The airstrikes in Kunduz on Friday night targeted three villages in Chardara, a district west of the provincial capital where Taliban fighters have long maintained a strong presence.
Afghan security forces prevented access to the bomb sites in Essa Khil, Qatl-e Aam and Uzbek Bazaar, barring relatives from picking up bodies and hindering a precise assessment of the toll. Afghan forces claimed no civilians had been killed in the strikes.
A provincial council member, Khosh Mohammad Nasratyar, estimated that around 55 civilians had been killed while an Afghan aid worker in the area, who asked not to be named, said at least 40 had been killed, including multiple women and children. The New York Times, citing residents and officials in the area, said at least 13 were dead.
An Afghan security official, who also asked not to be named, said the Taliban had forced locals to carry bodies of insurgents killed the night before, just as the bombers struck, according to the Guardian.
A spokesman for the US military in Afghanistan, Capt Tom Gresback, said US forces were looking into the allegations of civilian casualties but declined to say more about the operation, which he said was “ongoing”.
American and Afghan forces had been carrying out operations in the area for several days, but residents said aerial attacks intensified on Friday night with jets, bombers and drones crossing the sky incessantly.
Residents said the bombings shook windows in the provincial capital and seemed worse than similar strikes in 2015, when coalition and Afghan forces battled the Taliban for two weeks inside the city.
US airstrikes have surged dramatically since Donald Trump announced his Afghanistan strategy. More than 900 munitions were released in August and September, bringing this year’s total to nearly 3,000, more than twice the expended munitions last year.
The growing air campaign is a result of greater autonomy bestowed by Trump on his generals, and a possible sign of the direction of US involvement in Afghanistan. The CIA is reportedly seeking authority to conduct its own drone strikes in Afghanistan, a first if approved, according to the New York Times.
Kunduz has long been one of the most tormented Afghan provinces, especially since 2015 when the Taliban captured and held the provincial capital. During the fight to retake the city, Afghan special forces called in a US airstrike which hit a hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières, killing 42 people in one of the most spectacular mistakes of the war.