Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Kill or Capture 1: Owning up to civilian casualties

Kate Clark 5 min

US Special Forces carry out the vast majority of night raids and targeted killings in Afghanistan, but it is ISAF – through its media office – which deals with any news or fall-out arising from them. In responses to questions by journalists about AAN’s latest report about a case of intelligence failures and targeted killing in Takhar province, the ISAF public affairs team has resolutely avoided responding to the real issue: that US Special forces killed ten civilians in a targeted killing last September, without carrying out the most basic background checks on the target beforehand, and that the person they claim to have killed is still very much alive. The author of the report, AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, assesses the military’s reaction.(*)

On 2 September 2010, ten men were killed in Takhar in an air attack. It was a targeted killing. This much is agreed by everyone. After extended briefings from the Special Forces unit which carried out the operation and multiple interviews with survivors, witnesses and provincial police and officials, AAN presented overwhelming evidence (read the full report here) that the ten were election campaign workers and that the man killed was in fact Zabet Amanullah, a well-known former commander.

The US Special Forces/ISAF continue to assert that they killed the then Taleban deputy governor, Muhammad Amin, and his body guards. They also assert that Muhammad Amin was using the name ‘Zabet Amanullah’ as an alias.

In response to questions from the BBC Pashto service, one of the ISAF spokesmen Lt. Col. John Dorrian, said, referring to the AAN report:

‘This report is baseless. The man who was targeted in the operation, one of his family members has confirmed that he was the Taleban deputy governor. There is some intelligence information that he himself described his plans face to face with the Taleban leadership in Pakistan. Other casualties in the operation had weapons with them which means they were the deputy governor’s body guards.’

He also told NPR that:

‘On September 2, coalition forces did kill the targeted individual, Muhammad Amin, also known as Zabet Amanullah… in this operation, multiple sources of intelligence confirm that coalition forces targeted the correct person. This individual was tracked for nearly six months.’ (**)

Dorrian’s comments border on the duplicitous. His phrasing makes it sound as if confirmation of the dead man’s identity came after the killing. Actually, the family member mentioned in his interview with the BBC Pashto Service passed on the information that Muhammad Amin was the Taleban deputy governor in January 2010. Dorrian does the same in his interview with NPR. Officers from Special Forces described to me in December 2010 and March 2011 the ‘multiple sources of intelligence’ which confirmed that Muhammad Amin was the Taleban deputy governor of Takhar, but again this confirmation happened before the killing. Dorrian’s ‘multiple intelligence’ sources, in no way, confirmed that the dead man was Muhammad Amin.

Muhammad Amin’s identity and position in the Taleban is not disputed. Independent sources and Muhammad Amin himself have confirmed that he was the deputy Taleban governor of Takhar at the time of the attack. Dorrian’s comments say nothing about the man who was actually killed, Zabet Amanullah.

If ‘coalition forces’ really had been tracking Zabet Amanullah – the man who was killed on 2 September 2010 – for six months, as Dorrian asserts to NPR, they would have found him living openly in Kabul and travelling to Takhar very publicly in July 2011 for the elections, meeting provincial and district officials and, indeed, making his daily call to the district police chief just hours before the attack. They could easily have detained him. As the Takhar police chief, Shah Jahan Nuri, said, ‘Zabet Amanullah was an ordinary person and lived among normal people. I could have captured him with one phone call.’

Dorrian’s assertion that the guns found on the dead were evidence that they were the deputy governor’s body guards sounds like a deliberate manipulation of the truth. As described in the AAN report, the guns were legally held weapons issued for the election – AAN has this confirmed by provincial security officials and has seen and has copies of the weapons licenses. Moreover, only two out of the ten dead had been armed.

ISAF’s responses make it clear that they are upholding their original assertion, based on signals intelligence, that Muhammad Amin and Zabet Amanullah were the same person. Its responses also make it clear that they continue to find it unnecessary to cross-check the information with human intelligence (which is reflected in the earlier words of one senior SF officer, ‘we were not tracking the names… [but] targeting the telephones’).

AAN has however presented detailed biographies of both men, as well as an interview with Muhammad Amin, carried out in Pakistan by Michael Semple of Harvard University (read his rendering of the story here). Biographical information about Muhammad Amin, given to this author by the Special Forces, was cross-checked with what Amin said about himself and with what two other independent sources said about him. Muhammad Amin is a known individual from Takhar from a recognized family with a history rooted in the province. He was indeed the deputy shadow governor Takhar at the time of the attack. He remains an active Taleban commander.

In its responses ISAF continues to skirt the main questions. These include:

– Who exactly, according to ISAF, was killed? How can it be explained that ISAF considers a person widely recognized as Zabet Amanullah to have been the same as Muhammad Amin, the undisputed deputy shadow governor of Takhar at the time of the attack?

– How does ISAF respond to the grave charge that the magnitude of the flaws in intelligence collection and evaluation in this case may have risen to the level of a violation of the precautionary principle (one of the basic principles of the laws of war which are aimed at protecting civilians during conflict)?

– Why were the other nine civilians targeted? Was proximity to, what ISAF believed was a listed target indeed considered sufficient ground to change the default civilian status of these nine to that of a combatant?

What has been extraordinary to Afghans (and indeed to many foreigners, too) about these killings was how US intelligence had missed what was common knowledge, the sort of information available to Afghans watching election coverage on TV. The steadfastness of the military’s denial in the Takhar attack had already left many perplexed and bitter. ‘Poor Afghans will never be able to get to see the right people to get justice’ said one survivor who sustained serious injuries from the bombing.

The apparent inability, or unwillingness, of the ISAF command and US Special Forces to listen to alternative accounts of operations which Afghans and foreigners like ourselves believe have resulted in civilian casualties is troubling. How can mistakes and systemic failures be addressed without at least some honesty about what has gone wrong?

It is impossible to know how many families have suffered their relations being killed in botched operations based on wrong intelligence or mistaken targeting which have never been admitted. If the Takhar case is in any way typical, there may be many more Afghan families who have been forced to endure such injustice. The next blog in this series will look further into this issue of when the international military admits to their mistakes – and when they do not.
(*) Note: This blog entry’s title has been changed (originally: ‘Takhar Targeted Killings1’).

(**) Dorrian gave a similar statement to the New York Times: ‘NATO officials stand by their account and the intelligence it was based on, and insist that they got the man they were seeking, Mohammed Amin. ‘In this instance, multiple forms of intelligence confirm that coalition forces targeted the correct person after tracking his activities for nearly six months,’ said Lt. Col. John Dorrian, a NATO spokesman. Colonel Dorrian said the evidence included confirmation from a family member and ‘additional intelligence’ showing that Mr. Amin had operated as a so-called shadow deputy governor in Takhar on behalf of Taliban insurgents.’


ISAF Takhar