U.S. military forces killed innocent people in two controversial operations in southern Afghanistan recently, and in one case were intentionally deceived into believing a targeted convoy of vehicles included Taliban officials, according to the Afghan interim leader, Hamid Karzai.
Karzai described a predawn raid by U.S. Special Forces that left at least 18 dead in the village of Hazar Qadam last month as "a mistake of sorts," resulting from "an unfortunate movement of people at the wrong time." He said he also had concluded that vehicles attacked by U.S. warplanes near the city of Khost in December were carrying "tribal elders" to his inauguration in Kabul, not Taliban leaders as U.S. commanders were told.
But Karzai said the Americans have acknowledged their mistakes, sometimes with financial compensation. "They have immediately come to explain, immediately apologized, immediately sent representatives of their people to [offer] apology and explain," he said.
The sensitive issue of civilian casualties during four months of U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan has grown more pressing recently, as villagers and local leaders accuse U.S. military forces of killing the wrong people in attacks in their areas. Having risen to the Afghan leadership with strong U.S. support, Karzai now faces pressure from his countrymen not to ignore American errors.
The incidents in Khost and Uruzgan provinces were initially described by the Pentagon as successful strikes on Taliban and al Qaeda targets; a senior U.S. officer said after the Khost airstrike that "they were senior Taliban guys. We hit exactly what we shot at." But Afghan witnesses said in each instance that the casualties were not connected with either organization.
While supporting the Afghans' claims, Karzai said U.S. forces have instituted strict new intergovernmental "checks and balances" to try to avoid such incidents in the future.
Navy Capt. Timothy Taylor, a spokesman for the Pentagon, declined to comment today on Karzai's remarks, but he said the Defense Department has not changed its position that the convoy attacked in December was a legitimate target. Officials said that an investigation into the Uruzgan raid being conducted by the U.S. Central Command has not been completed.
Karzai's comments came during an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters Monday night at the ornate Gulkhana Palace, his first since returning to Afghanistan from the United States and Britain. Fresh from that trip, he sought to play down reports of mistakes by the U.S. military and discussed them only when pressed. Instead, he focused on his "marvelous" reception in Washington and hopes for continued cooperation.
But the immensity of the task awaiting him at home was starkly evident, from challenges to his authority in several provinces to the pent-up demands for reconstruction of a broken country after 23 years of warfare. With international economic support now secured, he said, a new phase must begin.
"We have money and we have pledges and our people know that," he said. "I cannot tell my people anymore that, well, we don't have money and we can't afford things. Now is time to get down and have projects and deliver them to the international community and begin to work."
Karzai, who took office Dec. 22 as head of an administration that will serve six months, acknowledged that he has been stymied so far in his attempt to assert central control in a historically feudal land. An outbreak of fighting last week between local warlords in Gardez, southeast of Kabul, has demonstrated that he has been "too cautious," he said.
Until now, he noted, he has named local figures as provincial governors rather than installing his allies in an attempt to avoid confrontations with powerful regional barons and remain unified during the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
"The people keep coming to me" to complain about this, Karzai said in fluent English. "They say to me, 'Hamid, what the hell? Why are you being so careful on this? Give us anybody, appoint anybody, but not from the province, not these guys with guns.'
"We must finish warlordism in Afghanistan. But we can't disrupt the existing situation right now because of the continuing fight we have against terrorism."
In particular, he blamed fighting in Gardez, the capital of Paktia province where more than 60 people reportedly died, on local warlord Bacha Khan -- the man Karzai himself appointed as governor. Bacha Khan moved into Gardez last week with armed supporters to claim his governorship, but was resisted by the local council, which ultimately pushed him out of the city.
"I am mad, mad, mad about this," Karzai said. "This proves our point that we must finish warlordism. A man that goes in and forces himself with the gun, it is just disgusting. To kill people in order to become governor -- how can he do that? There's no way we can agree with that, absolutely no way. I'd rather be out of here tomorrow than accept something like that."
But Karzai maintained that he had no choice but to appoint Bacha Khan as governor, saying he needed the existing "military and social structures" of the provinces to remain in place while the war continued.
"It had to go that way," Karzai said. "But we will punish him. We will tell him that taking a letter of appointment as governor does not mean you have a license to kill." He said he planned to call tribal elders to Kabul to decide what to do with Bacha Khan.
The fractious nature of local Afghan politics also appears to be a factor in recent disputes over U.S. military strikes. Bacha Khan's camp has been accused of targeting local enemies by supplying the information that led U.S. forces to launch an airstrike against the convoy going to the Karzai inauguration. At least 12 people were killed. Karzai seemed to endorse that allegation in the interview, saying U.S. commanders were "misled" into thinking the targets were members of the Taliban. "No, they were tribal elders," he said.
Similarly, the problem of identifying Taliban members lies at the heart of the disputed commando raid on Hazar Qadam, in Uruzgan province about 100 miles north of Kandahar, in the early morning hours of Jan. 23.
Special Forces soldiers dropping from helicopters attacked local men guarding two buildings, including one used as a weapons depot. The U.S. detachment killed at least 18 and took 27 prisoner, describing the attack as a blow against remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda forces in the area. Military officials said they discovered a massive trove of mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and other ammunition.
But local officials and residents said the weapons depot was the headquarters of a local disarmament campaign and that the men killed or captured were not Taliban or al Qaeda supporters. Two of the dead men were found with their hands bound behind their backs with the kind of plastic strips the U.S. military uses as handcuffs, witnesses said.
After initially defending the raid, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Monday acknowledged for the first time that "friendly" forces loyal to Karzai may have been killed.
Local residents have been quoted as saying that U.S. soldiers apologized and provided families of the victims $1,000 each, although Rumsfeld said he could not confirm that.
Karzai did not go into detail about the situation but was careful not to cast blame on U.S. troops. "It was not something either related to the U.S. forces or the local forces," he said. "It was just an unfortunate movement of people at the wrong time."
Staff writer Steve Vogel in Washington contributed to this report.