The repercussions of a night raid by US Special Forces and Afghan police, which left two men, a woman and a girl dead in Takhar a week ago (whether they were civilians or insurgents, depends on whose version of events you believe) are still being played out. The provincial council has gone on strike in protest at the raid and the subsequent killing of demonstrators at the PRT. Government officials and ‘opposition’ figures alike are complaining that the raid and/or the demonstration were the result of political manoeuvrings and ethnic discrimination. Meanwhile, the security ministers have been summoned to appear before the parliament’s lower house today to answer questions about this and other recent deadly operations, including a Taleban attack on labourers in Paktia. AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark has been looking into it all.
The first task which faces researchers – and the investigating commission sent by President Karzai to Takhar alike – is to find out who exactly was killed in the raid which took place in the night between 17 and 18 May.
It is with a sense of unreality that one ploughs into the ISAF press release (ISAF’s media office deals with any news fall out for the Special Forces) and tries to make sense of the oddly bland title, tortured language and military jargon (see here, for example). This was how ISAF described the raid on a house in Gowmali, a village just outside Taloqan on the way to Badakhshan:
‘A combined Afghan and coalition security(*) force killed four insurgents, including two armed females during a security operation targeting an Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan [IMU] facilitator in Taloqan district, Takhar province yesterday. The facilitator acquires, constructs, and moves weapons and explosives throughout the province. He is currently heavily involved in the movement and procurement of weapons for imminent attacks throughout northern Afghanistan.’
The ISAF media office commonly and – for this reader, chillingly – uses the present tense to describe a person whom combat forces have just killed. The statement says that one of the ‘females’ was armed with an AK-47 rifle and the other with a pistol. It describes both women and men as insurgents and said they were ‘engaged’ after displaying ‘hostile intent’ (pointing their guns at or attempting to ‘engage’ the soldiers). The ‘hostile intent’ phrase is there for the lawyers, a bid to explain why the four were combatants and therefore were legally shot dead.
Locals were not impressed with the ISAF version of events. Provincial officials said those killed were civilians (as did President Karzai) and complained they had not been consulted beforehand about the raid, as Karzai had demanded time and again. Local journalists and other figures who spoke to AAN said the family was poor and the father, whom they named as Mullah Muhammad Allah, worked as a tailor and was known by the nick-names Khayyat-e Lang (the lame tailor in Dari) and Chula (the lame man in Uzbek). His leg had been injured during the war, hence the nicknames. It seems he had fought with the Taleban pre-2001. All sources we spoke to in Takhar said he had not been active since. The two ‘females’ killed were his wife and teenage daughter, who, said local sources, was 18 and engaged to be married.
The ISAF spokesman told AAN he had not heard that one of the ‘females’ was a teenager. He confirmed that the alleged IMU facilitator had been killed in the raid, but did not know if the target was the father or his guest, whom local sources named as Qari Hassan. Qari Hassan may have been a low-ranking Taleban fighter (this is according to local sources, including the local politician, Maulawi Latifullah Azizi who is the former head of the provincial council and Junbesh representative, and also reported in Sternmagazine by Christoph Reuter who recently co-authored a report on the Taleban in the north for AAN (read his article in German here and his report here) All the dead were Uzbeks, as were two others in the house who were detained. (According to Azizi, they were shepherds from Rustaq district.)
One section of the ISAF press release which sounds strange was the account of the ‘multiple’ weapons which it said were discovered in the house, ‘including an AK-47 assault rifle, a pistol, a chest rack, and multiple 30mm rounds primed with detonation cord and rigged as a suicide bomber vest.’ Floored by the military jargon, I checked with a former soldier, who has worked in security in Afghanistan for many years, what this all meant.
Apart from the two guns, he said a ‘chest rack’ was more commonly referred to as a ‘chest rig’ and is a sort of waistcoat worn by soldiers and hunters for holding ammunition and possibly a load bearing weapon and possibly body armour plates (he pointed me to this website for pictures). He said the ‘multiple 30mm rounds primed with detonation cord and rigged as a suicide bomber vest’ would be a sort of ‘rudimentary improvised explosive device’ which, ‘if it did not have a detonator would not be ready for use.’ He thought it would not be ‘very effective.’ Once the list of weapons was explained, it sounded a lot less impressive and appeared hardly to merit the description ‘multiple’. The former soldier commented that if this was the weaponry of a major IMU weapons facilitator, ‘he was not very good.’
Of course, at this stage, it is impossible to prove who the four dead were. Yet, ISAF’s two allegations, that the females killed were ‘insurgents’ and that they also killed a major IMU facilitator are very serious indeed and it will have to present a lot more evidence for either claim to be convincing. It is highly unusual for women to be insurgents or for an Afghan to be a member of the IMU. The latter appears to be a fairly routine allegation for ISAF to make when Special Forces kill or capture any Afghan who is an ethnic Uzbek whom they suspect of being a Taleb. However, all that is known about the Taleban and the IMU indicate two separate organisations with separate command and control and, in Takhar province at least, a minimal presence of the IMU on the ground. AAN’s recently published investigation into another attack in Takhar in September 2010, showed how a former commander who was killed along with nine other parliamentary election campaigners was claimed by ISAF to be the Taleban deputy governor or a ‘senior member’ of the IMU and his body guard.
Labelling dead ethnic Uzbek Afghans as IMU adds to the narrative of an external ‘terrorist’ threat and makes whoever was killed or captured sound extremely dangerous. From our point of view, it just underlines that international security forces have a blurred picture about whom they are opposing and that not much is known about IMU and its links to the Taleban, al-Qaeda and other militant Islamist organisations. The very recent ICG report ‘Tajikistan: The Changing Insurgent Threats’ that contains chapters about IMU and Northern Afghanistan points in the same direction which, at one point, says that ‘little is known about the IMU’s organization or aims’ and that estimates about the strength of the IMU fighting force ‘seem not much more than guesses’ (find this report here).
Locally, ISAF’s accusations simply did not fly, either the IMU slur or the allegation that the women had been fighters. Incensed neighbours and villagers marched with the bodies of the dead on Taloqan about three kilometres away, with rumours swirling around that the two women had been raped, an accusation repeated by some MPs and officials.(**) In the city, the crowds swelled, with many teenage boys and young men joining – according to several sources, mainly school and madrasas students. The crowds marched on the base of the small Provincial Advisory Team (a small dependency of the German PRT in neighbouring Kunduz) where Afghan security guards protecting the PAT and later the German soldiers, fearing the base would be overrun, opened fire. 12 people were killed and more than 80 injured, some of them critically. As the German media is reporting, German armed forces (Bundeswehr) sources have admitted meanwhile – after initially denying it – that German soldiers fired shots at ‘violent attackers’ in ‘three, possibly four instances’ (for example, see here).
As always there are other issues going on below the surface, most with an Uzbek vs. Tajik pattern of complaint: There have been accusations of malicious intelligence given to ‘the Americans’ to get Uzbeks targeted, that the raid was organised by ‘the government,’ that local (Uzbek) commanders and politicians used the deaths from the raid as an excuse to incite demonstrators in order to discredit the (Tajik) provincial officials and get them replaced, that there are ‘too many’ Tajiks in provincial government positions and senior positions in the security forces, and so on. Feelings are running high on all sides. US Special Forces, who presumably hoped to conduct a ‘clean’ kill or capture operation in this generally peaceful province have inadvertently managed to fan the flames of ethnic discontent.
(*) ISAF uses ‘Coalition Force’ to refer to US Special Forces which carry out the vast majority of anti-Taleban night raids and targeted killings in Afghanistan.
(**) Accusations reported by MPs on Tolo TV on 22 May and repeated to AAN by various local figures.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020