NATO says night raid killed Afghan insurgents; residents say it killed civilians

Operation in eastern Afghanistan blamed for civilian deaths; NATO says those slain were insurgents
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

SURKHROD, AFGHANISTAN -- District police chief Abdul Ghafour woke to a cellphone call after 1 a.m. Friday: There was gunfire at Rafiuddin Kushkaki's home. Ghafour put on his uniform, sent two police trucks ahead and followed in a third.

"I thought that the Taliban must have attacked this man's house," he said.

He was wrong. It was a raid by U.S. Special Operations forces and their Afghan colleagues, and it left at least nine Afghan men dead in the Surkhrod district of Nangahar province in eastern Afghanistan. NATO describes it as a successful mission that took out ruthless Taliban insurgents. Relatives at the house said it was a slaughter of civilians.

Whatever the real answer, the raid demonstrated to Afghan officials a lack of coordination by U.S. forces with local authorities, who said they were left in the dark about both the target and the timing of the operation. Afghan police said they were prevented from getting within 200 yards of the house until hours after the raid began and were even shot at when they tried to move closer.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has sought to minimize the use of night raids, acknowledging that they can often inflame public sentiment against American efforts. The unclassified version of his guidance to U.S. and allied forces says that night raids remain a valuable tactic in certain circumstances but that Afghan officials and tribal elders should be given notice.

In Afghan culture, McChrystal wrote in his directive, "a man's home is more than just his residence."

"It represents his family, and protecting it is closely intertwined with his honor. He has been conditioned to respond aggressively in defense of his home and his guests whenever he perceives his home or honor is threatened," the general wrote. "In a similar situation, most of us would do the same."

The operation Friday prompted a violent protest and denunciations from tribal elders. It also raised questions among Afghans about the counterinsurgency value of such lethal operations.

"I'm the responsible person here -- I have to know what's going on," said Ghafour, the police chief. "In all our intelligence reports, in everything, we don't have a single piece of information about these people. Do the coalition forces have it?"

U.S. military officials said the joint American and Afghan force came under fire and responded by killing a Taliban sub-commander and other insurgents. Residents at the house said that the target may have been sub-commander Qari Shamsuddin but that troops killed the wrong man. A police photo taken at the scene shows a bearded man, identified as Shamsuddin, wearing a light-blue T-shirt, slumped in the dirt with a bullet hole in his head.

U.S. military officials said soldiers found five automatic rifles, including Kalashnikovs, as well as shotguns, pistols, radios, a U.S. Marine uniform and an array of ammunition. "The guy we got, based on a number of intelligence indicators, is the guy that we needed," said Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a U.S. military spokesman at NATO headquarters in Kabul. "He was responsible for the killing of coalition troops, and he won't be anymore."

Breasseale said the soldiers followed McChrystal's procedures for conducting night raids.

The owner of the house, Kushkaki, and several of his relatives told a different story on Monday.

They said the soldiers touched down in two helicopters in a distant field and approached silently on foot. They placed ladders against the high mud walls surrounding the home and climbed up. A driver staying in an adjacent guest house spotted the intruders and fired, Kushkaki said, setting off a hail of gunfire.

Kushkaki awoke to the noise and crept from his room. Directly overhead, he said, men stood on his roof shooting down into the mud-walled rooms and courtyards where more than 50 relatives lived. He raised a Kalashnikov, he said, and began firing.

"For one hour, we didn't know who they were. We thought they were thieves," he said.

U.S. military officials said the soldiers repeatedly called out to get the men to emerge from the house peacefully but were ignored.

On Monday, Kushkaki walked around his property showing the bloodstains of his slain relatives and friends. His son, 16-year-old Habibuddin, and Kushkaki's brother, Hafizuddin, were both shot and killed, he said. An elderly farmer who lived at the house, Sayid Rahim, and four of his sons were also killed, as were two drivers, he said. He said all the home's residents were Tajiks with no links to the insurgency, which is composed primarily of Pashtuns.

Kushkaki described himself as a wealthy man and landowner. He works as a driver for Zahir Qadir, a former Afghan general and the son of a famous tribal leader, Abdul Qadir, who fought the Taliban alongside President Hamid Karzai.

Zahir Qadir convened a gathering of tribal elders Monday in Jalalabad. He condemned the raid, said the slain men were civilians and demanded that the two detainees taken by U.S. forces be released.

"They always get the wrong information. This is not acceptable," Qadir said of U.S. troops. "When they are killing our people, it's not possible to accept them as our friends."

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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