42 agonizing days after the death of a friend, the young and gifted Uruzgan journalist, Omaid Khpulwak, during a complex attack on 28 July 2011 in Tirin Kot, NATO has finally finished its investigation and admitted to what his friends and family had said all along, that Omaid was shot dead by US forces. It said ‘he was killed in a case of mistaken identity. He was shot by US forces who believed he was an insurgent that fired on them with a weapon and was subsequently taking action to detonate a suicide vest IED.’ As a young, Afghan man at the site of a Taleban attack, he stood no chance; the soldiers assumed he was hostile. Written by Susanne Schmeidl and dedicated to Omaid and his grieving family.
While it is a relief the truth is out, the results of the NATO investigation brings back all the emotions I had when I first heard Omaid had been killed—anger, frustration and above all sadness and despair about the pointlessness of his death. From the NATO statement, it is now utterly clear what I had feared, Omaid never stood a chance that day (read the Executive Summary of the NATO investigation here). He was not only at the wrong place at the wrong time, but he simply had the wrong demographics: a young Afghan male of what is considered by soldiers to be ‘battle-age.’, He therefore ceased to be a victim and became, instead, a threat to the soldiers who had come to secure the building of the national broadcaster RTA, which the Taleban had been attacking and where Omaid was hiding, desperately hoping he might survive, asking his family to pray for him.
While not having access to the full report, which was only shared with BBC and Omaid’s family, the Executive Summary tells the story. Before going into its implications, I would like to acknowledge that I don’t envy any foreign soldier in Afghanistan; they must live under constant tension and fear of being killed, or having a friend killed. Nevertheless, this death does raise questions about the role of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, especially vis-à-vis the civilian population, they have ostensibly come to secure. Sent in to secure a civilian building from Taleban attack, soldiers assumed a young, male civilian was a combatant and killed him. Yet, in The United States Government Integrated Civilian-Military Campaign Plan for Support to Afghanistan; the first stated campaign objective is to ‘secure the population’ (or helping the Afghan government to do so). This comes ahead of, ‘actions against the irreconcilables [aka Taleban]’.
Let’s have a closer look at the NATO statement: ‘During the clearing operation a Soldier in an overwatch position, outside the building, identified movement of a young adult male in the building through a large hold in a broken wall. The room the man was in was immediately adjacent to the room where one of the suicide bombers had detonated his suicide vest IED, and across the hall from the other suicide vest detonation, just minutes before’. This was Omaid hiding in the bathroom of the TV building, fearing for his life. He had just survived three suicide explosions, possibly himself agonizing over what would happen if a Taleban found him.
NATO’s explanation continues: ‘The Soldier then heard a shot that he perceived came from the man’s exact location. It is probable that the shot he heard was actually fire by a Soldier inside the building during the building clearing. The Soldier in overwatch assessed the individual he observed to be enemy and fired a single round which did not strike him. In the stress and urgency of the moment, it is highly probable that Soldiers in the courtyard outside the building incorrectly perceived that shot as having been fired by the man in the building. Multiple Soldiers believed he was shooting, and called out warnings’.
This statement indicate the stress on soldiers in Afghanistan, and being possibly not as prepared as they should be to assess if Afghans at a site of attack on a civilian building are insurgents or civilians. Clearly Omaid was alone; the report does not speak of OTHER Afghans on the scene (at least not alive, the suicide bombers by then had blown themselves to pieces), so it was Omaid, a single civilian, in hiding who was there and fully aware of the particular dangers to Afghans during the ’rescue’ phase of a counter-attack.
Omaid had received hostile environments training in January 2011 (as described in an earlier AAN blog). He was told that ‘a rescue is frequently, ‘the most dangerous time for Afghans’ if, that is, foreign soldiers assume that anyone local must be hostile. Omaid was taught that if he was caught up in an attack, he should find a place of safety, wait and when – hopefully – he was found, raise his hands, stay still and speak in English’. Only that day, it may have been better if Omaid would not have been found, then he may have walked out alive unharmed.
And now comes the crucial paragraph in the NATO statement, which I would like to deconstruct:
‘A Soldier was directed to move up to the broken wall where the man was seen. As the Soldier approached he observed a young adult male with a beard with something clinched in one of his fists and reaching for something on his person with his other hand’.
• Most Afghan men in Urozgan have beards, whatever their political affiliation. This is not an indicator of anyone being a Taleb.
• As much pain it gives me to look at the photo of Omaid’s mangled dead body, but I have done so: He did not have a beard, besides what in the West would be called ‘designer stubble’ (for photos, see link in AAN’s blog). Indeed, in Urozgan, this was dangerously short. The Taliban requires long beards. Omaid would have never passed any control by Vice and Virtue religious police. In Afghan eyes, he was clean shaven. Most of my own NGO colleagues would not go to Uruzgan with such a scant beard for fear of drawing unwanted attention. For the soldiers that day, however, his one or two day stubble was a beard, he was not shaven enough, and a beard meant Taleban to them, a beard meant Omaid was hostile.
• Yes, Omaid was clinching something in his fist, very likely his mobile phone with which he’d sent two text messages to his brother and received encouragement in return. This was his only link to the outside, to his friends and loved ones. I am sure he was holding on to it for dear life. This very fact, however, was seen as suspicious and is, I have learnt, a frequent reason for mistakes regarding ‘hostile intent’ even though most Afghans carry mobile phones these days.*
• And yes, he may have been ‘reaching for something on his person with his other hand’. Police had told his brother that Omaid was trying to show the soldiers his press pass. Possibly in his mind the only proof that he was not a Taleban. But again, this move was considered hostile. BBC also concluded that this was Omaid’s likely action .
The NATO report continues: ‘Based on the events of the events of the preceding minutes the Soldier assessed the actions as those of a suicide bomber who was taking steps to detonate an IED that posed a lethal threat to numerous Soldiers in the immediate area. He shot the individual with his M-4, killing him’.
But then, as Kate Clark wrote in AAN’s blog, ’this was a civilian compound (a TV station) and journalists should have been expected to be present’. One almost wants to shout, why did they not call out to this man? Why not assume for one second that there might be surviving civilians in the building. The soldiers are described as calling out to one another over their own firing. They did not apparently call out to any potential civilians trapped in a civilian compound, who would have felt just as threatened by further Taleban attack as they did. The irony, of course, is that by this point, all the Taleban were dead.
And most sadly, they did not even check who they had shot: ‘Because of the danger posed by unexploded ordnance,’ says the report, ‘the US Soldiers withdrew from the building as soon as friendly forces were extracted from the rubble of the IED blasts. Afghan forces removed the body from the building; it was that of Ahmad Omid Khpalwak. He was unarmed; no weapon was found nearby. It appears that all the rounds perceived as coming from his location were instead fired by US Soldiers’. They did not even bother to check if they had made a mistake. And that above all is utterly sad for two reasons. First, the indifference to lost life, without a backward glance. Secondly, it also begs the question of accountability. Would this death have been recognized if Omaid had not been a journalist, working amongst other for BBC? If we would not have pressed for an investigation, if I was not writing blogs because I knew him, his death is likely to have been filed as ‘killed by insurgents’ as the Afghan government concluded, or ‘killed in crossfire,’ and ‘could not be attributing to any party’, nothing ever questioned.
So yes, I’m with Jawid, Omaid’s brother. I am angry, not only at the Taleban for launching this spectacular attack, but also at NATO’s behaviour. And also somewhat at NATO’s own conclusion in their press release:
‘After a thorough investigation it was determined the reporter was killed in a case of mistaken identity. Mr. Khpalwak was shot by an ISAF member who believed he was an insurgent that posed a threat and was about to detonate a suicide vest improvised explosive device (IED). The investigating officer found that the ISAF member involved in this incident complied with the laws of armed conflict and rules of engagement and acted reasonably under the circumstances. ISAF would like to express its condolences to the family of Mr. Khpalwak’.
I would like to ask what it would take for a young male Afghan to be considered a civilian in these circumstances? Given that the US and other soldiers assumed a young Afghan man was hostile, how can they uphold the principle of distinction – the obligation under the Geneva Conventions to distinguish between civilian and military and, additionally, to take all reasonable precautions not to kill civilians?
In terms of complying with the laws of armed conflict; under international humanitarian law (IHL), the principle of distinction prohibits directing attacks against civilians or civilian objects. Here ISAF was careful to conclude that soldiers shot what they considered a legitimate military target, an alleged Taliban suicide bomber.**
There is also the question of taking due precautions, that is, not using an immediate lethal response in a situation where other options may be available (such as calling out), especially if civilians should have been assumed to be on site. We don’t know the exact number of U.S. soldiers at the scene, but it seems to have been at least three, if not more. So one single Afghan male could only then pose really a threat, if he was perceived to be hostile, firing shots, attempting to detonate a suicide vest. Omaid did none of this, but the soldiers thought he did. Hence, ISAF has deemed their actions an unfortunate accident due to mistaken identity and legal. With this the case is closed.
Not so for Omaid’s family and many Afghans, who increasingly sense their very nationality and physique, as much as their gender, and obviously their religion (having a beard), is enough to make them to be perceived hostile by the very forces that are supposed to protect them. Being a young Afghan of battle-age is enough to get you killed. And this is in the end, the most devastating conclusion from NATO’s finding. It is a message to all young male Afghans, even with a mere stubble as a beard, that the likelihood to come out alive in a hostile incident where international soldiers enter to the secure and clear a site from insurgents is close to nil. The gloves are off, the message to all young Afghan civilians males out there is, be afraid, be very afraid. Sadly, the gloves have been off for a very long time.
* A shortly forthcoming joint report by The Open Society Institute and The Liaison Office on Night Raids, among other, discusses how the misinterpretation of otherwise innocuous acts (e.g., clutching a cell phone) as evidence of hostile intent has lead to other civilian casualties.
** Under Article 51(3) of Additional Protocol I, “Civilians shall enjoy the protection afforded by this Section unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.” Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977, 51(3) [hereinafter: “Additional Protocol I”]; Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non- International Armed Conflicts [hereinafter: “Additional Protocol II”], 8 June 1977, Art. 13(3), http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/FULL/475; ‘Interpretive Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities under International Humanitarian Law (Adopted by the Assembly of the International Committee of the Red Cross on 26 February 2009)’ International Review of the Red Cross No. 872, December 2008, http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/article/review/review-872-p991.htm.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020