Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh has ordered the arrest of the individual who reported civilian casualties from an Afghan government airstrike on October 22, 2020, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday. The Afghan air force struck a mosque school in Takhar province, killing at least 12 children and wounding 18 other civilians, news agencies reported.
Afghan government forces were apparently targeting Taliban fighters when they hit the school at the mosque in Baharak district, Takhar. In response to early reports of the incident, Saleh denied on Twitter that any civilians had been killed, and said that “the person responsible for spread of this venomous & fake news was arrested immediately.” The identity of the person and whether that person was arrested is unclear. On Facebook he threatened legal action against those “who make false allegations.”
The Afghan government ordered an investigation into the incident. However, findings from investigations into other incidents of civilian casualties have not been made public and no one has been held accountable.
“Vice President Amrullah Saleh is trying to silence those who reported a potentially unlawful airstrike that killed civilians, including many children,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should immediately release anyone detained under Saleh’s order and carry out a thorough and impartial investigation of the airstrike.”
In recent weeks, Afghan government forces have sustained many casualties during intense fighting in Takhar province. The uptick in fighting comes amid rising numbers of Taliban attacks and little progress on the Afghan peace talks in Doha.
The laws of war permit attacks only against military objectives, which include enemy fighters, weapons and equipment. Warring parties are prohibited from deliberately attacking civilians, except those directly participating in hostilities. For a specific attack on a military objective to be lawful, it must discriminate between combatants and civilians, and the expected loss of civilian life and property must be proportionate to the anticipated military gain from the attack. Attacks that target civilians, that are indiscriminate, or that cause disproportionate civilian loss are unlawful.
It is not clear if Taliban forces were in the vicinity of the mosque. Mosques and schools are civilian objects not subject to attack unless being used for military purposes. Any Taliban fighters present would be required to take all feasible precautions to remove civilians from the vicinity.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has reported that women and children comprised 65 percent of the civilian casualties from airstrikes by the Afghan air force for the first half of 2020. The Afghan government has a poor record of investigating such incidents.
“The Afghan government is obligated to investigate possible laws-of-war violations by their forces,” Gossman said. “The free expression rights of those reporting on alleged violations should be respected.”