KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai said Monday that up to 52 civilians had been killed by NATO rocket fire in southern Afghanistan, a controversy that erupted just as thousands of leaked military documents depicted a pervasive pattern of underreported civilian deaths and injuries in the course of the long conflict.
Karzai’s claim of casualties last week in Helmand province was sharply disputed by the NATO force, which said there was no evidence of civilian casualties. Provincial authorities said the incident was still being investigated, and that neither the number of deaths nor culpability for them had been established.
But taken together, the documents posted online Sunday by WikiLeaks.org and the familiar scenario of conflicting claims from a remote battle zone point up that civilian casualties remain one of the most bitterly divisive issues between Western forces and Karzai’s government.
The paper trail
Most of the 92,000 papers — comprising 76,000 reports covering a span between 2004 and 2009 — were written by field-level commanders.
The reports showed militia leaders skimming from the wages of their men, Pakistani officials helping the Taliban prepare attacks and Afghan authorities stealing U.S. aid to an orphanage.
Many papers offered detailed descriptions of lethal encounters between Western forces and Afghan civilians.
The founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, said he believed some of the documents, particularly those involving the deaths of civilians, could be used as evidence of war crimes. The self-described watchdog group has said it will release more of the classified reports.
According to the British newspaper The Guardian, the military reports contain 144 entries depicting civilian deaths, in incidents ranging from checkpoint shootings to airstrikes..
Some of those incidents were big enough to make headlines and raise questions at the time; others were wrenching episodes that went all but unnoticed. One report describes the shooting in March 2007 of an Afghan villager who ran away from a Western military convoy. It turned out he was deaf and did not hear shouts to stop.
White House reacts to leaked documents
The White House said Monday that the documents reveal names, operations, logistics and sources involved in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said those revelations have the potential to do harm and their release is “alarming.” But he also said most of the information is not new.
The whistleblower website “is not an objective news outlet but rather an organization that opposes U.S. policy in Afghanistan,” said a White House official.
Officials said the Pentagon is investigating whether the source of the leak is Bradley Manning, the Army private who charged in July with leaking information to WikiLeaks, including video showing an Apache helicopter attack in Iraq that killed two Reuters news agency employees and 10 other civilians.
The latest controversy
In the latest civilian-death dispute, an undetermined number of villagers were reported killed Friday in a remote part of Helmand province, which has been the scene of near-constant battles between Western troops and insurgents.
Provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said Monday that an investigating team had been sent but had not yet returned. It was not yet known how many people died or who was responsible, he said.
Karzai’s office, however, said reports by the National Directorate of Security intelligence agency indicated that a house had been hit by a rocket fired by Western troops, killing up to 52 civilians, including children.
The NATO force said a joint investigation by Afghan officials and the Western military had thus far revealed no evidence of civilians injured or killed.