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

"We heard there was a tanker and everyone was going to collect free fuel, so I went with them," said Mohammed Shafiullah, the 10-year-old with the leg wound. He rode a donkey from his village and took in the scene from the western riverbank.

He probably would not have been alive had the airstrike coordinator at Klein's command center not rejected the F-15 pilot's recommendation to use 2,000-pound bombs on the trucks, which would have created far wider devastation. Instead, the coordinator demanded that 500-pound GBU-38 bombs be used.

Klein ordered the strike about 2:30 a.m. Two minutes later, the bombs had hit their targets.

Inside the command center, the screen showed a huge mushroom cloud enveloping the island. A few black dots -- survivors -- could be seen scurrying away. But most of the 100 or so dots that had been on the screen were gone.

To those on the riverbank, the island, which is about 30 yards wide and 150 yards long, appeared to be consumed by fire. Nearby residents ran to the scene to look for relatives and extricate survivors.

"Everyone was panicked," said Mirajuddin, the man who lost six cousins. "It was a horrible night."

Instead of sending troops to the scene for an assessment of casualties -- as McChrystal's directive requires -- the Germans waited until morning to send an unmanned aircraft over the site to take photographs. The first German troops did not arrive at the scene until noon Friday. By then, all the bodies had been removed.

Mirajuddin said he and his relatives found the bodies of only three of his cousins. He buried them that morning in the same grave, he said.

On Friday night, though, his story, and those of others in the area, were unknown to the fact-finding team. The Germans were still insisting that only insurgents were targeted. Even so, members of the team came to believe that there almost certainly had been civilian casualties.

In Kabul, McChrystal issued a taped message: "I take this possible loss of life or injury to innocent Afghans very seriously."

Unexpected Support

At midday Saturday, after visiting the hospital and flying over the bombing site in a helicopter, the team met with two local officials. The NATO officers were expecting anger and calls for compensation. What they received was a totally unanticipated sort of criticism.

"I don't agree with the rumor that there were a lot of civilian casualties," said one key local official, who said he did not want to be named because he fears Taliban retribution. "Who goes out at 2 in the morning for fuel? These were bad people, and this was a good operation."

A few hours later, McChrystal arrived at the reconstruction team's base in Kunduz. A group of leaders from the area, including the chairman of the provincial council and the police chief, were there to meet him. So, too, were members of an investigative team dispatched by President Hamid Karzai.

McChrystal began expressing sympathy "for anyone who has been hurt or killed."

The council chairman, Ahmadullah Wardak, cut him off. He wanted to talk about the deteriorating security situation in Kunduz, where Taliban activity has increased significantly in recent months. NATO forces in the area, he told the fact-finding team before McChrystal arrived, need to be acting "more strongly" in the area.

His concern is shared by some officials at the NATO mission headquarters, who contend that German troops in Kunduz have not been confronting the rise in Taliban activity with enough ground patrols and comprehensive counterinsurgency tactics.

"If we do three more operations like was done the other night, stability will come to Kunduz," Wardak told McChrystal. "If people do not want to live in peace and harmony, that's not our fault."

McChrystal seemed to be caught off guard.

"We've been too nice to the thugs," Wardak continued.

As McChrystal drove to the bombing site -- defying German suggestions that the area was too dangerous -- one senior NATO official noted that the lack of opposition from local officials, despite relatively clear evidence that some civilians were killed, could help to de-escalate tensions.

"We got real lucky here," the official said.

But McChrystal still had a message to deliver. Even if the Afghan officials were not angry, he certainly did not seem pleased.

After fording the muddy river to see the bombing site -- getting his pants wet up to his knees -- he addressed a small group of journalists at the reconstruction team headquarters and said it was "clear there were some civilians harmed at that site." He said NATO would fully investigate the incident.

"It's a serious event that's going to be a test of whether we are willing to be transparent and whether we are willing to show that we are going to protect the Afghan people," he said.

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