This is a story of an Afghan wedding gone badly wrong. Or perhaps of “an operation in search of an insurgent leader,” as the official report later said. It is hard to tell which. Probably both.
Meet Abdulrashid, a man with no last name, no profession, no literacy skills and no exact date of birth. He might be in his 30s. I first encounter him as I am interviewing internally displaced people in Afghanistan to highlight their fate, lest the world forget about them after foreign troops withdraw in 2014. Other refugees point him out, ask me to listen to his story: “Tell the world, please.”
Abdulrashid starts by describing to me an idyllic scene from this past March: As the last snows were melting in his village in northern Afghanistan, friends and family gathered in his three-room house to celebrate his sister’s wedding. This was in Faryab province, considered to be among the more peaceful areas in Afghanistan. While the war has raged in the south and the east, Faryab has escaped relatively unharmed.
In Afghan tradition, the wedding guests were dressed in their best and dining on an expansive buffet. At about 8 p.m., Abdulrashid’s wife stepped away to a quiet spot near the window to breast-feed their 2 1/2-year-old son.
And the idyll was suddenly shattered.
Helicopters were heard overhead, and then a voice shouted in Dari that everyone should come outside, walking backward. But before the guests could get out the door — I learn now to my utter surprise that the bride was 12 years old and the groom, the brother of Abdulrashid’s wife, was 14 — the house was full of soldiers, women and men. Abdulrashid could not tell their nationalities; some were Afghan and “some not,” he said, but they were “heavy with equipment.”
Then two explosions ripped through the house. Abdulrashid can’t say what caused them — bombs fired from a drone (prevalent in the area at the time) or an aircraft, or grenades tossed from the ground — but he is clear that “they destroyed two rooms” and wounded his youngest sister as well as the bride. The explosions, he says, were followed by shots fired from the outside, through the window.
Abdulrashid’s wife, Jamila, was hit. The child at her breast, Naquibullah, was struck in the neck and the abdomen and killed instantly. Jamila had a wound in her arm that gushed blood, and she was taken on a helicopter to a medical facility. Today, Jamila cannot use her arm.
Abdulrashid says his uncle, Baba Nazar, was also killed in this joint operation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan National Security Forces. Afghans call these dreaded counterinsurgency operations, conducted by surprise and under the cover of darkness, “night raids.” In April, one month after this incident, the United States agreed to hand control over these raids to Afghan forces.
The ISAF, a U.N.-mandated international force under NATO control, was created in 2001. Part of its broad mission is to help the Afghan government “reduce the capability and will of the insurgency.”
After hearing Abdulrashid’s story, I search the ISAF’s Web site for its version of the events. The post-operation report makes no mention of a wedding party. It says that “an operation in search of an insurgent leader” who “plans and conducts attacks against coalition troops throughout northern Afghanistan” was conducted. The women and children who came out of the building, it says, were followed by a man with an AK-47who opened fire from behind the civilians. Two other insurgents fired as well, one from inside the building and the other from a nearby tent. “The security force returned fire, killing the three armed aggressors.”
The ISAF account goes on to state the only facts that coincide with Abdulrashid’s version of events: Jamila’s injuries and her evacuation to a hospital. No word of a child in her arms, nor of the uncle.
Abdulrashid says he is certain that no “insurgents” were killed; the only ones who perished that day were his son and his uncle, “over 60” years old.
Establishing the truth in Afghanistan is a daunting task. Those who follow the increasingly frequent attacks by Afghans on their mentors — allied soldiers, mostly Americans — suspect that all all the locals are hostile to foreign troops. But those who follow the civilian death count have doubts about the ISAF reports.
Ten days later, on March 26, another night raid was conducted in the same vicinity and, Abdulrashid’s neighbors told him, nobody was killed. (He was with Jamila in the hospital at the time.) Yet the ISAF report on this incident says that “the combined security force was engaged by multiple insurgents with small arms fire. The security force returned fire, killing the attacking insurgents.”
Again, it is difficult to determine the truth.
There are so many incident reports in the ISAF files; how would those same events be described by the Afghans involved, I wonder.
Later in March, according to Abdulrashid’s relatives and other Afghans, the Taliban staged two successive attacks on that same village. Abdulrashid thinks they were looking for relatives of one man because they believed he was collaborating with the international forces; possibly they blamed him for the two ISAF raids. In the first attack, they shot his son, Qari, 18. The next day, they killed a woman named Bibi and shot her husband.
Were those retaliatory attacks? Was it a warning, as Abdulrashid suggests? These are questions without answers.
The United Nations, which tracks civilian casualties in Afghanistan, has reported a significant drop in deaths attributable to the ISAF in the past year, and has said that Taliban and other insurgents cause far more fatalities among civilians. But it is hard to know how many deaths like that of little Naquibullah go unreported or how many civilians are branded by the ISAF as “combatants” just because they are fighting-age men.
Although the international forces acknowledged injuring Abdulrashid’s wife in the first raid, they have not offered him the normal compensation. The legal team of the Norwegian Refugee Council delivered a letter to an ISAF base on his behalf, stating that his son was killed and specifying the medical costs incurred by his wife. He is waiting for an answer.
The day after the second night raid by the ISAF, 10 families fled from Abdulrashid’s village. The day after the second Taliban attack, seven more families left. Most of them came to the outskirts of Mazar-e Sharif, where they squat in primitive compounds. A total of 99 people from this community were displaced in quick succession: 12 men, 17 women, 49 girls and 21 boys. The families lost their livelihoods, left their land and are now in an even more precarious situation. .
While it may prove impossible to pin down the events that overtook Abdulrashid’s village in March, one more casualty can be counted in this endless war: These 99 Afghan “hearts and minds,” if ever they could be won, are now irrevocably out of reach.
Anna Husarska, a policy analyst, was special consultant for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Afghanistan.