Mass-Casualty Attacks in the Afghan War
Human Rights Watch was also critical of the report’s conclusion that the military’s level of force and tactics in Azizabad were “necessary” and “proportional.” In particular, it noted with dismay that the military failed to explain how it concluded that many of the dead were Taliban-linked insurgents. Apparently, according to Human Rights Watch, the military simply concluded that because some of the dead were armed military-age males, they were probably insurgents—even though at least some of those killed were apparently working for a pro-American private security firm. According to the AIHRC, among those killed were thirteen armed men “[who] were engaged in combat with the forces when they entered the village.” But it’s unclear how the military sorted out who was who. Said Human Rights Watch:
As the US investigation admits, several of the dead men were employed by the British company Armor Group, working as security guards for the US military in Shindand. Government officials and villagers have alleged that the operation was the result of misinformation resulting from tribal rivalries in the area. The Callan Summary dismisses these allegations, but military sources have told Human Rights Watch that they are credible.
The AIHRC’s conclusion:
AIHRC questions the way that international military authorities handled the aftermath of the incident—first denying any civilian casualties by forces involved, then admitting only 5 to 7 casualties, and then only 33 without releasing any further details of the investigation, despite repeated reports of as many as 90 casualties by various independent monitors and public bodies. This type of public foot-dragging in accepting responsibility increases the anger and resentment that Afghan communities feel. The failure to compensate or apologize to those civilians whose deaths were recognized only angers the community more.
II. Farah, 2009
The tiny village of Granai, deep in western Afghanistan, is far from the epicenter of the battle against the insurgency. Located in the Bala Baluk district of Farah Province, south of Herat, it’s the scene of a mass-casualty debacle that is referred to as the “Bala Baluk incident” and the “Granai incident.” On May 4, 2009—eight months after the September 2, 2008, tactical directive aimed at restraining airstrikes that might kill civilians—somewhere between twenty-six and 140 Afghan civilians perished in the blink of an eye. Just after 8 pm, several waves of aircraft attacked three targets in Granai, including three F-18 fighter jets, which dropped a total of five laser-and satellite-guided munitions, and a B-1 bomber, which dropped “three 500-pound satellite-guided bombs on a tree grove, four 500-pound and 2,000-pound satellite-guided bombs on one building, and one 2,000-pound satellite-guided bomb on a second building,” according to The New York Times. Writing ten days after the attack, Carlotta Gall of the Times reported:
The bombs were so powerful that people were ripped to shreds. Survivors said they collected only pieces of bodies. Several villagers said that they could not distinguish all of the dead and that they never found some of their relatives….
“There was someone’s legs, someone’s shoulders, someone’s hands,” said Said Jamal, an old, white-bearded man with rheumy eyes, who lost two sons and a daughter. “The dead were so many.”
The carnage followed clashes in or near Granai between a contingent of some 400 Taliban fighters and Afghan forces. According to subsequent investigations, most if not all of the Taliban had left Granai when the bombs started falling, and those killed were villagers, including entire families, who’d taken cover in several buildings. An investigation by the Afghan Defense Ministry found that at least 140 people died in the attack, including ninety-three children. But two weeks after the bombing, a preliminary investigation by the US military concluded that perhaps twenty to thirty civilians had been killed, along with sixty to sixty-five “Taliban extremists,” according to the Times.
Human Rights Watch visited the area and put together a detailed timeline of the events, reporting: “Villagers and local officials have told Human Rights Watch that many villagers took shelter from the bombing in the houses of local religious and tribal leaders, including the homes of Sayyed Naim and Mualem Rahmadi. Dozens of civilians are reported to have been killed when each of these compounds was bombed.”
Human Rights Watch emphasized that US procedures, including those adopted after the Azizabad killings, were clearly inadequate and that “further reform is required.” The UN said the toll included at least sixty-four civilians, adding that while the US military “acknowledged that it had failed to comply with internal military guidelines, a proper assessment prior to the attack could have determined whether civilians would have been disproportionately harmed and whether it was appropriate to use air strikes in a residential area.”
Later, when reports surfaced that WikiLeaks had obtained damaging video of the Farah massacre and, to the consternation of the Pentagon, was planning to release it, Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers record of the Vietnam War in 1971, called on President Obama to release the video officially:
I’d call for President Obama to post that videotape online. Let’s see whether it confirms what his officials…said about it earlier, or what the truth is. Has he seen it himself? He certainly should. He has access to it. And if he does, what excuse would he have for not revealing it? So why is he waiting for WikiLeaks to use its sources to decrypt that, when he can just easily release it, as he should have some time ago?
According to The Guardian, in 2009 General Petraeus admitted that the military had video of the Farah incident and said he would release it. But he didn’t.