U.S. Rejects Claims of Afghan Deaths

By Candace Rondeaux and Javed Hamdard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 2 -- U.S. military officials on Tuesday flatly rejected claims by the United Nations and the Afghan government that a U.S. airstrike in western Afghanistan two weeks ago killed at least 90 Afghan civilians, saying that a complete investigation into the incident found that only five civilians were killed.

A review of video footage and photos, and an analysis of burial sites after the strike in Azizabad village in Herat province in the early morning of Aug. 22, found that 30 to 35 Taliban insurgents and five civilian relatives of a Taliban commander died in the attack, according to a summary of the findings released Tuesday. Two other civilians were injured, it said.

Interviews with 30 American and Afghan participants in the military operation further reinforced the conclusion that the incident's toll was considerably lower than those suggested by eyewitnesses, the summary said.

Faced with mounting public anger over civilian casualties as the war approaches its eighth year, President Hamid Karzai has become increasingly critical of coalition airstrikes in recent months. With casualties among foreign troops also hitting record highs amid a Taliban resurgence, the pressure comes at a pivotal time for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

Days after the attack in Azizabad, Karzai's government called for a review of NATO and U.S. military conduct in the field and demanded a formal agreement that spells out U.S. and NATO responsibilities in Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, NATO said it accidentally killed four children in Paktika province with artillery fire.

First Lt. Nathan Perry, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, said the new report's conclusions would be passed on to NATO officials, who last week called for a joint inquiry with U.S., U.N. and Afghan officials into the airstrike. "This is more than just a statement. This is forensic evidence, so we're going to pass it on as part of the joint investigation so that hopefully any discrepancies will be resolved," Perry said.

NATO officials could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday.

The U.S. findings were released about a week after U.N. officials in Afghanistan said their own inquiry had found "convincing evidence" that scores of civilians -- many of them women and children -- were killed in the airstrike on Azizabad. U.N. officials remain steadfast in their belief that the bombing was the deadliest U.S. military action in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001.

In recent interviews, several Afghans who witnessed or participated in the operation gave civilian casualty tolls that were far higher than the American findings, though there was a wide disparity in the numbers and sharp conflicts in accounts of what occurred during and in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

Local shopkeeper Abdul Majid, 40, said he lost 13 family members in the raid. "It was 1:30 at night and we were sleeping. I heard some gunfire and I woke up. Later, there was more and more. It lasted 20 minutes; then three planes came and started bombing," Majid said. Afghan troops entered his house, he said, and took him away, his hands bound, after ordering him to leave his children behind.

"If NATO and the government want to bomb a place, they should first make sure that there are Taliban there and then they should bomb them," Majid said. "If they bomb our women and children then everyone knows there won't be peace in the country."

In an interview, a high-ranking officer in the Afghan National Army who was fired early last week by Karzai after controversy erupted over the bombing, concurred with U.S. findings that U.S. and Afghan forces called in the airstrike after taking heavy fire from Taliban insurgents in the village between midnight and 1 a.m. on Aug. 22.

But the officer, Gen. Jalandar Shah Behnam, said there were signs that the Afghan and U.S. soldiers were confused about their target when the operation against a compound in Azizabad began several hours earlier. He said coalition forces had received misinformation about who was inside the compound.

He echoed reports that as many as 60 children, 19 women and more than a dozen men in the village of about 1,200 people were killed.

Fazel Mohammed, Azizabad's police chief, said he and several of his men were nearby when he heard machine-gun fire near the compound. Shortly after the firefight, U.S. jets flew overhead and unleashed several bombs on the site, the police chief said.

After encountering resistance from coalition forces and angry local villagers, Mohammed eventually gained entry to the site about 9 a.m. "I saw 76 dead bodies which were brought to the nearest mosque. I saw with my own eyes 50 children between the ages of 2 and 13, 19 women and seven men among the dead," Mohammed said. "Other people were busy trying to pull the bodies from beneath the compound."

Mohammed said that many other bodies were taken to the nearby western province of Farah because several who were killed had traveled from there for a memorial service for a local resident of Azizabad. He said he suspected that some of the villagers had hidden the bodies of Taliban fighters.

When he later visited the coalition forces base near Azizabad, Mohammed learned that a U.S. soldier involved in the operation had been injured in the leg. "They showed us 12 AK-47 and PK machine guns covered with blood and dust," Mohammed said, adding that villagers said the guns belonged to Afghan security contractors who work with coalition forces in the region.

The U.S. military investigation found "firm evidence" that insurgents were planning to attack the nearby coalition base. Evidence collected at the bombing site included weapons, explosives, intelligence materials and an access badge to a nearby base, as well as photographs from inside and outside the base, according to the investigative summary released Tuesday.

The U.S. report made no mention of a U.S. soldier being injured in the operation. Perry said privacy laws bar the military from detailing injuries to U.S. soldiers and referred further questions about the investigation to NATO officials.

Hamdard reported from Azizabad.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company