Joint Inquiry Sought Into U.S.-Led Strike In Afghan Town

By Javed Hamdard and Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 31, 2008

HERAT, Afghanistan, Aug. 30 -- NATO's top commander in Afghanistan on Saturday called for a joint investigation into a U.S.-led airstrike that U.N. and Afghan officials say killed as many as 90 civilians recently. Meanwhile, an Afghan military official involved in the attack said misinformation led U.S. forces to hit the wrong target.

Gen. David D. McKiernan's appeal for a coordinated inquiry came four days after U.N. officials in Afghanistan said their investigators had found "convincing evidence" that at least 60 children and 30 adults were killed in the Aug. 21 airstrike in the western province of Herat. U.S. military officials maintain that five civilians were killed.

NATO officials have said that about 40 Taliban insurgents were killed in the attack on a compound in the town of Azizabad.

"General McKiernan wants to ensure that the numbers can be reconciled somehow, so it's important that there's cooperation," said Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, a spokesman for McKiernan. "It's very surprising that the numbers are so disparate. We believe that this could be because of some Taliban propaganda or misinformation."

Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, a U.S. military spokeswoman, said the U.S. military is still looking into the incident but would welcome a cooperative effort to resolve any discrepancies. "We are hopeful that a collaborative inquiry will result in finding out the truth," she said.

Official results of the U.S. investigation are expected to be publicized within the next few days. But U.S. military officials said last week that an initial inquiry had determined that 25 insurgents and five civilians were killed in what the Pentagon called a "well-coordinated" and "legitimate" raid on a Taliban commander's hideout.

Dan McNorton, a U.N. spokesman in Afghanistan, said the United Nations stands by its initial findings but welcomes NATO's call for a joint inquiry. "But it needs to be broad-based, and it needs to include all the key players: the Afghans, the U.S. military, NATO, the United Nations," he said.

Faced with rising public discontent with foreign military operations in the country, Afghan President Hamid Karzai last Sunday fired two Afghan army officials involved in the Azizabad bombing. His government also called for an agreement for greater coordination among U.S., NATO and Afghan security forces.

Gen. Jalandar Shah Behnam, commander of the Afghan national army division involved in the raid, said Karzai fired him without cause after details of confusion over the operation emerged last week.

In an interview, Behnam said the military action began around 6 p.m. on Aug. 21 when the commander of the Afghan commando unit in Herat notified him that security forces had located the hideout of a local Taliban commander. Behnam said his superior gave him permission to move ahead with the raid and for Afghan forces to assist.

Two hours later, around 8 p.m., Behnam said, the commander told him that U.S. and Afghan forces had called off the operation because the target, a Taliban commander known as Mullah Siddiq, had moved to a new location. Behnam said his commander called him again at 10 p.m., saying the operation was back on because U.S. and Afghan forces had located Siddiq at a new target site.

The bombing began between midnight and 1 a.m. after Taliban insurgents opened fire on U.S. and Afghan soldiers, Behnam said. The morning after the attack, he said, the local police chief and a tribal elder called him to say that at least 75 civilians, including women and children, had been killed.

"I think that the main target was somewhere else, and as the U.S. and Afghan forces were passing by Azizabad on the way to the target they came under attack," Behnam said in an interview. "One of the American Special Forces soldiers was injured, and then the Special Forces called for air support to bombard the village.

"I still don't know where the main target was supposed to be, and neither does the commander of our commando unit," he said.

A spokesman for Karzai's office did not immediately respond to several e-mail and telephone requests for comment.

A U.S. military official familiar with details of the operation said Taliban insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades and small weapons at U.S. and Afghan forces approaching the compound. The U.S. forces called for air support, and a U.S. AC-130 gunship bombarded the area. The military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry is ongoing, said automatic weapons, several thousand dollars in cash, bomb-making materials and goods stolen from a U.S. military base were found on the site.

Haji Gul Ahmed, 50, a taxi driver who lives in the village, said he and his family were sleeping in a nearby building when the raid began.

"Suddenly, there were large planes above us. Then they bombed the house," he said. "They bombed and fired from 1 a.m. to 8 a.m. All of my relatives were killed in this bombing -- my cousins, my uncles, nieces, nephews, two of my daughters and my son."

Ahmed said police officials helped recover the dead and injured. He said he and other villagers counted at least 75 residents who had been killed, including an infant. "It was difficult for us to get to the bodies and to bury them. We buried five children in one grave and four children in another grave," he said.

The airstrike marked the second time in a little more than a year that Afghan officials in Herat have complained that U.S. military action in the area resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties. In May 2007, Afghan officials said 42 civilians were killed, including women and children, and 50 were injured in a series of airstrikes in three villages south of Herat city.

A U.S. military investigation into the incident concluded that the number of civilian casualties from the strikes was a fraction of those claimed by Afghan officials, according to a U.S. military official. The Afghan government paid residents thousands of dollars in compensation and called for a halt to foreign military operations in the region.

Rondeaux reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company