Decision on Airstrike in Afghanistan Was Based Largely on Sole Informant's Assessment

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 6, 2009

HAJI SAKHI DEDBY, Afghanistan, Sept. 5 -- To the German commander, it seemed to be a fortuitous target: More than 100 Taliban insurgents were gathering around two hijacked fuel tankers that had become stuck in the mud near this small farming village.

The grainy live video transmitted from an American F-15E fighter jet circling overhead, which was projected on a screen in a German tactical operations center four miles north of here, showed numerous black dots around the trucks -- each of them a thermal image of a human but without enough detail to confirm whether they were carrying weapons. An Afghan informant was on the phone with an intelligence officer at the center, however, insisting that everybody at the site was an insurgent, according to an account that German officers here provided to NATO officials.

Based largely on that informant's assessment, the commander ordered a 500-pound, satellite-guided bomb to be dropped on each truck early Friday. The vehicles exploded in a fireball that lit up the night sky for miles, incinerating many of those standing nearby.

A NATO fact-finding team estimated Saturday that about 125 people were killed in the bombing, at least two dozen of whom -- but perhaps many more -- were not insurgents. To the team, which is trying to sort out this complicated incident, mindful that the fallout could further sap public support in Afghanistan for NATO's security mission here, the target appeared to be far less clear-cut than it had to the Germans.

One survivor, convalescing from abdominal wounds at a hospital in the nearby city of Kunduz, said he went to the site because he thought he could get free fuel. Another patient, a 10-year-old boy with shrapnel in his left leg, said he went to gawk, against his father's advice. In Kabul, the Afghan capital, relatives of two severely burned survivors being treated at an intensive-care unit said Taliban fighters forced dozens of villagers to assist in moving the bogged-down tankers.

"They came to everyone's house asking for help," said Mirajuddin, a shopkeeper who lost six of his cousins in the bombing -- none of whom, he said, was an insurgent. "They started beating people and pointing guns. They said, 'Bring your tractors and help us.' What could we do?"

None of the survivors and the relatives dispute that some Taliban fighters were at the scene. But just how many remains unclear, as does the number of civilians. And because many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, and others were buried in the hours after the explosion, it may be impossible to ascertain.

The decision to bomb the tankers based largely on a single human intelligence source appears to violate the spirit of a tactical directive aimed at reducing civilian casualties that was recently issued by U.S. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new commander of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. The directive states that NATO forces cannot bomb residential buildings based on a sole source of information and that troops must establish a "pattern of life" to ensure that no civilians are in the target area. Although the directive does not apply to airstrikes in the open, NATO officials said it is McChrystal's intent for those standards to apply to all uses of air power, except when troops are in imminent danger.

McChrystal's advisers allowed a Washington Post reporter to travel with a NATO fact-finding team and attend its otherwise closed-door meetings with German troops and Afghan officials. Portions of this account are based on those discussions.

The incident has generated intense disquiet among Afghans, many of whom say military operations since the fall of the Taliban government in late 2001 have resulted in an unacceptably high number of civilian casualties. Local media reports have been filled with people alleging -- some with little proof -- that scores of civilians were killed in the airstrike.

Aware that another mass civilian casualty incident could further diminish public support for the multinational mission to combat the Taliban, McChrystal sought to handle this case differently from his predecessors. The morning after the bombing, as Afghan television and radio stations began airing reports about it, he dispatched the team of senior officers to the area.

His headquarters had only a six-line situation report from the Germans. The team's assignment was to figure out what had occurred and to help him communicate a forthright message to the Afghan public with the hope that owning up to a potential mistake quickly could help defuse tensions.

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