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Published:November 28th, 2010 15:32 EST
U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan

White Phosphorus Suspected In Afghan Conflict

By Christopher HIllenbrand

Physicians grew suspicious over the "unusual" burns on Afghani villagers who emerged from the ever-widening epicenter of the U.S.-Taliban conflict, which appeared to have resulted from a chemical weapon. A leading human rights group in Afghanistan has postulated that the cause for the strange forms of burns is white phosphorus, a dangerously flammable chemical used for illuminating darkened combat zones in the course of military operations, but further investigations will need to be conducted.

people injured in Afghan conflict

U.S. military officials refuted claims that they had used the spontaneously combustible material in the Farah province battle during which fighter jets deployed bombs, consequentially slaying enemy soldiers and innocents alike.

The U.S. Department of Defense has indicted Taliban military forces for harnessing the chemical in combat at least four times in the last two years in their ongoing war. White phosphorus is normally commissioned as an incendiary device, but has been criticized for military purposes considering the substance breeds serious burns on the skin. Though the sideeffects of the chemical are widely denounced by human rights activists worldwide, international law still allows its usage in combat situations to make a target more visible and/or to create smokescreens in the midst of battle. Cases in the past confirmed that the chemical, when exploited over heavily populated regions, more often than not produced adverse effects on innocent civilians seeing the weapon can`t distinguish friend from foe. Activists even venture to call the military`s conduct with the material a war crime seeing the hideous results.

GlobalSecurity.org affirmed the extremely negative effects of the chemical especially on human flesh.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai touted that while American Armed Forces are suspected of using white phosphorus, there is a possibility that Taliban militants might`ve implemented the chemical in warfare, though it`s unclear whether of not it was used. The president also said that approximately 125 to 130 civilians were killed in the action that began last Monday in the province.

According to The Associated Press, Afghan health officials told the news source that a minimum of 14 patients from the aftermath of the Farah province sortie on Monday exhibited serious burns that they had never encountered before.

The accusations citing the connection between the U.S. and the recent white phosphorus-related chemical burns is fueling a heated row within the Afghanistan government. Top Afghani officials report that the newest onslaught may be the worst number of civilian deaths killed since the U.S.`s incursion back in 2001 that toppled the Taliban regime.

As an answer to reports of America`s involvement with the villagers` slayings, hundreds of protesters rallied near Kabul University in the country`s capital on Sunday to shun the U.S.`s military occupation in the country and its participation in the deaths. Dissidents shouted anti-U.S. slogans while carrying signs bearing unsympathetic phrases against the United States.

Karzai censured the use of airstrikes carried out by American forces as in the past but voiced a new emphasis over the ban of any U.S. assault from the air because of the unacceptable amount of innocent casualties.

Experts on the conflict speculate that Taliban combatants may have detained villagers in their homes so their deaths may become a lightning rod for controversy.

But contrary to the Afghani public opinion, President Barack Obama`s national security adviser echoed the administration`s stance in continuing to engage in airstrike assaults on the war front in Afghanistan. Retired Gen. James Jones referred to the airstrike as an option that may be the only reasonable course of action in certain scenarios, since "(the United States) can`t fight with one hand tied behind our back."

The Afghan Human Rights Commission in addition to U.S. and Afghani investigators, have begun probing into the causes behind the odd burn marks, which are indicative of white phosphorus coming in contact with the skin. Nader Nadery, a top official with the Afghan commission, said investigations have not yet confirmed or denied any of their suspicions.

Nadery said: "Our teams have met with patients. They are investigating the cause of the injuries and the use of white phosphorus."

The U.S. Armed Forces officially used white phosphorus in the battle of Fallujah, Iraq in November 2004, and the Israel Defense Forces implemented it against Hamas militants and installations along the Gaza frontier at an end of the Israeli Operation Cast lead in January.

Col. Greg Julian, leading spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, asserted that U.S. forces did not use white phosphorus to any degree in last week`s air raids over the Farah province, and restated the U.S.`s policy dictating that the chemical is never utilized in lighting up the night sky.

Julian relayed that military officials think Taliban soldiers have used the substance at least four times in Afghanistan since 2007.

"I don`t know if they (enemy soldiers) had it out there or not, but it`s not out of the question," he concluded.

Taliban spokespeople weren`t available for comment on Sunday.

On Saturday, Afghan doctors said the injuries afflicted on Afghan villagers in Farah`s Bala Baluk district, where the bombings were concentrated, might have been caused by hand grenade or propane tank explosions, according to the U.S. military.

Five of the survivors rescued from the leveled villages in Farah were treated at the Herat Regional Hospital in western Afghanistan where the head of its burn unit, Dr. Mohammad Aref Jalali, deemed the burns as very "unusual".

"I think it`s the result of a chemical used in a bomb, but I`m not sure what kind of chemical," he said. "But it was a result of a burning house - from petrol or gas cylinders - that kind of burn would look different."

Gul Ahmad Ayubi, a leading aide within Farah`s health department, confirmed that the province`s chief hospital admitted 14 patients from the war-ravaged region, all of whom suffered from chemical-related burns.

"There has been other airstrikes in Farah in the past," he said. "We had injuries from those battles, but this is the first time we have seen such burns on the bodies. I`m not sure what kind of bomb it was."

An official for the U.N., who wishes to remain anonymous due to the nature of the case, said the organization has now employed human rights investigators to inquire into the causes for the burns that are regarded as "extensive" and inconsistent with non-chemical explosions. The official later told reporters the U.N. hasn`t come to any reasonable conclusion as to whether or not chemical weapons had been used in the airstrikes.

Despite claims released by the Afghanistan government putting the death toll for last week at 147, the United States argues that the figure is embellished and is actually slightly less.

Coinciding with the inquiries into the cause of the burns, the Human Rights Watch for NATO forces has supported the release of the verdict behind an investigation over an 8-year-old Afghani girl who was burned by white phosphorus in the Kapisa province on March 14th.

The Human Rights Watch cited that white phosphorus "causes horrendous burns and should not be used in civilian areas."

In Paktika, a U.S. commanded task force conjoined with Afghani army forces killed one Taliban militant during an operation late Saturday evening 95 miles south of the capital.

Taliban guerrila fighters ambushed an Afghan police squad, killing two officers in Paktia, 85 miles south of Kabul.

During the most recent insurgency, a twin suicide bomb strike killed seven people and injured 20 while attacking a police convoy in southern Helmand province on Sunday, according the sources in the Afghan interior ministry. Dawood Ahmadi, spokesperson for the regional government, said that most casualties were law enforcement and military units deployed after the initial foray.

The Afghan Defense Ministry also confirmed that two Afghan troops were injured by a roadside bomb explosion in Helmand, approximately 215 miles southwest of the Afghan capital.

Earlier in the eastern province of Nangarhar, about 75 miles east of Kabul, eight constructon workers were killed by a roadside bomb as they drove toward the site where they were building a checkpoint for the nation`s border police.

In Zabul province, a truck driver and two co-workers on their way to a U.S. military base were also killed by a roadside bomb.

Since 2006, Taliban rebels have ramped up attacks against the ruling government in place and the U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan helping to quell the enemy`s advances.

With the violence escalating, President Barack Obama has pledged 21,000 additional American ground troops to reinforce the 38,000 currently deployed in the country.