Mass-Casualty Attacks in the Afghan War
III. Kunduz, 2009
In the 2010 Joint Civilian Casualty Study by Sewall and Lewis, a third mass-casualty incident, the bombing of two fuel tankers in the Ali Abad district of Kunduz Province in September 2009, is cited as having provoked yet another series of US military directives, guidances and FRAGOs. That incident, in which as many as ninety-one people—including many children—died, revealed a fatal flaw in the military’s directives to avoid bombing Afghan buildings where civilians might be present; in this case, the target was a pair of tanker trucks that had been surrounded by a crowd of civilians seeking fuel. As the JCCS succinctly notes:
The majority of targets in CIVCAS incidents after mid-2009 were typically individuals and vehicles, not compounds. However, a few incidents demonstrated that many people can be killed even when the target does not involve a compound. For example, in the Kunduz incident in September 2009, masses of people gathered around tanker trucks taking fuel, and the subsequent engagement resulted in about 30 civilians killed.
Yet according to the JCCS, it took the military until August 1, 2010, to issue another tactical directive to address the issue of airstrikes directed against other targets, in addition to buildings and residential compounds, that could result in mass casualties.
The Kunduz attack unfolded at about 2 am on September 4. From the scene, The New York Times reported two days later that the tankers had stalled after being hijacked by insurgents, who then invited local villagers to come siphon the fuel. The tankers had entered the country from the north, via Tajikistan. Said the Times:
Some people wounded by the strike said that they had gone to the scene with jerrycans after other people had run through their villages saying that free fuel was available. “They were just telling us, ‘Come and get the fuel,’” Wazir Gul, a 23-year-old farmer, said at the hospital, where he was treated for serious burns on his back. He estimated that hundreds of people from surrounding villages went to siphon fuel from the trucks before the airstrike. Mr. Gul said his older brother Amir was among the villagers incinerated in the blast. “When the tanker exploded and burned, I knew he was dead,” Mr. Gul said.
The strike, carried out by American F-15E fighters, was ordered by German officers, whose 4,000 troops were responsible for the area. A 500-pound bomb struck each tanker. The German weekly Der Spiegel, which concluded that the airstrike was a war crime, quoted an eyewitness:
At first, there was a loud droning, like what you hear when a generator short-circuits. Then there was a bright flash. I just let myself fall forward and went down underwater. Even from there, I could feel the shock wave. For a few seconds, it was as bright as day. Even the water was heating up. When I came out of the water, the whole area around the tanker trucks was on fire. It looked like the ground was spitting up fire, though it was just the fuel from the trucks. It was unbearably hot. There were bodies lying everywhere; they were completely carbonized…. I believe there were about 120 there before the bombing; only a handful survived.
The UN’s civilian protection unit in Afghanistan reported:
It is not disputed that some Taliban were at the site but it should have been apparent that many civilians were also in the vicinity of the trucks. According to UNAMA HR’s investigations, 74 civilians, including many children, were killed. Despite several requests, by UNAMA HR, to the Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell, ISAF did not release the unclassified version of its report nor show video footage as requested. As a result of the air strike, several high ranking German officials resigned after it came to light that they had withheld information that civilians had been killed and injured.
Initially, German military officials claimed that no civilians had been killed in the bombing, and that aerial surveillance had detected no civilians present. That, of course, turned out to be false. Eventually, horrific video of the bombing was released by the German newspaper Bild. Both the German Army chief of staff and the defense minister resigned over the Kunduz strike and subsequent cover-up.
General McChrystal, recognizing that the fallout from yet another civilian mass-casualty incident could be devastating, personally visited the scene of the atrocity, wading through the river to inspect the fire-blackened tankers as a NATO investigative team flew over the scene. He also visited a local hospital to comfort the wounded.