The children were sitting outside the village mosque, enjoying rays of early morning sunshine, when the shooting broke out. Eight of them were killed on the spot, said village residents. A ninth child died later in a hospital in Kabul, two hours’ drive away.
The death of nine children at the hands of government soldiers in ’s central Wardak province has provoked anger and protests – and underscored once again the shortcomings of the foreign-trained security forces.
Residents of Shahi Khel village said all the victims were children: seven under the age of 10, and two young teenagers.
The UN said at least four victims were children, but the Afghan ministry of defence declined to comment on the victims’ identities. A ministry spokesman, Dawlat Waziri, said a number of soldiers had been detained for their role in the incident last Friday.
After protests in Kabul – where several hundred people gathered to demand justice for the killed – the country’s president, , met families of the victims on Sunday. The president also ordered his acting defence minister to appoint a delegation to investigate the incident.
The soldiers, who were manning a checkpoint outside Shahi Khel village, were part of the Afghan army’s 203rd Thunder Corps, which after years of foreign mentoring was handed authority over a number of bases late last year.
Foreign trainers are not permanently present at the corps’ headquarters in Gardez, but US troops send regular expeditions to advise and assist its top brass. According to Col David Newsome, of Nato’s Kabul-based Advise and Assist Cell Southeast, the soldiers involved in the Wardak incident were unlikely to have had much contact with foreign troops.
Wardak has proved one of the most challenging provinces for foreign forces in Afghanistan. But the Shahi Khel killings highlight why 14 years after the fall of the Taliban regime, the legitimacy of the government is still so frail, particularly in rural areas where locals have experienced . Why, many Afghans ask, should they risk their lives for a government that cannot protect them?
That question continues to dog the government in its fight against the at a time when the militants are gaining ground.
Sahr Muhammedally, of the Washington-based Center for Civilians in Conflict, said if the Afghan government failed to properly investigate incidents in which security forces kill civilians , people might turn to militants for protection to prevent future incidents.
“Failure to prevent civilian harm by government forces will affect the government’s ability to maintain its authority, especially in contested areas, driving civilians to support those who will provide security,” she said.
In Shahi Khel, residents have threatened to block the road between Maidan Shar, the provincial capital, and Kabul, if the responsible soldiers are not punished.
“If they don’t put the killers on trial, they will have to kill us,” said Mohammad Gol, who lost a son and three nephews in the incident. “Imagine you had lost four family members in one attack. How would you feel?”
Several villagers said the Taliban did not have a permanent presence in Shahi Khel and were not there at the time of the attack.
Wardak province is only an hour’s drive from the capital but remains a Taliban stronghold, partly because of counter-insurgency operations that have alienated the local population.
In 2012, in a last-ditch attempt to establish long-lasting authority, a team of US special forces set up base in Nerkh district, from where they raided houses and detained members of the local population. Less than a year later the team was forced out that they had been complicit in killing more than a dozen civilians.
In the Afghan war’s 14th year, civilians are dying in growing numbers, especially children: the first six months of this year saw a.
Last week’s incident adds to a long list of civilian casualties at the hands of Afghan or foreign troops, which helps erode the public’s trust in the US-driven post-Taliban order.
Over the past months, at least in the eastern Khost province by CIA-trained Afghan forces. In some instances the fatal raids were reportedly carried out with American advisers present.
“In the past 15 years, people have asked the government not to kill civilians, especially women and children,” said Abdul Rahim Ayoubi, a parliamentarian representing Kandahar who participated in Sunday’s protest in Kabul. “What is the difference between government and Taliban when they both kill civilians?”