Mass-Casualty Attacks in the Afghan War
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission investigated the bloodbath, interviewing witnesses and collecting data, two days after it occurred. One witness, a “local worker for a mine clearance company,” told the AIHRC:
I heard the noise of helicopters and stepped out to the courtyard. Then I got injured in my head and left arm. I ran into a drain and stayed there up to 8:00 in the morning. When I came back to my house, I saw my wife, my two daughters, and my son had all died. Beside them, my brother, his wife, his two sons and two daughters had also died. My house and my two brothers’ houses were destroyed as well.
Another witness, a 75-year-old man, told the AIHRC:
It was about 2:00 am. We were asleep when a heavy explosion woke me up. Following that I heard noise of helicopters, started firing rockets, shelling and bombings, and lasted for 6 hours.
And Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported for NPR that many of those killed were visitors gathered for a memorial for a prominent local villager:
Abdul Rashid treads gently across the rubble that was once his uncle’s home in Azizabad, Afghanistan. He spots a little girl’s shoe, caked in dried blood. He picks it up and waves it angrily in a visitor’s face.
“Does this look like it fits a Taliban fighter?” Rashid says. Still clinging to the tiny shoe, Rashid takes a few more steps and picks up a torn woman’s veil.
“Does this look like something the Taliban would wear? Can you believe it? This is what Afghanistan has become,” Rashid says, his rage dissolving into tears….
Rashid says the latest victim, a 6-year-old girl, was buried the day before.
Afghan officials say Rashid’s neighborhood, which was the target of the military operation, was packed with visitors the morning of the attack. They were there to attend a memorial ceremony honoring his late brother [Timor Shah], a local strongman.
Rashid says vats of meat, rice and potatoes were being prepared for the scores of mourners when the soldiers attacked.
Although US Special Forces conducted what the Times described as “an initial battlefield review, including a building by building search,” followed four days later by a US military team’s visit to the “vicinity” of the attack, the Pentagon wasn’t backing off its early assessment. Finally, on September 7, more than two weeks later, Gen. David McKiernan, the US commander, ordered a review and investigation. The inspection team interviewed villagers, reviewed cellphone videos of the aftermath, visited at least six burial sites and determined that more than thirty civilians had died. Those conclusions, which would generate controversy, were included in an official report issued by Gen. Michael Callan.
Among other things, the partial admission of civilian casualties in the Callan report was tempered by the military’s assertion that the target was still a legitimate one. Speaking anonymously to the Times, a military official attributed the initial assessment to the fact that the troops were operating in a hostile environment: “We were wrong on the number of civilian casualties partly because the initial review was operating under real limitations. [We] were definitely not welcome there.” Yet the military didn’t explain why, without having conducted a thorough inquiry, it was so confident in its early assessment that no civilians had been killed.
In Washington, Gen. James Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, noted that sometimes, in situations such as the attack in Azizabad, the Taliban deliberately use civilians in residential compounds as shields. “Sometimes we think there’s been overt efforts on the part of the Taliban, in particular, to surround themselves with civilians so as to, at a minimum, reap an I.O. [information operations] advantage if civilians are killed. You want to strike the precise building that you’re targeting, but sometimes there are other people there. And you don’t know that, because you’re not on the inside looking out.”
The Azizabad incident led both the coalition and the US military to order specific changes in policy, two of several directives designed to reduce civilian casualties, build local support for the US counterinsurgency effort, and ease political pressure on ISAF from the Afghan government. According to the JCCS, a tactical directive instructed foreign forces to avoid airstrikes against Afghan compounds. “After the Azizabad incident, both ISAF and CENTCOM released Tactical Directives in September 2008 involving reporting of potential civilian casualties from airstrikes,” the report said. “The ISAF version also specifically called for limiting airstrikes on compounds to avoid civilian casualties when ISAF forces are not in imminent danger.”
That report said that the September 2008 directive issued by General McKiernan focused on “raids, use of air-to-ground and indirect fire, escalation of force, and being first with the truth.” It “called for forces to use these fires only when there was no other option to protect the force, removing the option to use that type of force in order to accomplish the mission.” According to the JCCS, a parallel directive applied not just to ISAF but to US forces specifically.
The report added that McKiernan’s successor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, expressed unhappiness in an interview about having to apologize to the Afghans when the US military got civilian casualty information wrong. Said the report: “He recounted that he had been troubled by civilian casualty incidents early in his command where he had defended US force accounts against Afghan allegations, only to discover later that those initial US assessments had been wrong. He was then compelled to apologize for his wrong information.”
However, in a January 2009 letter to then–Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Brad Adams, the director of the Asia division for Human Rights Watch, was highly critical of the Defense Department and the military regarding Azizabad. Adams did acknowledge that the US military changed its procedure, including the new tactical directive. However, in the letter to Gates, Human Rights Watch blasted the Callan report for its deficiencies:
Instead of being an exemplary US investigation derived from a new operational mandate, the Callan Report Summary appears to be little more than a return to the discredited inquiries of recent years. It simply and summarily dismisses the methodology used in the investigations by the United Nations, the government of Afghanistan, and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC); rejects information provided by villagers by arbitrarily calling into question their motivations; effectively places responsibility for preventable civilian deaths on Taliban forces; and exonerates US forces of any wrongdoing.