After the second firefight in the past 10 days between American soldiers and their Afghan allies, at least 14 civilians, most of them women and children, were killed in an airstrike on Saturday in northern Kunduz province, according to Afghan officials. At least four Afghan soldiers were also killed.
A spokeswoman for the American military confirmed the attack, but blamed the outcome on the Taliban.
“We are fighting in a complex environment and this firefight is a prime example of the challenges Afghan and coalition forces face every day,” said Sgt. 1st Class Debra Richardson. “The Taliban were hiding in civilian homes and maneuvered in and out of compounds without any concern for the families living inside.”
The episode on Saturday came a day after two members of an American Special Forces unit and four Afghan Special Forces soldiers were killed during a joint operation in Gul Tepa District, on the outskirts of Kunduz city, and involved some of the same forces, according to Afghan official accounts. The insurgents were reportedly massing on the outskirts of the city, which they have twice overrun, in 2015 and in 2016.
The latest episode began around 3 a.m. Saturday, after a convoy of American and Afghan Special Forces left the area of the previous day’s combat and an armored vehicle used by the Americans broke down as they were heading to a security checkpoint. When the soldiers got out to fix the vehicle, an Afghan soldier nearby opened fire on them; Afghan officials described him as a Taliban insider who deliberately provoked the attack.
The Americans fired back at the attacker, and Afghan soldiers stationed in a nearby outpost returned fire at them, not realizing what had happened, according to Mohammed Ibrahim, the commander of Afghan Local Police in Kunduz Province, who described it as an accident set off by the insider who first opened fire.
“The combined Afghan and coalition ground force was fired on by an unknown assailant at close range from the checkpoint as well as from two other directions,” Sergeant Richardson said. “The fire from the enemy was indiscriminate and came from multiple directions.”
Commander Ibrahim said the two allies exchanged fire for 20 minutes before there were airstrikes, which he said had killed 12 civilians and six soldiers. After attempting to find out if any Afghan units in the area were under fire, Sergeant Richardson said, the Americans called in airstrikes, bringing the fighting to an end.
Nangayalay, a local police commander in the area (who like many Afghans has only one name), also confirmed that sequence of events. One of the airstrikes, he said, struck a house, where a large family of refugees had taken shelter a month earlier; 14 family members were killed. The American bombs also struck the Afghan outpost, with from four to eight Afghan soldiers killed, according to varying Afghan estimates.
Safiullah Amiri, deputy leader of the provincial council in Kunduz, also confirmed that account. “Clashes erupted between Afghan soldiers in the outpost and American forces accompanied by Afghan Special Forces, then Americans called for the air support.” He also said four Afghan soldiers and 14 civilians were killed.
An Afghan senator, Mawlawi Abdullah Qarloq, said he was from the same village and knew the victims; he provided a list of their names. Other local officials said that of the 14, at least eight were children, and four were women.
Neighbors took many of the victims’ bodies to Kunduz city, where they staged a protest march, but were turned away from their intended destination, the governor’s office, and went to the hospital instead.
Sergeant Richardson confirmed that the American military was aware of reports of “noncombatant casualty claims from those airstrikes.” However, she added, “We maintain the right to engage the enemy in self-defense and we take every measure to prevent civilian casualties, even as the Taliban intentionally hide behind women and children.”
The American spokeswoman also suggested that witnesses to civilian casualties might have been coerced: “There are multiple Afghan reports from the area of the Taliban coercing and beating local Afghan civilians to allege civilians were killed.”
The joint American and Afghan operation had the day before killed 87 Taliban, she said, and they may have been using claims of civilian casualties to hide their losses.
Ten days earlier, in southern Uruzgan Province, another joint American-Afghan Special Forces patrol ended up in what American officials called a “fog of war” incident, in which the patrol exchanged fire with a nearby Afghan National Army base. As in Saturday’s incident, the Americans called in an airstrike after, they said, confirming there were no friendly units under fire in the area. The airstrike wiped out the army outpost, killing or wounding 15 of the 17 defending Afghan soldiers.
Mohammad Ibrahim, a relative of the victims on Saturday who took those wounded in the airstrike to Kunduz Regional Hospital, said four women as well as four girls, a son and their parents were killed in the airstrike. “Three women were wounded in the airstrike, one of them died of her wounds on the way to the hospital,” Mr. Ibrahim said. He is unrelated to the local police commander with the same name.
After the incident, the insider who started it fled to Taliban positions but was killed by the insurgents in another apparent case of mistaken identity, according to Mr. Amiri. He said village elders had been summoned to the insurgents’ position to recover the insider’s body, and were told that the insurgent who shot the insider had himself been arrested by the Taliban for doing so.
The Kunduz fighting brought to four the number of American troops killed this year, all of them Special Operations troops or American soldiers assigned to a Special Forces unit. Those are the only remaining American units still engaging in active combat in Afghanistan. About half of the 14,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan are Special Operations troops. The remainder are trainers, advisers and support forces.
In an unrelated incident in southern Helmand Province, three people including a provincial department head, Mohammad Khan Nasrat, were killed, and 30 people were wounded by two Taliban bombs that were set off simultaneously during annual celebrations of Farmer’s Day, according to Omar Zwak, the spokesman for the provincial governor. Among the wounded were three other government officials. The rest of the victims were civilians.