, Mahdi Hadid, a member of Herat provincial council, told Deutsche Welle Dari that the attack targeted a person he named as Mawlawi Abdul Hakim and his family, who were “11 people, and in a car.” Hadid also said:

When a member of a family takes up arms [against the state], only that person is to blame and not his family members, including women and children. They [women and children] become vulnerable [if their husband/father/male relative acts against the government]. Civilian casualties including those of women and children must be prevented.

Finally, on 20 February 2010, the AIHRC said in a press release that its preliminary investigation shows “an airstrike by foreign forces targeted two Corolla-type vehicles belonging to Mullah Ahmad Ahmadi while he and his family were travelling from Gulran district to [Kushk-e] Robat-e Sangi district of Herat province to attend a funeral ceremony.” It concluded that the airstrike killed “five civilians (two women and three children), in addition to Mullah Ahmad himself and two of his men.”

Protest gathering in Herat city

The following day (18 February 2020) around one hundred people came from Kushk district to stage a protest in front of the governor’s compound in Herat city. This author observed the last one hour of the demonstration that lasted for a couple of hours or so. The protesters were mostly elders who had brought some dead bodies which were displayed in vehicles in front of the compound (see these two video reports here and here). The dead bodies were burnt, deformed and in pieces; they had been wrapped in blood-stained fabrics and covered by blankets. Some protesters told this author there were ten dead bodies (three children, six women and one man) in the vehicles. They were asking why the airstrike targeted civilians and saying they did not want anything from the government; they want not to be killed. In one of the vehicles there were also some women and children sitting but they did not step outside to join the protest.

For security reasons, parts of one lane of the two-lane main road in front of the governor’s compound had been closed to traffic. This had been done by police vehicles that were parked on the street and manned by police and other security personnel. There were also several onlookers around, trying to figure out what was going on.

Inside the crowd of protesters, anyone was talking to anyone. Some passers-by were telling one another to leave the area as soon as they could, for “some incident might happen.” Nothing of that sort happened. A middle-aged man who was a protester said a woman MP, Massuda Karokhi, had already come and talked to the gathering. The parliamentarian condemned civilian casualties during operations by Afghan and NATO forces and said a “misinformed operation caused this deadly incident.” The middle-aged man quoted earlier also said Kamran Alizai, who leads Herat Provincial Council, would also come to talk to the demonstrators.

Minutes later, two armoured cars followed by one security vehicle in its front and another in its behind arrived. Up to 20 armed men, dressed in light khaki uniforms, got off the two security vehicles and then got off Alizai. He talked to some of the protesters for some time. Because of the distance, their conversation was not audible to this author. Later, some protesters said Alizai told them he would discuss their protest with the provincial authorities in the following days. The Herat governor and police chief were not in town as they had travelled to the capital Kabul to attend the president’s and interior minister’s meetings with governors and police chiefs on an imminent US-Taleban deal on reduction in violence in Afghanistan (for details on these national-level developments, see these recent AAN reports here and here).

What was striking was an unsolicited comment from an unnamed officer who was around the gathering. It was not clear if he was a police or intelligence officer or what his rank was, but he was dressed in a black uniform and sitting in a police vehicle at some distance from the compound, rather than standing outside to guard the area, which was perhaps an indication of his higher rank among the security forces present there. After pointing to this author to come to him and asking several personal questions, the officer made this uninvited statement at a distance not audible to the crowd: “These people are Taleban. There’s no misunderstanding. The government hit Taleban who used people like children and women as a shield.” It is not clear if this indicates a latent tendency among parts of the government security forces to see some civilians such as Taleban family members as effectively Taleban too, but might show that such people could practically, in some cases, be regarded as dispensable when used as shields.

The following morning (19 February 2020), a fellow passenger on a shared taxi in downtown Herat referred to this incident in a rambling conversation. He said, “Even if they [those killed] were Taleban wives and Taleban children, the government should only attack their fighters. Why does it kill their women and children?”

Civilian shielding is strictly prohibited according to international humanitarian law, so if a Taleban commander were to take along family members to reduce the likelihood of his being targeted, even if on route to a funeral, this would breach the laws of war. However, even if the other side suspects women and children are being used as shields, this changes nothing in terms of their legal obligation to protect civilians. One of the questions raised by this airstrike is whether the killing of this commander was of sufficient “military necessity” to justify killing women and children, or whether they could have waited for another opportunity to target him.

Government response

When AAN asked for a follow-up on the government’s investigation into allegations of recent civilian casualties on 20 February 2020, three days after the incident, Herat governor’s spokesman Farhad said a probe had yet to be launched. “Any investigation in that area which is under Taleban influence will require security measures and cooperation by elders, and this takes time to arrange,” he added, without specifying when an investigation would be done, if at all. The spokesman again rejected civilian casualties in the airstrike and gave the following justification for it:

Our district governors in the northern districts of Gulran, Kushk and Kushk-e Kohna say the Taleban travel with women and children to avoid airstrikes. That airstrike killed Mullah Ahmad who was a key local Taleban commander because he was involved in orchestrating and leading attacks that have killed security forces and assassinations in the centres of the northern districts. The government doesn’t target civilians and cancels operations if they are deemed a risk to civilian property, let alone civilian life.

As security has been deteriorating due to growing Taleban activity over the last several years in districts across Herat province (previous AAN reporting here), the government has increasingly adopted a more offensive posture, including through carrying out airstrikes or requesting NATO to do so. As a consequence, as a local observer who asked not to be named told AAN, “security incidents have become so many that no one, including the local government, media and civil society organisations concerned with civilian casualties, knows which one to look into and to follow that up.” For example, the government has yet to make public its investigation of a major airstrike that caused at least several civilian casualties in Shindand district in the south in early January 2020 (see, for example, these media reports here and here). In a conversation with AAN on 23 February 2020, almost a week’s time from the incident, Hadid, the provincial council member quoted above, said the protesters had returned to Kushk to bury their dead and nothing had so far been done by either the provincial council or the government.

As the newly-released 2019 annual report of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) shows, 2019 was the sixth year in a row with over 10,000 civilian deaths and injured. Documenting 1,045 civilian casualties (700 killed and 345 injured) from airstrikes by pro-government forces, 72 per cent of which were by international military forces, UNAMA expressed concern about “policies used by USFOR-A [United States Forces-Afghanistan] to deliberately target individuals who were neither directly participating in hostilities nor performing a continuous combat function within an armed group” (page 8 of the report). On Herat specifically, UNAMA reported 400 civilian casualties (144 killed and 256 injured), a 54 per cent increase compared to 2018, mainly from the three leading tactics or causes of “Non-Suicide IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices], Ground Engagements and Targeted/Deliberate Killings” (page 94). UNAMA expressed particular concern with a “spike in civilian casualties of deliberate attacks targeting judges and prosecutors, healthcare workers, and aid workers,” an example of which took place in Herat just days before the Kushk strike, when a district primary court judge in Injil was killed, allegedly by the Taleban. (2)


The most sober reporting so far – that of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission – suggests that at least five civilians, including women and children, were killed in an airstrike in a Taleban-controlled area in Kushk district in the north of Herat province. While about a hundred inhabitants of the district came together in a protest where corpses were brought to the provincial capital, Herat city, the government has maintained its stance that the airstrike targeted a local Taleban commander and some of his men. Even if it is willing to conduct an investigation into the incident, it might not be able to venture into Taleban territory to visit the site.

As some of the snippets of conversations above indicate, even with rigorous investigations on the ground, the two narratives may never align. If the airstrike killed a Taleban commander along with his family who were on their way to attend a funeral ceremony, this then becomes more a debate about civilian shielding. Legally, although it is unlawful for one side in a conflict to use civilians as a “shield,” the practice does not alter the responsibility to protect civilians on the other side. In practical terms, however, the distinction between civilians and fighters appears to have become subjective in a protracted violent conflict between the government and the Taleban, as indicated in the unsolicited comment on potential dispensability of civilians when used as shields by the Taleban or by the recent assassination of the judge in Injil district or attacks on law enforcement police in Herat city, allegedly by the Taleban. Such an indiscriminate war makes it hard to imagine how a top-down deal could reduce local cycles of violence such as those in Kushk and the larger Herat.

Edited by Rachel Reid and Thomas Ruttig

(1) Literally speaking, Kushk means “a tall, expansive and beautiful building in the middle of a garden (palace)” or “citadel” or “pavilion.” Brett A Sutton, who worked as a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) doctor for six months in 2003 in Herat city and Kushk-e Kohna (literally meaning “Old Palace/Citadel/Pavilion”), writes the name, “Kushk”/ “Palace,” “clearly harks back to a more prosperous time, for there is no palace to be found in this district of sixty thousand people. The inhabitants have mud brick houses and live mostly off subsistence farming, growing wheat… and raising livestock.” As for Robat, it means, among other things, “a place between roads for the rest and stay of a passenger or caravan (caravanserai)” or “a khaneqa-like place for the residence of religious students, dervishes and hermits.” Khaneqa is a Sufi place of worship. So Robat-e Sangi would mean such a structure (caravanserai or khaneqa) built of stone (sang). See: Hassan Anwari (1382 [2003/2004]), Farhang-e Feshorde-ye Sokhan (Condensed Dictionary of Sokhan), Tehran: Sokhan Publishing, pp 1122, 1868.

(2) A forthcoming AAN dispatch will take a look at recent security incidents, including targeted killings and attacks on the police, in Herat city, at least in some of which the Taleban are allegedly implicated.