War & Peace

Kill or Capture 3: When the International Military Says ‘Sorry’


President Karzai has said he will no longer allow NATO airstrikes on houses because they are causing too many civilian casualties. The president’s ultimatum follows the pictures shown on Afghan TV on 29 May of distraught villagers in Helmand carrying the bruised and dusty corpses of their small children who had been killed in an air strike on 28 May. The following day, ISAF apologized, although it insisted its forces had been targeting a house from which insurgents had been firing. The deaths of children and women, whether in air strikes or night raids, usually bring prompt apologies from ISAF, but it seems many other cases are simply never admitted to. Not all allegations of civilian casualties are true, says AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark. But neither are all denials.

May 2011 has been a month of intensified bloodshed, with the Taleban implementing its asymmetrical summer ‘Badr’ offensive and the international forces keeping up a high number of night raids and airstrikes. Allegations of fresh civilian casualties have been directed against both the Taleban (see our previous blog on this issue) and the international military. The relatives of the children killed in Helmand who had driven through the night to Lashkargah to show the small bodies to the cameras and the world to prove that the dead were ‘innocent civilians, not…Taleban’ (as reported in the New York Times, link below) were offered ‘sincere apologies’ from ISAF the following day for ‘nine civilians’ killed. The apologies did not cover the full extent of the family’s claims – who said two women, two men and ten children – all civilians – had been killed after the wrong house was hit. ISAF said:
‘…a coalition patrol was attacked by insurgents in the Now Zad district… (and) resulted in a coalition Marine being killed in action. Subsequently, the five insurgents occupied and continued to attack again from a compound and in the ensuing battle an airstrike was called to neutralize the threat.’

(The statement is here.)

Usually, the deaths of women or children bring swift admissions from ISAF(*), which deals with ‘fallout’ from both ISAF and US Special Forces operations. This was the case in mid-May when two children were killed in separate night raids by US Special Forces in Nangarhar in statements whose bland titles conveyed nothing of the horror of the deaths. In the first raid, in Surkhrod on 12 May, it seems the wrong house may have been raided. ISAF said they killed the uncle because he was armed and threatening their forces and the girl because she had run towards their ‘outer security perimeter and they thought she was carrying a gun.

‘Armed Individual [the girl’s uncle, a policeman], Local National [actually, a 12 year old girl] Killed During Security Operation’
(See the full report here.)

Two days later, on 14 May, ISAF said that, during a night raid in Hisarak, also in Nangarhar, the boy had been killed for ‘force protection’ after they asked him to ‘exit peacefully’ so they could search his room and he had instead reached for a gun.

‘Afghan, Coalition Operation Results in One Local National [actually, a 15 year old boy] Killed’

(See this report here)

The families were given near identical apologies. (**) Unfortunately, it is all too easy to imagine that if the civilians killed had been adult and male, no such apologies would have been issued. These were not the first civilian casualties alleged to have taken place during night raids in Nangarhar over the last year, although ISAF denies many of the other cases. For details of other incidents, see AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini’s blog here and a special investigation by Emma Graham-Harrison of Reuters here.

According to veteran reporter in Afghanistan, Jean Mackenzie (formerly of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, now with the Global Post), the number of incidents resulting in civilian casualties which are never admitted to outnumber those which are. She lists several such cases, (***), before saying: ‘There are many more [operations] where the military has denied the accounts of the Afghan government and locals, refused to accept responsibility, and whose casualties are never included in the ranks of dead civilians.’

Many allegations of civilian casualties turn out to be no such thing. Careful investigation is needed to verify the identities of the dead and injured, particularly as this is a war where one side does not wear uniforms. Yet, getting the military to own up, particularly once they have insisted the dead really were combatants, even if there is overwhelming evidence as to the civilian nature of the casualties, can be extremely difficult.

While investigating an allegation of civilian casualties in Takhar in September 2010, I was advised by someone who had worked on many such cases that a ‘shock and awe’ level of detailed evidence on the part of any journalist or human rights activist who wanted to get an admission would be required. In the Takhar case, where an air strike killed not the intended target – a major Taleban commander, but ten civilian election parliamentary election campaigners. AAN presented forensically detailed evidence that these were civilians and published an interview with the man whom the military continues to insist it killed. Despite this and statements by provincial officials, who knew the dead man personally, and President Karzai ISAF has continued to deny the mistake. Its spokesman is still stone-walling journalists, insisting the correct target was killed and giving statements that border on the duplicitous (for details, see here).

What may make this case particularly difficult is that the overall commander of international forces in Afghanistan, David Petraeus, had already backed the intelligence behind the attack strongly and publicly. (See his interview here  and the transcript below ****.)

Yet, it is also true to say that the ISAF media office has a track record when it comes to being ‘economical with the truth’. In February 2010, after a joint US Special Forces/Afghan forces night raid in Paktia, a determined attempt was made to get away with the killing of three women (along with two of their male relations – both civilian, a police officer and a prosecutor) with a cooked up story. In a statement entitled “Joint force operating in Gardez makes gruesome discovery”, ISAF falsely claimed that, after ‘intelligence ‘confirmed militant activity’ in a compound in Khataba, an outskirt of Gardez, the force entered and engaged in a fire-fight and then found ‘the bound and gagged bodies of (the) three women’. The journalist Jerome Starkey, after some hard investigation, laid bare that scandal.

Secret military dispatches published by Wikileaks in the summer of 2010 also provided evidence of how ISAF was used to cover the US Special Forces’ backs, putting out obfuscating or simply mendacious reports when botched raids and attacks resulted in the deaths of civilian or Afghan security force. In one operation on 4 October 2007, for example, US Special Forces called in air support after a battle developed with Taleban in Laswanday village in Paktika. According to The Guardian, which saw ISAF press statements (they no longer appear to be available online), the coalition said several militants had been killed and no mention was made of any dead civilians, although ISAF later added that, ‘several non-combatants were found dead and several others wounded’ without giving any numbers or details’. The classified assessment of the damage revealed that the 500 pound bombs had killed no Taleban. They, it seems, had left the compound before the bombing. The dead were listed as follows:

6x KIA [killed in action] were found inside the compound. 1x adult female, 1x female child and 4x male adults, one of which was bound by zip cuffs….The bound man has been identified as the owner of the compound and it is believed that he was a prisoner/hostage of the ACM [Anti-Coalition Militia]

(The damage report can be found here.)

The team of US military and Afghan officials who visited the village afterwards, according to another dispatch, largely blamed the villagers for harboring insurgents (despite the dead including one bound man). (*****) Details of similar cover ups can be found here.

The Taleban and other insurgent groups are responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan – something which ISAF repeats at every opportunity. Yet, those civilian casualties resulting from the international military’s operations upset Afghanistan’s people and politicians more than almost anything else. This does not seem fair to ISAF, but it is the reality.

Moreover, if ISAF’s denials do not genuinely reflect the truth, locally at least, few will be fooled. The credibility of international forces suffers and anger at the civilian deaths and injuries is exacerbated by the impression that the foreign military acts with impunity and that injustice prevails.

President Karzai is furious: ‘NATO must learn that air strikes on Afghan homes are not allowed and that Afghan people have no tolerance for that anymore,” he said on 29 May. Then today, came his strongest statement ever: ‘From this moment, airstrikes on the houses of people are not allowed’ (see one press report about this here). However, the military’s response to the deaths in Helmand which mixes apologies with blame, ultimately for the deaths on the insurgents, suggests it still does not fully appreciate the depths and dangers caused by killing civilians:

‘Unfortunately, the compound the insurgents purposefully occupied was later discovered to house innocent civilians… I ask that the Afghan people continue to trust and assist their security forces, so that together we can stop the senseless killing brought upon us by an enemy who wants to exploit the Afghan people through fear and violence.’

(URL for NATO statement given earlier.)
(*) Compare, for example, the admission made after nine boys collecting firewood in Kunar were killed in an air attack in March. Not all child and women deaths bring speedy apologies. ISAF has insisted that the four people: father, mother, teenage daughter and male guest who were killed in a night raid in Takhar in the early hours of 18 May were all armed insurgents, including the ‘females’ and one of the dead men was a major ‘facilitator’ for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan [IMU] (see also here).

(**) This was what ISAF told the boy’s family:

‘We are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologize to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and most importantly, the surviving family members,’ said Rear Admiral Hal Pittman, ISAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Communication. ‘In our efforts to secure the population we go to great lengths in our operations to reduce civilian casualties to an absolute minimum. We are working with our Afghan security force counterparts to understand what happened and take steps to prevent this from happening in the future.’

The family of the girl/uncle were told:

‘We are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologize to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and most importantly, the surviving family members of those killed by our actions,’ said Rear Admiral Hal Pittman, ISAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Communication. We go to great lengths in our operations to reduce civilian casualties to an absolute minimum. We understand any civilian loss of life is detrimental to our cause and to our efforts to secure the population. We are working with our Afghan security force counterparts to understand what happened and take steps to prevent this from happening in the future.’

‘They killed my 12 year-old innocent daughter and my brother-in-law,” the householder told the New York Times ‘and then told me, ‘We are sorry,’ What does it mean? What pain can be cured by this word ‘sorry’?’

(***) MacKenzie gives a list of such incidents, including one in August 2007 where two 500-pound bombs were dropped on a mela (a combination market and picnic) in Bughnai, Helmand Province which was aimed at the Taleban commander, Mansur Dadullah, but which, she says, killed and injured hundreds. The spokesman for British forces in Helmand insisted, she writes that the mela had to have been a Taliban gathering ‘because there were no women present’.

(****) Stephen Grey’s interview with General Petraeus about the Takhar case appeared in the PBS television Frontline documentary, ‘Kill/Capture’, broadcast in the US on 10 May 2011:

Grey
Can I just ask you how that operation came into being and what made you think this was the man you were targeting?

Petraeus
Well we didn’t think, in this case, with respect, we knew. We had days and days of what’s called ‘The Unblinking Eye’, confirmed by other forms of intelligence, that informed us that there is no question about who this individual was.

Grey
The man who was killed who appears to be the target was living openly in Kabul and we have Afghan Government officials who say ‘this man was innocent.’ So what gives you confidence that he was who you say he was?

Petraeus
Very precise intelligence that tells us exactly what he was doing when he was in Kabul, and exactly what he was doing up there. So again, there is not a question about this one, with respect.

The documentary will also be shown in the UK on Channel 4 on 3 June and by the following international broadcasters: SBS (Australia), SVT (Sweden), SRC (French Canada), TVI (Portugal), VRT (Belgium), YLE (Finland), PTS (Taiwan), TVN (Poland), TV3 (Spain-Catalonia) and Teleamazonas (Ecuador).

(***** )The write up of how officers and provincial officials later talked to the villagers it worth reading in full, but this is an extract (grammar mistakes are from original). The villagers’ lack of protests is taken as evidence of guilt, whereas to this reader it suggested that, after the killings, they may just have been hopeless or frightened.

…The villagers listened intently as [Provincial Chief of Police, General Mulakhel] gave an impressive, engaging speech. Key points included the importance of education, how ACM elements prevent Afghans from attending school while they send their kids to school, how Taliban mullahs misinterpret the Quran for there benefit, Taliban hypocrisy in burning madrassas now when during the mujahadeen battle with the Soviets they didn’t burn madrassas, and during the war with the Soviets how the Americans were widely considered Afghanistan’s friends but now they call them enemies of the Afghans. Gen Mulakhel urged the tribe to band together and resist Taliban aggression so that they won’t end up like the family in the compound…
CO [Commanding Officer] Comment:

There was a notable change in the attitude of the group between the last time officials addressed the group two months ago and today’s event. Last time there were more protests that they were helpless against Taliban insurgents who come in with weapons and take food and money from the villagers. There was little or no protest today, instead, all in attendance listened intently to the officials speaking. These people live dirt poor even by Afghan standards…

President Karzai has said he will no longer allow NATO airstrikes on houses because they are causing too many civilian casualties. The president’s ultimatum follows the pictures shown on Afghan TV on 29 May of distraught villagers in Helmand carrying the bruised and dusty corpses of their small children who had been killed in an air strike on 28 May. The following day, ISAF apologized, although it insisted its forces had been targeting a house from which insurgents had been firing. The deaths of children and women, whether in air strikes or night raids, usually bring prompt apologies from ISAF, but it seems many other cases are simply never admitted to. Not all allegations of civilian casualties are true, says AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark. But neither are all denials.

May 2011 has been a month of intensified bloodshed, with the Taleban implementing its asymmetrical summer ‘Badr’ offensive and the international forces keeping up a high number of night raids and airstrikes. Allegations of fresh civilian casualties have been directed against both the Taleban (see our previous blog on this issue) and the international military. The relatives of the children killed in Helmand who had driven through the night to Lashkargah to show the small bodies to the cameras and the world to prove that the dead were ‘innocent civilians, not…Taleban’ (as reported in the New York Times, link below) were offered ‘sincere apologies’ from ISAF the following day for ‘nine civilians’ killed. The apologies did not cover the full extent of the family’s claims – who said two women, two men and ten children – all civilians – had been killed after the wrong house was hit. ISAF said:
‘…a coalition patrol was attacked by insurgents in the Now Zad district… (and) resulted in a coalition Marine being killed in action. Subsequently, the five insurgents occupied and continued to attack again from a compound and in the ensuing battle an airstrike was called to neutralize the threat.’

(The statement is here.)

Usually, the deaths of women or children bring swift admissions from ISAF(*), which deals with ‘fallout’ from both ISAF and US Special Forces operations. This was the case in mid-May when two children were killed in separate night raids by US Special Forces in Nangarhar in statements whose bland titles conveyed nothing of the horror of the deaths. In the first raid, in Surkhrod on 12 May, it seems the wrong house may have been raided. ISAF said they killed the uncle because he was armed and threatening their forces and the girl because she had run towards their ‘outer security perimeter and they thought she was carrying a gun.

‘Armed Individual [the girl’s uncle, a policeman], Local National [actually, a 12 year old girl] Killed During Security Operation’
(See the full report here.)

Two days later, on 14 May, ISAF said that, during a night raid in Hisarak, also in Nangarhar, the boy had been killed for ‘force protection’ after they asked him to ‘exit peacefully’ so they could search his room and he had instead reached for a gun.

‘Afghan, Coalition Operation Results in One Local National [actually, a 15 year old boy] Killed’

(See this report here)

The families were given near identical apologies. (**) Unfortunately, it is all too easy to imagine that if the civilians killed had been adult and male, no such apologies would have been issued. These were not the first civilian casualties alleged to have taken place during night raids in Nangarhar over the last year, although ISAF denies many of the other cases. For details of other incidents, see AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini’s blog here and a special investigation by Emma Graham-Harrison of Reuters here.

According to veteran reporter in Afghanistan, Jean Mackenzie (formerly of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, now with the Global Post), the number of incidents resulting in civilian casualties which are never admitted to outnumber those which are. She lists several such cases, (***), before saying: ‘There are many more [operations] where the military has denied the accounts of the Afghan government and locals, refused to accept responsibility, and whose casualties are never included in the ranks of dead civilians.’

Many allegations of civilian casualties turn out to be no such thing. Careful investigation is needed to verify the identities of the dead and injured, particularly as this is a war where one side does not wear uniforms. Yet, getting the military to own up, particularly once they have insisted the dead really were combatants, even if there is overwhelming evidence as to the civilian nature of the casualties, can be extremely difficult.

While investigating an allegation of civilian casualties in Takhar in September 2010, I was advised by someone who had worked on many such cases that a ‘shock and awe’ level of detailed evidence on the part of any journalist or human rights activist who wanted to get an admission would be required. In the Takhar case, where an air strike killed not the intended target – a major Taleban commander, but ten civilian election parliamentary election campaigners. AAN presented forensically detailed evidence that these were civilians and published an interview with the man whom the military continues to insist it killed. Despite this and statements by provincial officials, who knew the dead man personally, and President Karzai ISAF has continued to deny the mistake. Its spokesman is still stone-walling journalists, insisting the correct target was killed and giving statements that border on the duplicitous (for details, see here).

What may make this case particularly difficult is that the overall commander of international forces in Afghanistan, David Petraeus, had already backed the intelligence behind the attack strongly and publicly. (See his interview here  and the transcript below ****.)

Yet, it is also true to say that the ISAF media office has a track record when it comes to being ‘economical with the truth’. In February 2010, after a joint US Special Forces/Afghan forces night raid in Paktia, a determined attempt was made to get away with the killing of three women (along with two of their male relations – both civilian, a police officer and a prosecutor) with a cooked up story. In a statement entitled “Joint force operating in Gardez makes gruesome discovery”, ISAF falsely claimed that, after ‘intelligence ‘confirmed militant activity’ in a compound in Khataba, an outskirt of Gardez, the force entered and engaged in a fire-fight and then found ‘the bound and gagged bodies of (the) three women’. The journalist Jerome Starkey, after some hard investigation, laid bare that scandal.

Secret military dispatches published by Wikileaks in the summer of 2010 also provided evidence of how ISAF was used to cover the US Special Forces’ backs, putting out obfuscating or simply mendacious reports when botched raids and attacks resulted in the deaths of civilian or Afghan security force. In one operation on 4 October 2007, for example, US Special Forces called in air support after a battle developed with Taleban in Laswanday village in Paktika. According to The Guardian, which saw ISAF press statements (they no longer appear to be available online), the coalition said several militants had been killed and no mention was made of any dead civilians, although ISAF later added that, ‘several non-combatants were found dead and several others wounded’ without giving any numbers or details’. The classified assessment of the damage revealed that the 500 pound bombs had killed no Taleban. They, it seems, had left the compound before the bombing. The dead were listed as follows:

6x KIA [killed in action] were found inside the compound. 1x adult female, 1x female child and 4x male adults, one of which was bound by zip cuffs….The bound man has been identified as the owner of the compound and it is believed that he was a prisoner/hostage of the ACM [Anti-Coalition Militia]

(The damage report can be found here.)

The team of US military and Afghan officials who visited the village afterwards, according to another dispatch, largely blamed the villagers for harboring insurgents (despite the dead including one bound man). (*****) Details of similar cover ups can be found here.

The Taleban and other insurgent groups are responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan – something which ISAF repeats at every opportunity. Yet, those civilian casualties resulting from the international military’s operations upset Afghanistan’s people and politicians more than almost anything else. This does not seem fair to ISAF, but it is the reality.

Moreover, if ISAF’s denials do not genuinely reflect the truth, locally at least, few will be fooled. The credibility of international forces suffers and anger at the civilian deaths and injuries is exacerbated by the impression that the foreign military acts with impunity and that injustice prevails.

President Karzai is furious: ‘NATO must learn that air strikes on Afghan homes are not allowed and that Afghan people have no tolerance for that anymore,” he said on 29 May. Then today, came his strongest statement ever: ‘From this moment, airstrikes on the houses of people are not allowed’ (see one press report about this here). However, the military’s response to the deaths in Helmand which mixes apologies with blame, ultimately for the deaths on the insurgents, suggests it still does not fully appreciate the depths and dangers caused by killing civilians:

‘Unfortunately, the compound the insurgents purposefully occupied was later discovered to house innocent civilians… I ask that the Afghan people continue to trust and assist their security forces, so that together we can stop the senseless killing brought upon us by an enemy who wants to exploit the Afghan people through fear and violence.’

(URL for NATO statement given earlier.)
(*) Compare, for example, the admission made after nine boys collecting firewood in Kunar were killed in an air attack in March. Not all child and women deaths bring speedy apologies. ISAF has insisted that the four people: father, mother, teenage daughter and male guest who were killed in a night raid in Takhar in the early hours of 18 May were all armed insurgents, including the ‘females’ and one of the dead men was a major ‘facilitator’ for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan [IMU] (see also here).

(**) This was what ISAF told the boy’s family:

‘We are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologize to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and most importantly, the surviving family members,’ said Rear Admiral Hal Pittman, ISAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Communication. ‘In our efforts to secure the population we go to great lengths in our operations to reduce civilian casualties to an absolute minimum. We are working with our Afghan security force counterparts to understand what happened and take steps to prevent this from happening in the future.’

The family of the girl/uncle were told:

‘We are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologize to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and most importantly, the surviving family members of those killed by our actions,’ said Rear Admiral Hal Pittman, ISAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Communication. We go to great lengths in our operations to reduce civilian casualties to an absolute minimum. We understand any civilian loss of life is detrimental to our cause and to our efforts to secure the population. We are working with our Afghan security force counterparts to understand what happened and take steps to prevent this from happening in the future.’

‘They killed my 12 year-old innocent daughter and my brother-in-law,” the householder told the New York Times ‘and then told me, ‘We are sorry,’ What does it mean? What pain can be cured by this word ‘sorry’?’

(***) MacKenzie gives a list of such incidents, including one in August 2007 where two 500-pound bombs were dropped on a mela (a combination market and picnic) in Bughnai, Helmand Province which was aimed at the Taleban commander, Mansur Dadullah, but which, she says, killed and injured hundreds. The spokesman for British forces in Helmand insisted, she writes that the mela had to have been a Taliban gathering ‘because there were no women present’.

(****) Stephen Grey’s interview with General Petraeus about the Takhar case appeared in the PBS television Frontline documentary, ‘Kill/Capture’, broadcast in the US on 10 May 2011:

Grey
Can I just ask you how that operation came into being and what made you think this was the man you were targeting?

Petraeus
Well we didn’t think, in this case, with respect, we knew. We had days and days of what’s called ‘The Unblinking Eye’, confirmed by other forms of intelligence, that informed us that there is no question about who this individual was.

Grey
The man who was killed who appears to be the target was living openly in Kabul and we have Afghan Government officials who say ‘this man was innocent.’ So what gives you confidence that he was who you say he was?

Petraeus
Very precise intelligence that tells us exactly what he was doing when he was in Kabul, and exactly what he was doing up there. So again, there is not a question about this one, with respect.

The documentary will also be shown in the UK on Channel 4 on 3 June and by the following international broadcasters: SBS (Australia), SVT (Sweden), SRC (French Canada), TVI (Portugal), VRT (Belgium), YLE (Finland), PTS (Taiwan), TVN (Poland), TV3 (Spain-Catalonia) and Teleamazonas (Ecuador).

(***** )The write up of how officers and provincial officials later talked to the villagers it worth reading in full, but this is an extract (grammar mistakes are from original). The villagers’ lack of protests is taken as evidence of guilt, whereas to this reader it suggested that, after the killings, they may just have been hopeless or frightened.

…The villagers listened intently as [Provincial Chief of Police, General Mulakhel] gave an impressive, engaging speech. Key points included the importance of education, how ACM elements prevent Afghans from attending school while they send their kids to school, how Taliban mullahs misinterpret the Quran for there benefit, Taliban hypocrisy in burning madrassas now when during the mujahadeen battle with the Soviets they didn’t burn madrassas, and during the war with the Soviets how the Americans were widely considered Afghanistan’s friends but now they call them enemies of the Afghans. Gen Mulakhel urged the tribe to band together and resist Taliban aggression so that they won’t end up like the family in the compound…
CO [Commanding Officer] Comment:

There was a notable change in the attitude of the group between the last time officials addressed the group two months ago and today’s event. Last time there were more protests that they were helpless against Taliban insurgents who come in with weapons and take food and money from the villagers. There was little or no protest today, instead, all in attendance listened intently to the officials speaking. These people live dirt poor even by Afghan standards…

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Thematic Category: War & Peace