Canadian commander defends 'last resort' tactics in Afghanistan

Canada's top soldier in Afghanistan on Tuesday rejected criticism of air strikes and nighttime raids by international forces in the country, saying such actions are taken only "as a last resort."

Canada's top soldier in Afghanistan on Tuesday rejected criticism of air strikes and nighttime raids by international forces in the country, saying such actions are taken only "as a last resort" and that he is confident that his soldiers are following international law.

Brig.-Gen. Denis Thompson, who is in charge of Canadian and NATO forces in the province of Kandahar, said he welcomed the findings in a 55-page report released Tuesday by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

"Every precaution is taken to ensure there is a have a high degree of certainty regarding targets" when air strikes or nighttime raids are launched, Thompson said, adding he is proud of Canada's "exemplary" track record in Afghanistan.

"Task Force Kandahar troops — both U.S. and Canadian — take extraordinary efforts to minimize collateral damage and to avoid harm to innocent civilians," he said.

Thompson noted two incidents, on July 27 and Sept. 18,  in which civilians died "as a result of our operations."

"Both incidents were investigated, and in both cases, it was found that our soldiers followed proper escalation of force procedures."

The human rights report questioned the tactics of international forces in the country, particularly air strikes and nighttime searches of civilian homes, saying they have emerged as the two main causes of resentment and anger among the local population.

"Afghan families experienced their family members killed or injured, their houses or other property destroyed, or homes invaded at night without any perceived justification or legal authorization," the report said.

"They often did not know who perpetrated the acts against the family or why.… To their knowledge and perception, those who perpetrated the acts were never punished, nor prevented from repeating them."

Thompson, speaking in Kandahar, pointed out that insurgents regularly stage improvised explosive devices "and suicide attacks in and around civilian areas, and even launch conventional attacks using innocent bystanders as human shields."

Agreed to monitor detainees

The commission, which is funded by the countries involved in the NATO mission in Afghanistan, made a deal with Canada last year to monitor the condition of all detainees seized by the Canadian military and handed over to Afghan officials.

The report characterizes NATO incursions into homes as violent break-ins that reportedly include "abusive behaviour" and cultural insensitivity, particularly toward women.

The document acknowledges that it is difficult to verify the truthfulness of individual reports of home incursions but the number of reported instances suggests the night raids occur regularly.

The report suggests international forces often rely on unreliable sources or faulty intelligence when launching the incursions into homes, and there is little public accountability for the raids, which also appears to increase local anger.

There is a lack of co-ordination between coalition forces, foreign soldiers and local authorities, the report says.

"Ordinary people believe that there is no accountability or justice in respect of these violations, regardless of who [has] committed [them].

The overall picture is that … continuing support for Afghan government and international military has been eroded as … consequences of the not carefully planned night raids," the report says.

Monthly tracking information from the United Nations' human rights unit shows air strikes have been responsible for 25 per cent of all civilian deaths in Afghanistan this year. Coalition forces caused the majority of those civilian casualties.

The report said that the lack of recognition of the victims, apology or compensation has also caused anger and resentment in the local community.

"Ignoring the damage to civilians and lack of transparent and public investigations have contributed to the picture that the international forces are not interested and concerned about their activities causing damage to ordinary people," the document states.

To compile the report, investigators from the commission spent three weeks gathering 74 testimonies from witnesses, military personnel, local authorities and government officials.

The commission also analyzed information from its regular reporting and incident monitoring, and scoured media reports and investigations by other human rights organizations.

Canada has about 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan, most of them based in the south around Kandahar.

With files from the Associated Press