Divergent Accounts of Afghan Strike Raise Tension

Published: September 7, 2008

AZIZABAD, Afghanistan — To the villagers here, there is no doubt what happened in an American airstrike on Aug. 22: more than 90 civilians, the majority of them women and children, were killed. The Afghan government, human rights and intelligence officials, independent witnesses and a United Nations investigation back up their account, pointing to dozens of freshly dug graves, lists of the dead, and cellphone videos and other footage showing bodies of women and children laid out in the village mosque.

Cellphone footage seen by this reporter shows at least 11 dead children, some with blast and concussion injuries, among some 30 to 40 bodies laid out in the village mosque. Ten days after the airstrikes, villagers dug up the last victim from the rubble, a baby just a few months old. Their shock and grief is still palpable.

For two weeks, the United States military has insisted that only five to seven civilians, and 30 to 35 militants, were killed in what it says was a successful operation against the Taliban: a Special Operations ground mission backed up by American air support. But on Sunday, Gen. David D. McKiernan, the senior American commander in Afghanistan, requested that a general be sent from Central Command to review the American military investigation in light of “emerging evidence.”

“The people of Afghanistan have our commitment to get to the truth,” he said in a statement.

The military investigation drew on what military officials called convincing technical evidence documenting a far smaller number of graves, as well as a thorough sweep of this small western hamlet, a building by building search a few hours after the airstrikes, and a return visit on Aug. 26, which villagers insist never occurred.

The repercussions of the airstrikes have consumed both the Afghan government and the American military, wearing the patience of Afghans at all levels after repeated cases of civilian casualties over the last six years and threatening to erode their tolerance for the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai visited Azizabad on Thursday to pay his respects to the mourners, condemning the strikes, and vowing to arrest the Afghan he says misled American forces with false intelligence.

President Bush expressed his regrets and sympathy in a call to Mr. Karzai on Wednesday. And General McKiernan has issued several statements voicing sorrow for civilian casualties.

The Afghan government is demanding changes in the accords defining the United States military engagement in Afghanistan, in particular ending American military raids on villages and halting the detention of Afghan nationals.

“People are sick of hearing there is another case of civilian casualties,” one presidential aide said.

The accounts of the airstrikes’ aftermath given by Afghans and Americans could not be further apart.

A visitor to the village and to three graveyards within its limits last Sunday counted 42 freshly dug graves. Thirteen of the graves were so small they could hold only children; another 13 were marked with stones in the way Afghans identify women’s graves.

Villagers questioned separately identified relatives in the graves; their names matched the accounts given by elders of the village of who died in each of eight bomb-damaged houses and where they were buried. They were quite specific about who was killed in the airstrikes and did not count those who died for other reasons; one of the fresh graves, they said, belonged to a man who was killed when villagers demonstrated against the Afghan Army on Aug. 23.

At the battle scene, shell craters dotted the courtyards and shrapnel had gouged holes in the walls. Rooms had collapsed and mud bricks and torn clothing lay in uneven mounds where people had been digging. In two places blood was splattered on the ceiling and a wall. An old woman pushed forward with a cauldron full with jagged metal bomb fragments, and a youth presented cellphone video footage he said was shot on the day of the bombing; there was no time stamp.

The smell of bodies lingered in one compound, causing villagers to start digging with spades. They found the body of a baby, caked in dust, in the corner of a bombed-out room.

Cellphone footage a villager said he shot and seen by this reporter showed two lines of about 20 bodies each laid out in the mosque, with the sounds of loud sobbing and villagers’ cries in the background.

An Afghan doctor who runs a clinic in a nearby village said he counted 50 to 60 bodies of civilians, most of them women and children and some of them his own patients, laid out in the village mosque on the day of the strike. The doctor, who works for a reputable nongovernmental organization here, at first gave his name but then asked that it be withheld because he feared retribution from Afghans feeding intelligence to the Americans.

The United States military, in a series of statements about the operation, has accused the villagers of spreading Taliban propaganda. Speaking on condition that their names not be used, some military officials have suggested that the villagers fabricated such evidence as grave sites — and, by implication, that other investigators had been duped. But many villagers have connections to the Afghan police, NATO, or the Americans through reconstruction projects, and they say they oppose the Taliban.

The district chief of Shindand, Lal Muhammad Umarzai, 45, said he personally counted 76 bodies that day, and he believed that more bodies were unearthed over the next two days, bringing the total to more than 90. Mr. Umarzai has been praised for bringing security to the district in the three months since his appointment and is on good terms with American and NATO forces in the region.

American military investigators said that they had interviewed him and that he had told them he had no access to the village. But Mr. Umarzai said Taliban supporters came into the village mid-morning after the airstrikes, forcing him and the police to leave the village, but that later he was able to return and attend the burials.

The United Nations issued a statement pointing to evidence it considers conclusive that about 90 civilians were killed, some 75 of them women and children. One possible reason for the discrepancy is that bodies are scattered in different locations; many of the victims were visiting Azizabad for a family memorial ceremony, and their relatives took their bodies back to their home villages for burial, villagers and relatives said. This reporter did not visit the other villages but was given a detailed list of names and places where the remaining victims were buried.

Accounts from survivors, including three people wounded in the bombing, described repeated strikes on houses where dozens of children were sleeping, grandparents and uncles and aunts huddled inside with them. Most of the village families were asleep when the shooting broke out, some sleeping out under mosquito nets in the yards of their houses, some inside the small domed rooms of their houses, lying close together on the floor, with up to 10 or 20 people in a room.

“I woke up when I heard shooting,” Zainab, a 26-year-old woman who doctors said was wounded in the attack, said in an interview in Herat city hospital.

“The shooting was very close to our house. We just stayed where we were because it was dangerous to go out,” she said. “When the bombardment started there was smoke everywhere and we lay down to protect ourselves.”

Yakhakhan, 51, one of several men in the village working for a private security firm, and who uses just one name, said he heard shooting and was just coming out of his house when his neighbor’s sons ran in.

“They were killed right here; they were 10 and 7 years old,” he said. In the compound next to his, he said, four entire families, including those of his two brothers, were killed.

“They bombard us, they hate us, they kill us,” he said of the Americans. “God will punish them.”

A policeman, Abdul Hakim, whose four children were killed and whose wife was paralyzed, said she had told him how an Afghan informer accompanying the American Special Operations forces had entered the compound after the bombardment and shot dead her brother, Reza Khan; her father, and an uncle as they were trying to help her. She said she had heard her father plead for help and ask the Afghan: “Are you a Muslim? Why are you doing this to us?” Then she heard shots, and her father did not speak after that, he said.

A United States military spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, said in an e-mail message that she was unaware of such an allegation, and that the American military did not have Afghan civilian informers accompanying its forces during the mission. Soldiers treated wounded people at the scene, which indicated that the Laws of Armed Conflict were followed, she said.

While the American forces reported they had come under fire upon entering the village, it is not clear from whom. The villagers and the relatives of some of the men killed in the raid insisted none of them were Taliban, nor were there Taliban present in the village. Eight of the men killed worked as security guards for a private security company and so did possess weapons, said Gul Ahmed Khan, whose brother, Reza Khan, supplied the guards to the security firm ArmorGroup, an American contractor. Two other ArmorGroup guards and three members of the local Afghan police were detained by United States forces during the raid. Four of them were released a week later.

The Khan brothers are from the most prominent family in the village and were hosting the memorial ceremony for their brother, Taimoor Shah, who was killed in a business dispute a year ago. They had cards issued by an American Special Forces officer that designated each of them as a “coordinator for the U.S.S.F.” Another brother, Haji Abdul Rashid, blamed a business rival for feeding American forces with false information about the family.

American military officials in Afghanistan and Washington have stood by their much lower body count. Capt. Christian Patterson, an American military spokesman at Bagram air base north of Kabul, said that an investigating officer, an Special Forces major, visited the village after the airstrikes. Based on aerial photographs, he visited six burial sites within a 10-kilometer range of the incident; only one had any freshly dug graves, about 18 to 20 in total, Captain Patterson said. The investigating report does not indicate whether they were the graves of children or women.

The officer did not interview villagers, he said.

Mr. Khan, whose house is just yards from the main graveyard, which contains 24 fresh graves, said no members of the American military had entered the village since Aug. 22. Villagers living around the graveyards would have seen them, he said.

The American military also said that it had only found two wounded people, a woman and a child, at the scene, and that in a survey of clinics, doctors and hospitals of the area it had found no other wounded.

In a series of statements about the operation, the American military has said that extremists who entered the village after the bombardment encouraged villagers to change their story and inflate the number of dead. Yet the Afghan government and the United Nation have stood by the victims’ families and their accounts, not least because many of the families work for the Afghan government or reconstruction projects. The villagers say they oppose the Taliban and would not let them in the village.

“You can see our I.D. cards,” said a police officer, Muhammad Alam, 35, who was accused by the Americans of being a Taliban supporter and detained for a week after the airstrikes, then released. “If the Taliban caught me they would slaughter me.”

Two families in the village have lost men serving in the police during recent Taliban attacks. Reza Khan, whose house was the main target of the U.S. Special Operations forces operation and who was shot dead in the operation, was a wealthy businessman with construction and security contracts with the nearby American base at Shindand airport, and with a mobile phone business in the town of Herat. A recent photo of him shows a clean-shaven, slightly portly man in a suit and tie — far from the typical look of a Taliban militant.

His brother, Haji Rashid, said the American forces “should question the people who gave them the wrong information.”

“We want them brought to trial and punished for what they have done,” he added.

His claim was supported by the district chief, Mr. Umarzai, who said, “The victims did not fire on the Americans.”

He said he suspected that an informer, who falsely told the American forces that Taliban fighters were in the village that night, also staged the firefight. The gunmen first fired on the police checkpoint on the edge of the village that night, he said.

“When the Americans came, they laid down heavy gunfire and then they left the area. Then the Americans called in airstrikes,” he said.

Villagers also challenged the American military’s claims that it successfully conducted its planned operation against a Taliban commander, Mullah Sadiq, and a group of his men.

A man claiming to be Mullah Sadiq called into Radio Liberty several days after the raid and declared that he was alive and well and was never in the village of Azizabad that night. Reporters at the radio station, who asked not to be identified, said they knew his voice well and double-checked the recording with residents of Shindand and they were sure the caller was Mullah Sadiq.

American military officials have said that the man who called into the radio program was an imposter and that they are confident they killed their target.

A senior American officer who has been briefed on the military investigation’s findings said in an e-mail message: “I will simply say that the soldiers — U.S. and Afghan — reported what they saw and found at each building site as they looked for material, weapons, bodies. I cannot explain why later the numbers are so far apart.”

Members of the Afghan government investigation commission said that the Americans were just covering up the truth.

“The Americans are guilty in this incident: it is much better for them to confess the reality rather than hiding the truth,” said Abdul Salam Qazizada, a parliamentarian and government-commission member from Herat province, where the village is located.

Villagers suggested that the soldiers just counted those who died in the open and did not try to dig under the rubble. A local journalist, Reza Shir Mohammadi, said that when he visited the village on second day, women and children were still weeping at one collapsed house, saying they still had not found their mother and siblings.

The operation in Azizabad once again raises questions for the military about whether it is worth pursuing members of the Taliban with airstrikes inside a densely populated village where the collateral damage can be so high. A similar raid in the same district by American Special Forces in April last year that killed 57 people led American and NATO commanders to tighten rules on calling in airstrikes on village houses.

“This is not fair to kill 90 people for one Mullah Sadiq,” said Mr. Umarzai, the district chief. “If they continue like this, they will lose the people’s confidence in the government and the coalition forces.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Sangar Rahimi and Abdul Waheed Wafa from Azizabad and Kabul.

source : The New York Times

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