Death of an Uruzgan journalist: Command Errors and Collateral Damage
An investigation into the fatal shooting of an Afghan journalist by a US soldier raises 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 AAN’s senior analyst, Kate Clark.
Omaid Khpulwak was killed at his place of work, the RTA building in Tirin Kot, Uruzgan, in July 2011, when it came under Taleban suicide attack and US counter-attack. Omaid was one of the outstanding journalists of his generation, who had worked with courage and integrity for the BBC, Pajhwok Afghan News and Afghanistan’s national broadcaster, RTA, yet the question of how he was killed and by whom emerged only slowly.
ISAF initially published a press release on the attack at RTA and a simultaneous attack on the governor’s compound in which it described the heroic success of Afghan commandos in defeating the Taleban. It 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 – in which they were told 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, 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.
AAN’s new report draws heavily on the military investigation which has been published after a Freedom of Information request. ‘The last two hours of Omaid’s life are revealed in granular detail,’ said Clark. ‘He survived three Taleban suicide bombs and fire from a helicopter gunship and heavy machine gun, texting his brother to pray for him as he hid in a bathroom.’ His shooting was likely a legal act of war. Yet, the military investigation also pointed to shortcomings on the US side: a failure to establish whether civilians were trapped inside the RTA building before launching the counter-attack and a failure to exercise ‘tactical patience’. Decisions made about how to deal with the Taleban suicide bombers worsened an already volatile situation and created the context in which Omaid was shot dead and seven US soldiers were injured by the suicide bombers.
The military investigation also revealed the dismal, virtually negligible, role of Afghan security forces at RTA that day – quite at odds with ISAF’s initial and still uncorrected press release. Indeed, 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 at all.
‘Omaid’s family risked a great deal to give interviews and pass on evidence to support their suspicion that he had been killed by a US soldier,’ said Clark. ‘ISAF’s failure to talk frankly with the media and Afghan population helped spark suspicions of a cover up.’ She details other incidents when ISAF has been less than honest in its account of operations.
The AAN report acknowledges the greater efforts made by General Allen to reduce civilian casualties by soldiers under his command (both ISAF and the predominantly US Special Operations Forces of Operation Enduring Freedom), but says this must be allied to honesty when operations go wrong.
‘It’s unfortunate the military were forced to release this investigation,’ said Clark, ‘because it shows that an honest explanation of events can be positive – its release has contributed to accountability for civilian deaths and to improving the protection of civilians.’
To read the report please click here
AAN Briefing Paper
25 April 2012
Photo: Jawed Khpulwak