Officials in Afghanistan say they are investigating last week’s counter militancy airstrike that reportedly killed at least 18 civilians, including women and children.

The Afghan air force air conducted the raid on late Saturday in the Khashrod district of southwestern Nimruz province, which security officials claimed killed about some 14 Taliban insurgents.

However, area residents and members of the provincial council said one of the rockets hit and destroyed a house, killing 18 members of the same family.

The Taliban denied the presence of its fighters in the area at the time of the airstrike.

Reports of the civilian casualties triggered severe criticism of the Afghan government and calls from domestic as well as international partners for a thorough investigation into the incident.

On Monday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani responded by announcing that he had instructed Nimruz authorities "to mobilize all resources to reach out to families of the martyrs.”

“I also instruct the defense and security officials to conduct a thorough investigation and share findings with office of the president,” Ghani’s office quoted him as saying.

The United Nations welcomed Ghani’s pledge to investigate the incident but emphasized the need for accountability.

Critics, however, questioned the effectiveness of the Afghan government’s resolve to investigate the killing of civilians in Saturday’s incident.
“Yes, there have been many investigations promised over the years with nothing made public and no accountability for violations of IHL (international humanitarian law),” tweeted Patricia Gossman, the associate Asia director for Human Rights.

“Important to change that pattern now and carry out genuinely thorough investigation and hold those responsible to account,” added Gossman on Monday.

The European Union delegation in Afghanistan stressed the protection of civilians during armed conflict was a “cornerstone” of international humanitarian law.

“Recent reports of civilian casualties following air strikes in Nimruz & Helmand provinces must be thoroughly investigated & justice ensured, as for all similar cases,” the EU mission tweeted on Monday.

Last week, a government aerial raid against the Taliban in Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, killed at least five members of a family, including three children.

The United Nations reported in October that at least 2,100 Afghan civilians were killed and more than 3,800 wounded in the first nine months of 2020. It blamed Afghan airstrikes for about eight percent of the civilian casualties. 

Afghan security officers inspect the site of a bombing attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021. A roadside bomb…
Afghan security officers inspect the site of a bombing attack in Kabul, Jan. 10, 2021.

The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan noted that in the third quarter of 2020 child casualties rose 25 percent over the previous three months.

In his Monday’s statement, Ghani asserted that “Taliban and other terrorists groups are using people and public places as their shield which is a main driver of civilian casualties.”

Fighting has continued in Afghanistan even as the Taliban and representatives of Kabul negotiate a peace deal in Doha, the capital of Qatar, that would end the country’s long conflict.

The so-called intra-Afghan dialogue is a product of an agreement the United States signed with the Taliban in February 2020. The document is aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan and bringing home the remaining U.S. troops from what has been America’s longest war.