KABUL - To the shock of President Hamid Karzai's aides, Gen. David H. Petraeus suggested Sunday at the presidential palace that Afghans caught up in a coalition attack in northeastern Afghanistan might have burned their own children to exaggerate claims of civilian casualties, according to two participants at the meeting.
The exact language Petraeus used in the closed-door session is not known, and neither is the precise message he meant to convey. But his remarks about the deadly U.S. military operation in Konar province were deemed deeply offensive by some in the room. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private discussions.
They said Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, dismissed allegations by Karzai's office and the provincial governor that civilians were killed and said residents had invented stories, or even injured their children, to pin the blame on U.S. forces and force an end to the operation.
"I was dizzy. My head was spinning," said one participant, referring to Petraeus's remarks. "This was shocking. Would any father do this to his children? This is really absurd."
Petraeus, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
U.S. and Afghan officials are investigating what happened during the three- to four-day operation in the mountains of Ghaziabad district, one of the most dangerous and inhospitable parts of Afghanistan. U.S. military officials said there is no evidence that civilians died. The governor of Konar, Fazlullah Wahidi, disagreed, citing reports from villagers that dozens of women and children perished. Karzai's office placed the civilian death toll at 50.
The key period involves five hours between Thursday night and Friday morning, during which Apache helicopters fired on suspected insurgents who had gathered to attack U.S. and Afghan troops, said Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, the top U.S. military spokesman in Kabul.
The insurgents fled down a hillside in small groups, away from any houses. U.S. and Afghan ground troops remained far to the south, Smith said.
During the next five hours, Smith said, surveillance drones tracked the fighters while the Apaches fired 30 mm Gatling guns, rockets and Hellfire missiles. "I have reviewed the footage and found no evidence women and children were among the fighters," he said. "Again, no civilian structures were anywhere near where these engagements took place. It was at night and in very rugged terrain."
According to intercepted conversations, Smith said, insurgents discussed contacting government officials to tell them that civilians were being killed so that coalition helicopters could be stopped from firing. The insurgents also discussed their casualties, "stating they lost 50 and needed help in getting out the wounded and quickly burying the dead," he said.
On Saturday, Wahidi, the provincial governor, sent a three-person fact-finding team up the valley to the village of Helgal. They returned with seven injured people, including a woman and a man, both 22 years old, and five boys and girls 16 or younger. Smith said they had burns and shrapnel wounds, none of them life-threatening.
The U.S. military "did have initial reports that the feet and hands of the children appeared to have been burned," Smith said. "We have observed increased reporting of children being disciplined by having their hands and feet dipped into boiling water. No one is claiming this is the case in this instance, but it may well be."
Petraeus apparently had suggested something along these lines at the national security council meeting Sunday, remarks that "really bothered everyone," including Karzai, one participant said.
"He claimed that in the midst of the [operation] some pro-Taliban parents in contact with a government official decided to create a civilian casualty claim to pressure international forces to cease the [operation]. They burned hands and legs of some of their children and sent them to the hospital," a second participant said.
The anger greeting this message showed the political challenges inherent in dealing with allegations of civilian casualties, particularly in remote and dangerous areas where investigations prove difficult. The Karzai government has repeatedly taken the U.S.-led coalition to task for killing noncombatants over the years.
"Killing 60 people, and then blaming the killing on those same people, rather than apologizing for any deaths? This is inhuman," one Afghan official said. "This is a really terrible situation."
The U.S. military is reviewing all operations, including other airstrikes, in Ghaziabad during the three to four days in question. "The review of these engagements is still underway, so there's always the possibility one of them may have resulted in civilian casualties, but regardless, reports from elders in the region appear unrealistically high and unsupported by anything we know to date," Smith said. The investigation "is still ongoing, so no final judgements are being made at this time."
A senior U.S. military official responsible for Konar province said, "We haven't seen much evidence of many civilian casualties."
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.