White Phosphorus Suspected In Afghan War Theatre
On the 28th of June 2008, French ISAF-troops from Task Force Chimera deployed in Afghanistan’s Kapisa Province learned from one of their spies that rebels were mounting an attack on their advanced camp, Foreward Operating BSB Kutchbach. The French commanders resolved that they were facing an imminent threat that entitled them to call for air support. Within minutes, an F-15 fighter plane codenamed Dude 11 was soaring in the skies above.
”’Dude 11’ gave air support and fired 24 rounds of 120 mm white phosphorus and 17 rounds of 120 mm ammunition” against the rebels. ”No casualty assessment was reported”.
This incident is merely one example of the use of white phosphorus in the war against the Taliban. It has been extracted from 14,841 secret intelligence reports from Afghanistan which have been obtained by Information, and many similar examples that would seem to document conclusively, that ISAF is indeed using white phosphorus as an assault weapon, can be found in this material.
NATO’s use of white phosphorus – a napalm-like substance – in the war against the Taliban is highly controversial, since white phosphorus is categorized as a so-called inhumane weapon, which many countries, including Denmark, have committed themselves not to use in populated areas.
According to the rules of war, the warring parties are to refrain from using weapons that may cause unnecessary suffering. And according to International Red Cross and many others, this is indeed the case with white phosphorus.
White phosphorus is a so-called incendiary weapon with an effect similar to napalm.
Its spontaneously flammable substance burns upon contact with the skin and continues to burn as long as there is any oxygen. The substance is fat-dissolving and therefore burns to the bone, causing horrible wounds, which will spread and cannot heal. For the same reason, even minor phosphorus burns may be lethal.
From the almost 5,000 intelligence reports from Afghanistan that Information has in its possession, it can be deduced that white phosphorus is used in a much larger scale than previously known. In most cases, the coalition forces fire a few phosphorous grenades to illuminate a war zone at night, to produce a smoke screen to facilitate a withdrawal or to mark a bombing target.
But several logs suggest that the napalm-like substance is also used as an assault weapon against the Taliban and their allies.
Among the more than 50 reports on white phosphorus contained in the new material, there is evidence that coalition forces shoot 20, 30 or 50 rounds of phosphorus munitions directly against a single insurgent target.
A report dated 19 June 2008 mentions such an example. In this case, U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan spotted a hostile rebel position.
”In response TF Eagle fired 30 x 120mm white phosphorus onto that grid and dropped 2xGBU31s on vicinity same grid”, ISAF report number # 06-862 notes
In summary, the total material from Afghanistan contains more than 1.100 reports showing the use of white phosphorus in everything from grenades to artillery pieces as well as rockets and bombs – througthout the country.
According to logs, the use of white phosphorous is concentrated in eastern Afghanistan bordering Pakistan, where the war against the Taliban has been at its most intense, but military reports show that the substance is used throughout the country, including in the Helmand Province, where the Danish forces are deployed.
Demands an inquiry
The extensive use of white phosphorus has caused concern among human rights organizations who believe that the use of napalm-like substance is problematic in a war that often takes place in residential areas such as the Green Zone.
Peter Vedel Kessing, a senior scholar and international law expert at Denmark’s Institute for Human Rights is among those who believe that white phosphorus should be avoided.
”To the extent that white phosphorus is used directly against combatants in Afghanistan, there is in my view a risk of causing damages that are unnecessary and superfluous in relation to the achieved military objectives,” he observes, pointing out, that according to The Inhumane Weapons Convention, protocol III, that has been signed by several countries, Denmark included, this substance is not to be used in densely populated areas.
”Being hit by white phosphorus will make you burn, and the fire is almost impossible to extinguish. The necessity of using this weapon certainly can be called into question,” he says.
Amnesty International agrees:
”Basically, it is not a weapon designed to attack enemy forces head on, but rather to light up the night sky,” says press spokesman of Danish AI, Ole Hoff-Lund who calls for a public inquiry into the use of this controversial weapon.
”If it makes any sens to talk about ’inhumane weapons’, white phosphorus certainly belongs to this category, since it leaves its victims in unimaginable pains. Therefore, it is important that the military considers how and why ISAF shold use munitions with white phosphorus,” he says.
John Hart, a senior scholar at the renowned Swedish think tank SIPRI, explains that white phosphorus is normally used to mark a target. When fired, projectiles arc, and if you fire white phosphorus munitions in between the regular ammunition, it becomes easier to make corrections to your shooting trajectory.”
He does not believe that white phosphorus is a military necessity, especially when it comes to air craft bombs.
”White phosphorus in air craft bombs may also be intended to mark a bombing target, thus notifying pilots where to drop their bomb load, but with modern targeting technology, there should be no need to use white phosphorus,” John Hart, head of SIPRI’s Chemical and Biological Security Project, says.
Elizabeth Quintana from the think tank Royal United Services Institute confirms the use of white phosphorus, but is very surprised to learn that ISAF is also using white phosphorous as a means of attack.
”White phosphorus is normally used as a means of illuminating the battlefield and to provide fire guidance,” she says. ”It is well known that the U.S. insists on its right to use white phosphorus as an offensive weapon, but in this regard, other NATO-countries have adapted tougher rules”, Elizabeth Quintana, head of RUSI’s Air Power and Technology Programme, stresses.
”In Afghanistan, individual coalition members act under the ISAF umbrella, but they also have to comply with national rules of engagement, including rules for the use of white phosphorus,” she says and stresses: ”This means that the British forces in Afghanistan should not use white phosphorus, wheras the U.S. certainly have been using it at number of times in the past.”
Apparently, the new documents do not include any examples where Danish forces have used white phosphorous against the Taliban, but since the Danish forces can act as FF (Friendly Forces), in some cases, it will be impossible to determine the nationality of the units providing coverage.
At Denmark’s Army’s Operational Command, military lawyer Rolf Verge assures that the Danish forces in Afghanistan never use white phosphorus in other contexts than illumantion, smoke-screening and target marking, when they call for air support.
”The advantage of using white phosphorus in target marking is that it burns very long and therefore highlights the bombing target in a significant way,” he says and stresses that ”white phosphorus will only be used against objects, never against people.”
”That would not be in accordance with the rules that Danish forces are required to comply with. Generally, no weapons that cause unnecessary suffering should be used, and white phosphorus certainly does. If you get phosphorus on you, it burns continually and you cannot get it off. It consequently leaves some very grisly wounds,” Rolf Verge says. ”The rules setting out the use of white phosphorus and other inhumane weapons have been drawn up, precisely because there must be an upper limit to barbarism.”
Whether it is necessary to use white phosphorus at all, he declines to comment on the grounds that this is not a legal issue but a question of military tactics.
ISAF spokeswoman Navy Lieutenant Nicole R. Schwegman at the coalition forces’ headquarters in Kabul confirms that ISAF is indeed using white phosphorus for various purposes, including as an assault weapon.
”White phosphorus is a legitimate weapon, primarily used for non incendiary purposes such as illumination, detection missions and selecting bombing targets”, she says and stresses that all use of white phosphorus takes place in accordance with the general rules of armed conflict. In particular those rules which state that warring parties must not use weapons that cause unnecessary damage.
In those cases where ISAF forces have used white phosphorus as an assault weapon, additional requirements in order to safeguard the civilian population should be met, Nicole R. Schwegman says.
”When white phosphorus is used as an incendiary weapon, the more restrictive rules in protocol III of the Weapons Convention apply, stipulating that all precautions should be taken to minimize civilian injuries,” she says and stresses that ISAF in general ”goes to great lenghts to protect civilians in our operations.”
Protocol II three prohibits among other things the use of white phosphorus against civilians and against military targets in densely populated areas.
”Use of white phosphorous as an incendiary weapon against military targets in areas with dense concentrations of civilians is prohibited,unless the military objective is clearly separated from the civilians,” says Christian Cardon De Lichtbuer from the International Red Cross in Geneva and stresses that in all events, its is forbidden to drop fire bombs from aircrafts in areas with ”a high concentration of civilians.”