U.S. Team to Reinvestigate Deadly Strike In Afghanistan
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 8 -- The U.S. Central Command will send a senior team, headed by a general and including a legal affairs officer, to reinvestigate a U.S. air attack last month that U.N. and Afghan officials say killed 90 civilians, amid mounting public outrage in Afghanistan and evidence that conflicts with the military's initial version of events.
The U.S. decision to again probe the Aug. 21 attack in Azizabad, near the western city of Herat, came at the urging of Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan. McKiernan said he was prompted by "emerging evidence" that threw into question the finding of a U.S. investigation that five to seven civilians died. McKiernan had earlier said he concurred with that finding.
The attack and the widely divergent accounts of its toll have exposed long-standing tensions between U.S. forces in Afghanistan and other major players in the war there, including the government of President Hamid Karzai, the U.N. assistance mission and the NATO military command. Underlying the dispute over civilian casualties are a lack of communication, a diffuse command structure and differing military rules of engagement.
Military officials said the new evidence included a cellphone video showing dozens of civilian bodies, including those of numerous children, prepared for burial in Azizabad after the attack. McKiernan was shown the video Friday by Kai Eide, the chief U.N. representative in Afghanistan.
"The footage that is there on this shows horrendous pictures of these bodies and clearly identifies women and children. In some cases, the bodies are not in one piece," a U.N. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Whether you say it was 76 or 82 or even 92 -- it was clearly not seven who were killed there."
Said a senior U.S. military official: "Whatever information McKiernan got that was shared by Afghan and U.N. representatives led him to believe there was good cause to want to look at all of this more deeply."
In a statement , McKiernan said: "The people of Afghanistan have our commitment to get to the truth."
The U.S. military official said the general in charge of the new investigation, to be named Tuesday, will come from inside the Central Command but outside Afghanistan. The team, including a military legal representative and a colonel with Afghan ground experience, will "immediately deploy" and will review the initial investigation before visiting the area of the attack. There, the official said, the team will speak with family members of victims and with others to determine "who, in fact, was there and who has died," the official said.
In an atmosphere of local antagonism and without being able to exhume bodies, "it's going to be pretty challenging," he said.
Karzai visited the bomb site in Azizabad last week. He has been increasingly critical of the rising civilian death toll from aerial bombing this year, calling for a halt to aggressive raids on Afghan villages. Last month, he called for a full-scale review of the agreements that govern NATO and U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
Witnesses and Afghan officials from the area have said that many of those killed had traveled to the town for a memorial ceremony for a local villager who was killed last year. By these accounts, most of the villagers were sleeping and were awakened by the sound of heavy gunfire about midnight. Shortly after the ground skirmish erupted, U.S. planes flew overhead, then unleashed a torrent of bombs on a compound in the village.
U.N. officials subsequently made several visits to Azizabad, traveling from Kabul and from their regional office in Herat, a 45-minute drive away. They said they found "convincing evidence" that 90 civilians had been killed.