An investigation into the fatal shooting of an Afghan journalist by a US soldier in July 2011 has raised critical questions about the safety of local reporters working in the field, and the need for greater honesty by ISAF when operations go wrong, according to a new report by Kate Clark, a senior analyst at AAN. She explains why, in a war in which many civilians are killed, by Taleban, Afghan government forces and the international military, she chose to focus on the case of Omaid Khpulwak.
I didn‘t know Omaid. He was a friend of many friends, the ‘go-to’ journalist for any foreign or Kabul-based reporter wanting to visit Uruzgan province. Through his work at the BBC, the national broadcaster, RTA, and Pajhwok Afghan News agency, his was a crucial, independent voice in southern Afghanistan. Those who knew him described his integrity and bravery, reporting despite threats by both Taleban and powerful government figures alike.
Reporters like Omaid are one of the most important, as well as the most vulnerable links in the chain of information which keeps us all informed of what is going on in the most difficult parts of Afghanistan. In that sense, this was the death of a civilian which has had many consequences.
AAN’s new report, which draws heavily on the military investigation, published after a Freedom of Information request, and a series of earlier blogs (see also here), reveals the last two hours of Omaid’s life in granular detail. He was filing a story in the RTA building in Tirin Kot on 28 July 2012 when it was stormed by Taleban and then came under US counter attack. He survived three suicide bombs as well as fire from a US helicopter gunship and heavy machine guns, only to be shot, in the end, by a US soldier who mistook him for an insurgent. This information has emerged slowly.
ISAF’s initial press release on the attack at RTA and a simultaneous attack on the governor’s compound described the heroic success of Afghan commandos in defeating the Taleban. ISAF refused to say whether US or other international forces had also been at the scene. The Afghan government insisted Omaid had been killed by the suicide bombers, but his family was sceptical. Omaid had bullet wounds, rather than injuries caused by a blast or shrapnel. The family received death threats in anonymous phone calls – presumed to come from a local, pro-US commander. Unknown men told them to stop voicing their suspicions that a US soldier had killed Omaid. An initial investigation by AAN based on interviews, ballistics and other evidence, pointed to the possibility that a US soldier had killed him.
This indeed turned out to have been the case. In September last year, the US military published the executive summary of its investigation into Omaid’s death, revealing that one of the US soldiers who cleared the RTA building had mistaken him – a ‘military aged male with a beard’ – for a possible suicide bomber and shot in self-defence.
Taleban have frequently pretended to surrender or be injured and then detonated a suicide vest – such acts of perfidy are banned by the laws of armed conflict. It is impossible, then, to criticise the soldier who shot Omaid. His killing was likely a legal act of war.
Yet the military investigation also pointed to shortcomings on the US side. The commander had not checked whether civilians were trapped inside the RTA building before he launched the counter-attack. He also failed to exercise what the military calls ‘tactical patience’. He decided to send in, indeed to lead, a clearing team into the building. Two suicide bombers blew themselves up, leaving him and six other soldiers injured under the rubble. A second clearing team, now working in a volatile and confusing situation moved into the RTA building and this is when Omaid was shot.
The military investigation also revealed the dismal, virtually negligible, role of Afghan security forces at RTA that day. Yet the press release from ISAF Public Affairs, published the day after the attack, gave a glutinously adulatory account of their actions. ISAF spokesmen have continued to try to spin the story – claiming even recently that the counter-attack had been ‘Afghan-led’, when in fact, no Afghans were involved in it at all. ISAF’s failure to talk frankly with the media and Afghan population, helped spark suspicions of a cover up. While acknowledging that ISAF may be under legal constraints once an investigation is ongoing, it seems that, at the very least, correcting information which has already been released which turns out to be false or misleading would be useful.
Since General John Allen took over command of ISAF and the predominantly US Special Operations Forces of Operation Enduring Freedom, he has worked hard to push down civilian casualties, issuing new tactical directives and enforcing new training. Yet, this must also be allied to honesty, especially when operations go wrong. It may be uncomfortable for the military to release an investigation like the one into the death of Omaid Khpulwak, but it does show that an honest explanation of events can be positive, a contribution both to accountability for civilian deaths and improvements to the protection of civilians.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020