Mass-Casualty Attacks in the Afghan War
Still denying civilian casualties even as more and more evidence emerged that innocents had been killed, ISAF released the following statement: “Coalition forces are aware of allegations that the engagement in the Shindand District of Herat Province Friday may have resulted in civilian casualties. Allegations of civilian casualties are taken very seriously. Coalition forces make every effort to prevent the injury or loss of innocent lives. An investigation has been directed.”
Attempting to piece together what happened, The New York Times reported that a team of Afghan army commandos and US Special Forces called in an airstrike that was based on poor or faulty intelligence or deliberate misinformation. Said the Times:
A [Karzai] presidential aide who declined to be identified said that the Interior Ministry and the Afghan intelligence agency had reported from the region that there were no Taliban present in the village that night. The Afghan National Army, whose commandos called in the airstrike along with American Special Forces trainers, were unable to clarify their original claim, he said….
A tribal elder from the region who helped bury the dead, Haji Tor Jan Noorzai, said people in the village were gathered in memory of a man who was anti-Taliban and had been killed last year, and that tribal enemies of the family had given out false information.
“It is quite obvious, the Americans bombed the area due to wrong information,” he said by telephone. “I am 100 percent confident that someone gave the information due to a tribal dispute. The Americans are foreigners and they do not understand. These people they killed were enemies of the Taliban.”
A human rights team from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan was sent to the scene to investigate. Sifting through the wreckage, UNAMA carefully compiled information on every civilian who perished. It reported:
[The] team met with the District Governor and local elders yesterday. They also interviewed people from a number of households in Nawabad village who confirmed to us that at around midnight on the 21st August, foreign and Afghan military personnel entered the village of Nawabad in the Azizabad area of Shindand district. Military operations lasted several hours during which air strikes were called in. The destruction from aerial bombardment was clearly evident with some 7-8 houses having been totally destroyed and serious damage to many others. Local residents were able to confirm the number of casualties, including names, age and gender of the victims.
Investigations by UNAMA found convincing evidence, based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, and others, that some 90 civilians were killed, including 60 children, 15 women and 15 men. 15 other villagers were wounded or otherwise injured.
Kai Eide, the UN special representative for Afghanistan at the time, was furious. “This is a matter of grave concern to the United Nations,” he said. “It is vital that the international and Afghan military forces thoroughly review the conduct of this operation in order to prevent a repeat of this tragic incident.”
Several days later, the military was still disputing the claims of civilian casualties. On August 27, The New York Times’s Eric Schmitt reported: “In the face of an investigation by Afghan officials and a report by a United Nations team that support the high number of deaths, United States officials maintain that 25 militants and 5 civilians were killed in airstrikes called in after Afghan and American commandos came under heavy fire during a raid on the compound of a top Taliban commander.” While refusing to comment publicly, a US military official told the Times there was “no evidence to support the higher civilian death toll [nor] any evidence of a large number of recently dug graves or large number of injuries reported in local hospitals.”
But the Azizabad story wouldn’t go away. On September 7, the Times published the results of its own investigation. Its description was horrific:
At the battle scene, shell craters dotted the courtyards and shrapnel had gouged holes in the walls. Rooms had collapsed and mud bricks and torn clothing lay in uneven mounds where people had been digging. In two places blood was splattered on a ceiling and a wall. An old woman pushed forward with a cauldron full of jagged metal bomb fragments, and a youth presented cellphone video he said was shot on the day of the bombing…. The smell of bodies lingered in one compound, causing villagers to start digging with spades. They found the body of a baby, caked in dust, in the corner of a bombed-out room.