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U.S. Team to Reinvestigate Deadly Strike In Afghanistan

By Candace Rondeaux and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.

Results of a U.S. military investigation released Sept. 2 said a ground patrol by U.S. Special Forces and Afghan army troops came under heavy fire from the village as it led a midnight raid on the compound of a suspected Taliban commander known as Mullah Siddiq. Patrol members called in an airstrike when they were unable to repulse the gunfire. The accounts said the five to seven civilians killed were believed to be related to Siddiq. The report also found that 30 to 35 Taliban militants were killed.

Investigators interviewed 30 U.S. and Afghan participants in the operation, the military said.

U.S. military officials who examined topographic photos of the village and searched the area after the attack found only a few new grave sites, according to one official interviewed a week after the incident.

A U.N. official said Eide was "very satisfied he is on solid ground" in the U.N. investigation results and believed he had "no choice" other than to go public with them.

The U.N. mission in Afghanistan has the dual job of helping to coordinate the international assistance effort there and to "be an advocate for human rights and for the Afghan people," the official said. He added that Eide saw little point in joining a new U.S. investigation. "The discrepancies are so huge, it's hard to believe a joint investigation would settle anything," the official said.

Some NATO officials expressed irritation that the United Nations did not consult them before making its report public. "How we handle civilian casualties -- the follow-up and investigation -- is now becoming a strategic issue," one NATO official said. Both the United Nations and non-U.S. NATO forces have complained about a lack of U.S. transparency in investigating previous incidents of civilian casualties.

The international force in Afghanistan includes troops from nearly two dozen NATO members, with 14,000 Americans as the largest contingent. The United States also fields a separate, 19,000-member force under U.S. command, leading to frequent confusion and increasing tension. Small units of U.S. Special Forces are known to operate in areas technically under NATO European command, sometimes conducting operations with Afghan army units they are training -- as was the case in Azizabad.

"We find that some of these [U.S. units] are very good at coordinating with the people in whose areas they are working," said a senior European military officer. "Others are less good. When they're good, we have no problems and we have very little collateral in terms of civilian casualties. When they don't coordinate, they tend to end up doing these operations with too little strength on their own, and their only alternative is to call in air power."

The area where the Azizabad attack took place is under the command of the Italian contingent of NATO. "It's very difficult having two organizations under two separate commands, uncoordinated, and working in the same battle space," the European military official said. "It's always a recipe for, at the very least, misunderstanding, and potentially worse."

U.S. military officials have expressed their own concerns about European forces in the past, saying that they are less adept at the kind of aggressive counterinsurgency tactics necessary to defeat resurgent Taliban fighters.

According to a report on airstrikes and civilian deaths released Monday by New York-based Human Rights Watch, NATO and the United States have differing rules of engagement governing the use of airstrikes, with NATO requiring an "overwhelming" threat and the United States allowing "anticipatory self-defense."

The vast majority of deaths caused by international troops come from airstrikes requested by Special Forces units, the report said. Using statistics provided by the U.S. Central Command Air Forces, the report noted that the number of bombing sorties has increased exponentially over the past two years, with U.S. aircraft dropping about as many tons of bombs in June and July this year as during all of 2006.

At least 1,633 Afghan civilians died in fighting last year, the report said, with about 950 killed by insurgent forces and at least 321 killed in NATO or U.S. aerial raids -- triple the number in 2006. In the first seven months of this year, at least 119 Afghan civilians were killed in 12 airstrikes, according to the report, which did not include the Azizabad bombing.

Aggressive tactics employed by U.S. Special Forces last year in Taliban-dominated Helmand province in the south prompted a senior British commander of NATO forces in the region to ask U.S. Special Forces to leave his district, according to the Human Rights Watch report and the NATO official.

The tactics have resulted in several major setbacks for the Taliban, the NATO official said, but civilian deaths resulting from U.S.-led operations and airstrikes in particular have taken a toll on the overall war effort. "U.S. Special Forces are doing a brilliant job, but at the same time, most of the really controversial things seem to be happening in that area," the official said.

DeYoung reported from Washington.

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