The Pentagon issued a statement on Tuesday denying that scores of civilians had been killed in an airstrike in the village of Azizabad in Herat province, Afghanistan.
The August 22 airstrike killed as many as 90 civilians, according to Afghan officials. President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack, and U.N. officials said that there was “convincing evidence” supporting the high death estimate, which included 60 children.
The Pentagon responded to the charges by saying it would investigate the matter, while insisting at the same time that the attack “was a legitimate strike on a Taliban target.” Having arrived at that conclusion before it began investigating itself, it is therefore no surprise that the Pentagon announced that it’s initial inquiry indicated that only 5 civilians had been killed in the strike, along with 25 militants that included a Taliban commander.
The latest announcement on the completion of the investigation states, “Intense enemy fire justified actions taken by Afghan and U.S. forces during an Aug. 22 engagement in which several civilians and more than 30 Taliban fighters were killed in western Afghanistan”. Combined Afghan and U.S. forces “began taking fire from Taliban militants”, which “justified use of well-aimed small-arms fire and close-air support to defend the combined force” that killed “30 to 35 Taliban militants”. The investigation, the Pentagon said, also “revealed evidence suggesting a known Taliban commander, Mullah Sadiq, was among them”. It acknowledges that “Five to seven civilians were killed”, disputing the figure given by Afghan and U.N. officials of 90 civilian deaths.
The investigation determined the casualty numbers “by observation of the enemy movements during the engagement as well as on-site observations immediately following the engagement.” Statements were also taken “from more than 30 Afghan and U.S. participants” and “the investigating officer reviewed reports made by ground and air personnel during the engagement; video taken during the engagement; topographic photo comparisons of the area before and after the event, including analysis of burial sites; reports from local medical clinics and hospitals; intelligence reports; and physical data and photographs collected on the site”.
The news release notes that coalition forces were “denied entry into the village” after the attack. Thus, “No other evidence that may have been collected by other organizations was provided to the U.S. investigating officer and therefore could not be considered in the findings”.
The Pentagon’s findings are contradicted by eyewitness reports from local Afghans and the findings of a U.N. investigation. Special envoy to Afghanistan Kai Eide said that the U.N. inquiry “found convincing evidence, based on the testimony of eyewitnesses and others, that some 90 civilians were killed, including 60 children, 15 women and 15 men. Fifteen other villagers were wounded. The destruction from aerial bombardment was clearly evident with seven to eight houses having been destroyed, with serious damage to many others. Local residents were able to confirm the number of casualties, including names, age and gender of the victims.”
The Washington Post reported yesterday, after giving the Pentagon’s account, that “In recent interviews, several Afghans who witnessed or participated in the operation gave civilian casualty tolls that were far higher than the American findings, though there was a wide disparity in the numbers and sharp conflicts in accounts of what occurred during and in the immediate aftermath of the attack.”
This implication is that the eyewitness accounts are contradictory and unreliable. But the Post includes accounts of those who “witnessed” the attack with those who “participated in the operation”. In other words, doubt is cast on local accounts of extremely high civilian casualties by citing contradicting information from Afghans who participated with U.S. forces in the attack.
The Pentagon itself makes no secret of the fact that the principle interviewees were those involved in the attack and that it didn’t even have access to villagers (coalition forces having been denied entry to the village following the attack) to include their accounts in its inquiry.
The Pentagon’s investigation is, on its face, inadequate in other areas as well. For instance, it says its investigation included an “analysis of burial sites”, but this “analysis” was based on topographic photography from before and after the attack. It may very well be that such photographs reveal a limited number of additional gravesites, but resident witnesses have reported that multiple victims were buried together in the same grave and the bodies of some victims from other villages were taken away for burial elsewhere.
The statement on the Pentagon’s investigation fails to reconcile its findings with such conflicting accounts.
Yesterday’s Post article goes on, however, to note that Gen. Jalandar Shah Behnam, the commander of the Afghan forces involved in the joint U.S. operation who was fired by Karzai for his involvement in the attack, “echoed reports that as many as 60 children, 19 women and more than a dozen men in the village of about 1,200 were killed.”
Fazel Mohammed, Azizabad’s police chief, told the Post that upon arriving on the scene, “I saw 76 dead bodies which were brought to the nearest mosque. I saw with my own eyes 50 children between the ages of 2 and 13, 19 women and seven men among the dead. Other people were busy trying to pull the bodies from beneath the compound.”
The Post adds, “Mohammed said that many other bodies were taken to the nearby western province of Farah because several who were killed had traveled from there for a memorial service for a local resident of Azizabad. He said he suspected that some of the villagers had hidden the bodies of Taliban fighters. ”
A local tribal leader, however, told the New York Times, “These people they killed were enemies of the Taliban.”
Abdul Majid, a local shopkeeper, told the Washington Post that he lost 13 family members in the attack. “If NATO and the government want to bomb a place,” he said, “they should first make sure that there are Taliban there and then they should bomb them. If they bomb our women and children then everyone knows there won’t be peace in the country.”
Haji Gul Ahmed, a resident of the village, told the Post, “All of my relatives were killed in this bombing — my cousins, my uncles, nieces, nephews, two of my daughters and my son.” He and other villagers counted at least 75 residents who had been killed. “It was difficult for us to get to the bodies and to bury them. We buried five children in one grave and four in another grave.”
U.S. and NATO attacks resulting in civilian casualties has increasingly come under criticism and scrutiny. In May, according to Afghan officials, 42 civilians were killed in Herat province, including women and children. The reported number of Afghan civilian deaths in the first half of 2008 is 255. Three airstrikes in July alone are reported to have killed as many as 78 civilians, including a July 6 attack that killed 27 people at a wedding party. On the day the Pentagon released its press statement denying the high civilian death toll in the August 22 attack, NATO acknowledged that it had killed four children with artillery fire in Paktika province.