"A preliminary US military investigation indicates that more than 40 Afghans killed or wounded by Marines after a suicide bombing in a village near Jalalabad last month were civilians", the April 14 Washington Post reported it had been told by the US commander who ordered the investigation.
"Gen. Frank H. Kearney III, head of Special Operations Command Central, also said there is no evidence that the Marine Special Operations platoon came under small-arms fire after the bombing, although the Marines reported taking enemy fire and seeing people with weapons.
"The troops continued shooting at perceived threats as they travelled miles from the site of the March 4 attack, he said. They hit several vehicles, killing at least 10 people and wounding 33, among them children and elderly villagers."
Kearney's comments to the Post were confirmed the same day by William Mitchell, a US military spokesperson in Afghanistan, who told reporters that the Afghans killed by the Marines on March 4 were "innocent" non-combatants.
The Marines are part of the 27,000-strong US occupation force in Afghanistan. Half of these US forces are under the command of the 37,000-strong NATO-led, UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), while the rest, including all US Special Operations forces, remain under US command.
The Post reported that, on Kearney's orders, "the US Naval Criminal Investigative Service is conducting a probe that could lead to courts-martial of those involved".
All previous such probes by the US military have done nothing more than confirm witness accounts that those killed were civilian non-combatants.
In a report released on April 14, Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission said that in 2006 alone almost 700 Afghan civilians were killed in fighting between Afghan guerrillas and the US-ISAF forces, with the foreign forces' air operations "causing excessive loss of civilian life".
The report stated, "Anti-government armed groups have in several instances directly violated the immunity and protections of the civilian population" enshrined in the Geneva Conventions. It cited as an example, the "extrajudicial execution" by these groups of "persons alleged to have collaborated" with the US-backed Islamist government headed by President Hamid Karzai
The report went on to note that US-ISAF and Afghan government forces have engaged in "illegal and improper practices" during raids against suspected supporters of "anti-government armed groups", including "illegal killing and beating of civilians", wanton destruction or theft of their property, and "refusal of medical treatment to injured people".
The largest of the armed anti-government groups is the Taliban — the Islamist movement that ruled most of the country from 1996 until the US-led invasion at the end of 2001. The Taliban movement was created in 1995-96, with Washington's approval, by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, out of a mixture of Islamist guerrillas who fought against Afghanistan's Soviet-backed secular government from 1979 to its fall in 1992, and Afghan religious students in Pakistan.
A March 19 report by the Brussels-based Senlis Council think tank found that support for the Taliban had skyrocketed in southern Afghanistan over the last 18 months. The report was based on an opinion survey of 17,000 Afghan men in the Canadian-occupied areas of Kandahar province and in neighbouring British- and US-occupied provinces of Helmand and Nangarhar.
The survey found that 27% of those polled openly admitted to supporting the Taliban; the pollsters believed actual support is likely higher. In a similar poll conducted in December 2005, only 3% said they supported the Taliban.
The men polled said they were disaffected with the ISAF military effort and the Karzai government. Sixty per cent said it was the most corrupt government in two decades; 80% said they had not been helped by foreign troops' presence; 52% said that foreign troops should leave the country.
"People are hungry and angry, and when bombing campaigns level villages, it's not difficult to see how those facts come together", the surveyors noted. Half of those surveyed said they thought the Taliban would eventually defeat the US-ISAF forces.