Saturday, September 5, 2009




A NATO air strike of September 4,2009, in the Kunduz province in Northern Afghanistan on two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban in order to prevent the Taliban from making use of the fuel has caused a tremendous controversy over the collateral damage caused by the air strike.

2. These tankers were reportedly bringing fuel for NATO use via Tajikistan. In view of the repeated disruptions of logistic supplies to the NATO troops via Pakistani territory due to attacks by the Pakistani Taliban called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the NATO troops have developed an alternate route for logistic supplies via Russia and the Central Asian Republics (CAR). There have been indications that the Afghan Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan ( IMU) were planning to disrupt this alternative route too by stepping up their activities in Northern Afghanistan and the CARs. There have already been indications of a revival of acts of terrorism by pro-Al Qaeda organisations in the CARs.

3. Two of these fuel tankers coming from or via Tajikistan were reportedly hijacked by the Neo Taliban of Afghanistan. It is not clear from available reports whether the hijacking was done in Tajik or Afghan territory. The reports say that after hijacking the tankers, the Neo Taliban group responsible for the hijacking beheaded the drivers and started driving them to the area controlled by it. On the way one of the tankers developed some technical trouble and stalled. Some members of the local community gathered round it, reportedly to help themselves to some of the fuel.After assessing the situation and satisfying itself that any collateral damage to civilians will be minimal, a NATO air strike was ordered on the tankers. There are conflicting reports of the fatalities caused by the exploding fuel tankers as a result of the air strike---- varying between 60 and 90.

4. In an operation of this kind, there are bound to have been civilian casualties. It would be difficult to quantify how many of those killed were from the Neo Taliban and how many were civilians.Even though an enquiry has been ordered by the NATO officials, they would find it difficult to arrive at an acceptable figure of civilian fatalities.It would be impossible to prove or disprove the contention of either side. The NATO's contention is that even if there were civilian fatalities, their number would be small and that the majority of those killed were from the Neo Taliban. The contention of the Neo Taliban is that most of those killed were innocent civilians. In a situation such as this, the general population will always believe the insurgents and not the security forces. This is one of the inherent hazards in a counter-insurgency operation. The security forces have to live with it.

5. One could understand the factors which must have prompted the air strike. First, to prevent the Neo Taliban from using the fuel for adding to its capabilities. Second, to deter future attempts to disrupt supplies from or through the CARs. At the same time, air strikes on a fuel tanker----particularly if it is stationery--- carry with them the risk of unacceptable collateral damage, which would be exploited by the insurgents to the detriment of the security forces and their counter-insurgency operations.

6. One of the lessons from this incident could be to avoid air strikes on stationery fuel tankers. Air strikes on fuel tankers moving on country roads in an isolated or thinly-inhabited area normally will carry less danger of civilian fatalities. There are situations where the security forces should resist the urge to act. What happened on September 4 was one such situation. (5-9-09)

( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: )