Video evidence has emerged supporting local villagers’ claims that a U.S. airstrike last month killed a great number of civilians, contradicting the Pentagon’s claim that it was a legitimate strike resulting in few civilian casualties.
The Pentagon has been in full damage control mode since being accused of killing 90 or more civilians in an airstrike on the village of Azizabad in the Herat province of Afghanistan on August 22.
Villagers there have said that the dead included 60 children. Afghan an United Nations officials have backed their claims, saying that the evidence indicates a major civilian death toll. Locals told stories of pulling the bodies of loved ones from the rubble of destroyed homes and burying them. Residents were able to provide the names of the dead along with other details, leading U.N. investigators to conclude that there was “convincing evidence” that a massacre had occurred.
The Pentagon responded initially by dismissing the reports and stating that it had been a legitimate strike on Taliban forces. It also said it would perform its own investigation into the attack.
The findings from that investigation were released one week ago, and matched the initial statements from the Pentagon. The airstrike had been called in after U.S. and Afghan forces operating in the area had come under fire from Taliban forces, according to the Pentagon. This justified the use of air support. The airstrike killed 30 to 35 Taliban militants, the Pentagon said. It also acknowledged that some civilians had been killed, but insisted that the number was from 5 to 7.
The investigation had little credibility to begin with, not least because it was a case of the U.S. military investigating itself. The Pentagon also acknowledged that they didn’t actually have access to the village because after the strike the residents refused to allow them entry. It said it analyzed photo evidence showing new graves and that in doing so, the findings supported their figures. But witnesses told reporters that in some instances victims were buried together in a single grave and that other victims were visitors whose bodies were returned to their own towns for burial. There were numerous other obvious deficiencies in the Pentagon’s limited self-investigation.
Criticism of the attack continued, however, and locals and Afghan officials stood by their own account of what occurred. Facing pressure from its ally, the Pentagon agreed to a further joint investigation with the United Nations and Afghan government.
Now, it has been reported, there are video and still images taken by one or more villagers with a cellphone to further belie the Pentagon’s story.
Carlotta Gall of the New York Times wrote yesterday, “Cellphone images seen by this reporter show at least 11 dead children, some apparently with blast and concussion injuries, among some 30 to 40 bodies laid out in the village mosque.” A cellphone video seen by Gall “showed two lines of about 20 bodies each laid out in the mosque, with the sounds of loud sobbing and villagers’ cries in the background.”
The Times article also noted that “Villagers questioned separately identified relatives in the graves; their names matched the accounts given by elders of the village of those who died in each of eight bomb-damaged houses and where they were buried.”
“The United States military,” the article added, “in a series of statements about the operation, has accused the villagers of spreading Taliban propaganda. Speaking on condition that their names not be used, some military officials have suggested that the villagers fabricated such evidence as grave sites — and, by implication, that other investigators had been duped. But many villagers have connections to the Afghan police, NATO or the Americans through reconstruction projects, and they say they oppose the Taliban.”
But the residents of Azizabad insist that no Taliban were present in the village.
While the Pentagon insists that their primary target in the attack, a Taliban commander named Mullah Sadiq, a man claiming to be Sadiq called Radio Liberty several days later to announce that he was alive and well. Reporters at the radio station said they were sure the man was not an imposter.
The UK paper The Times also reported yesterday on an exclusive video it had obtained: “As the doctor walks between rows of bodies, people lift funeral shrouds to reveal the faces of children and babies, some with severe head injuries. Women are heard wailing in the background. ‘Oh God, this is just a child,’ shouts one villager. Another cries: ‘My mother, my mother.’ The grainy video eight-minute footage, seen exclusively by The Times, is the most compelling evidence to emerge of what may be the biggest loss of civilian life during the Afghanistan war.”