US Drone Kills 30 Farmworkers in Afghanistan

September 20th, 2019 - by Ahmad Sultan and Abdul Qadir Sediqi / Reuters
US drone kills pine nut farmers in Afghanistan. (Photo: The Montreal Gazette)

US Drone Strike Kills 30 Pine Nut Farm Workers in Afghanistan

Ahmad Sultan and Abdul Qadir Sediqi / Reuters

JALALABAD, Afghanistan (September 19, 2019) – A US drone strike intended to hit an Islamic State (IS) hideout in Afghanistan killed at least 30 civilians resting after a day’s labor in the fields, officials said on Thursday.

The attack on Wednesday night also injured 40 people after accidentally targeting farmers and laborers who had just finished collecting pine nuts at mountainous Wazir Tangi in eastern Nangarhar province, three Afghan officials told Reuters. 

“The workers had lit a bonfire and were sitting together when a drone targeted them,” tribal elder Malik Rahat Gul told Reuters by telephone from Wazir Tangi. 

Afghanistan’s Defence Ministry and a senior U.S official in Kabul confirmed the drone strike, but did not share details of civilian casualties. 

 “US forces conducted a drone strike against Da’esh (IS) terrorists in Nangarhar,” said Colonel Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan. “We are aware of allegations of the death of non-combatants and are working with local officials to determine the facts.” 

About 14,000 US troops are in Afghanistan, training and advising Afghan security forces and conducting counter-insurgency operations against IS and the Taliban movement. 

Haidar Khan, who owns the pine nut fields, said about 150 workers were there for harvesting, with some still missing as well as the confirmed dead and injured. 

A survivor of the drone strike said about 200 laborers were sleeping in five tents pitched near the farm when the attack happened.

“Some of us managed to escape, some were injured but many were killed,” said Juma Gul, a resident of northeastern Kunar province who had traveled along with laborers to harvest and shell pine nuts this week. 

Angered by the attack, some residents of Nangarhar province demanded an apology and monetary compensation from the US government. 

“Such mistakes cannot be justified. American forces must realize (they) will never win the war by killing innocent civilians,” said Javed Mansur, a resident of Jalalabad city. 

Scores of local men joined a protest against the attack on Thursday morning as they helped carry the victims’ bodies to Jalalabad city and then to the burial site. 

Attaullah Khogyani, a spokesman for the provincial governor said the aerial attack was meant to target IS militants who often use farmlands for training and recruitment purposes, but had hit innocent civilians. 

Jihadist IS fighters first appeared in Afghanistan in 2014 and have since made inroads in the east and north where they are battling the government, US forces and the Taliban. 

The exact number of IS fighters is difficult to calculate because they frequently switch allegiances, but the US military estimates there are about 2,000. 

There was no word from IS on the attack.

There has been no let-up in assaults by Taliban and IS as Afghanistan prepares for a presidential election this month. 

In a separate incident, at least 20 people died in a suicide truck bomb attack on Thursday carried out by the Taliban in the southern province of Zabul. 

Hundreds of civilians have been killed in fighting across Afghanistan after the collapse of US-Taliban peace talks this month. The Taliban has warned US President Donald Trump will regret his decision to abruptly call off talks that could have led to a political settlement to end the 18-year-old war. 

The United Nations says nearly 4,000 civilians were killed or wounded in the first half of the year. That included a big increase in casualties inflicted by government and US-led foreign forces. 

Additional reporting and writing by Rupam Jain in Kabul

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

Letter Detailing Civilian Presence Failed to Prevent Deadly Afghan Drone Strike

Ahmad Sultan and Abdul Qadir Sediqi / Reuters

JALALABAD, Afghanistan / KABUL (September 19, 2019) — Twelve days ahead of the pine-nut harvest season, the governor of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province received a letter from village elders in the Wazir Tangi area about their plans to recruit 200 laborers and children to pluck the dry fruit.

The letter, seen by Reuters and dated Sept. 7, was sent in an effort to help protect laborers from getting caught in clashes between US-backed Afghan forces and Islamic State fighters in the mountainous terrain largely controlled by the jihadists.

Taliban insurgents and Islamic State fighters have been battling each other for control of the province’s natural resources. US and Afghan forces routinely launch air strikes to regain control over territory lost to militant groups.

On Wednesday, just hours after farmers, laborers and children finished their day’s work of plucking pine nuts in the heavily forested area and lit bonfires near their tents, a US drone hit the site, killing 30 civilians and injuring 40 others, according to three Afghan provincial officials.

Local residents expressed shock and anger that the attack occurred despite the letter and subsequent assurances of safety for the workers.

“We had huddled together around small bonfires and we were discussing the security situation in our villages, but suddenly everything changed. There was destruction everywhere,” said Akram Sultan, one of the survivors who hid behind a tree before running into the forest along with some children.

Sultan was among 200 Afghan farm laborers hired to harvest and shell pine nuts on land belonging to several village elders in the Wazir Tangi area. Up to 23,000 tons of pine nuts are produced each year in Afghanistan and the country has begun exporting up to $800 million worth of the crop to China annually through an air corridor.

Before recruitments started for the harvesting, village elders had sought clearances from the provincial governor and local leaders of the Islamic State fighters to ensure the activity could be carried out in the heavily contested area.

“The warring sides had given their consent and contractors were hired to bring in laborers from neighboring provinces … no illegal activity was being pursued, but even then, the US drone killed innocent people,” Sohrab Qadri, a member of the Nangarhar provincial council, told Reuters.

A spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan confirmed on Thursday that the drone strike was conducted by the United States with the intention of destroying the hideouts of Islamic State fighters.

Asked about the letter sent to the governor by the village elders, Colonel Sonny Leggett said that would be part of the investigation.

“Initial indications are members of Daesh (IS) were among those targeted in the strike,” Leggett said, using a term for Islamic State. “However, we are working with local officials to determine whether there was collateral damage.”

The governor of Nangarhar, Shah Mahmood Miakhel, was not available for comment.

There has been no comment from Islamic State or information about casualties it sustained in the drone strike. The US official did not comment on casualty figures.

‘How Could They Do This to Us?”

Malak Khaiyali Khan, chief of Jaora village in the Wazir Tangi area, had sent his teenage son along with three friends to shell pine nuts.

On Thursday evening, four bodies were handed over to Khan, including that of his son.

“My son and his friends were killed by the Americans. How could they do this to us?” said Khan, who was leading a protest against the strike before the burial rites.

Angry residents took bodies to the provincial capital, Jalalabad, on Thursday morning to protest the attack.

The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in its latest report that ground raids and clashes have caused the most civilian casualties in the country, followed by bomb attacks and air strikes.

Air strikes by US and Afghan forces killed 363 civilians and injured 156 others in Afghanistan in the first half of this year, the U.N. report said. Among the dead and wounded were 150 children, it added.

Nangarhar province suffered the highest number of civilian casualties last year. A U.N. report said at least 681 civilians died in the province in suicide attacks, landmine blasts and air strikes.

The province has large deposits of minerals and sits on major smuggling routes into Pakistan.

Reporting by Ahmad Sultan and Mohammad Rafiq in Jalalabad and Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul; Additional reporting and writing by Rupam Jain in Kabul.

Copyright 2019 Thomson Reuters.Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes