At least 30 civilians were killed when the U.S. bombed several drug-making facilities in western Afghanistan in May, a U.N. agency said in a report on Wednesday, though the U.S. military immediately disputed the findings.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) conducted an investigation over four months looking into what happened May 5 when the U.S. military bombed dozens of sites it had identified as Taliban methamphetamine labs. Soon after the strikes in Bakwa district of Farah province, and parts of the bordering Delaram district in Nimroz province, UNAMA said it began to receive reports of “significant civilian harm.”
After a fact-finding mission to some of the impact sites and face-to-face interviews with 21 people impacted by the strikes, UNAMA said it had “verified 39 civilian casualties (30 deaths, five injured and four undetermined), including 14 children and one woman, due to the 5 May airstrikes.”
The agency went on to say that it had also received “credible information” about an additional 30 deaths—mostly women and children—and was working to further verify these claims.
U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) blasted the UNAMA findings, questioned the agency’s methodology and insisted its “precision” strikes had accurately targeted meth labs. “In addition to imagery collection during the precision strikes, USFOR–A conducted exhaustive assessments of the facilities and surrounding areas after the strikes,” the command said in a statement. “Combined assessments determined the strikes did not cause deaths or injuries to non-combatants.”
Central to the disagreement between the U.S. and the U.N. is the legal definition of what constitutes a legitimate military target.
UNAMA in its report contended the drug facilities were owned and operated by criminal groups, so “did not meet the definition of legitimate military objectives under international law.”
The U.S., however, insisted the labs were run and owned by the Taliban, who used revenue to “fund ongoing indiscriminate violence against innocent Afghans.”
The U.S. military in 2017 and early 2018 carried out multiple strikes against Taliban opium processing plants, but the expensive efforts had little impact on the insurgents’ revenue stream and risked alienating rural populations and Afghan farmers, many of whom rely on the poppy crop. The military then switched its focus to the more lucrative meth industry.
A U.S. defense official told AFP the military had not conducted any additional strikes on meth labs since the May 5 incident.