Mass-Casualty Attacks in the Afghan War
This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Alleen Brown contributed research.
Since the start of the American war in Afghanistan, dozens of mass-casualty incidents involving Afghan civilians have plagued the enterprise. According to a document obtained by The Nation, three incidents in particular led the US command to issue a series of so-called tactical directives, other guidances and what the military calls fragmentary orders (FRAGOs) designed to restrict military operations and reduce civilian casualties.
Yet according to a 2011 Joint Civilian Casualty Study (JCCS) for the military called “Reducing and Mitigating Civilian Casualties,” and backed by interviews conducted by The Nation, those directives were less than ideally effective. The JCCS was written by Sarah Sewall of Harvard and Larry Lewis of the US Joint Forces Command, with a foreword by Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
The three incidents, which collectively resulted in as many as 300 civilian deaths (and possibly more), were airstrikes in the provinces of Herat (2008), Farah (2009) and Kunduz (2009); the strike in Herat is commonly known as “the Azizabad incident,” after the village in which it occurred. In this article, each one is described in some detail, along with the aftermath and military fallout. As the JCCS report notes:
After the Azizabad incident, both ISAF and CENTCOM [Central Command] released Tactical Directives in September 2008 involving reporting of potential civilian casualties from airstrikes. The ISAF version also specifically called for limiting airstrikes on compounds to avoid civilian casualties when ISAF forces are not in imminent danger. The Farah incident led to a second ISAF Tactical Directive in July 2009 that reiterated the need to limit airstrikes on compounds. And the Kunduz incident led to the redefining of the term “Troops in Contact” to prevent self defense criteria from being applied inappropriately.
Though well-intentioned, each of the tactical directives and other guidances didn’t stop mass-casualty incidents from taking place. They generated controversy within the military’s own ranks, and troops at all levels often chafed under what they felt were overly severe restrictions that handcuffed them in dangerous situations. Whether the directives were taken seriously at all often depended on how much emphasis the senior command put on them; after all, similar directives had been in place since at least 2007 but were often ignored in practice.
According to the JCCS, whose authors interviewed Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of ISAF in 2009–10, McChrystal argued strongly that without top-down emphasis on civilian casualty prevention, the directives would have little or no impact.
Still, despite the directives, a steady drumbeat of mass-casualty incidents took place, along with hundreds of smaller-scale civilian killings involving night raids as well as “escalation of force” and ground-fire incidents. Although advocates of the counterinsurgency doctrine, such as McChrystal and Petraeus, recognized that civilian casualties threatened the US effort, it is also true that war cannot be waged without significant civilian casualties.
In what follows, The Nation recounts the incidents in Azizabad, Farah and Kunduz and relates them to subsequent tactical directives and guidances, using the JCCS as a guide.
I. Azizabad (Herat), 2008
The bloody events that transpired in Azizabad, a village in the Shindand district of Herat Province, emerged slowly, unfolding in horror in the days and weeks after Friday, August 22, 2008. At the beginning, it appeared to be just another airstrike in the midst of an escalating war, following an ambush by the Taliban of ISAF soldiers on patrol. After the incident, the coalition “denied killing civilians,” according to Reuters. Instead, ISAF issued a terse statement that read: “Insurgents engaged the soldiers from multiple points within the compound using small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire. The joint forces responded with small-arms fire and an airstrike killing 30 militants.”
Not so. As would soon be revealed, as many as ninety-two civilians, including sixty children, died that night.
The airstrike, by an AC-130H gunship and an MQ-9 Reaper UAV drone, began between 1 and 2 am, when US and Afghan troops reportedly pursued a Taliban commander named Mullah Sadiq to Azizabad, got into a firefight and then called in air support. According to Human Rights Watch, citing military reports, “Airstrikes lasted for two to three hours, and reportedly entailed the dropping of a 500-pound bomb from a drone and shellfire from the gunship’s M102 105mm howitzer and 40mm grenades.” Initially, the Afghan Interior Ministry and local officials reported scores of civilian casualties. A local elder in Azizabad told Reuters: “Last night, around 2 a.m., some people were attending a holy Koran recitation in Shindand district when Americans started bombing.” While the Afghan Defense Ministry reported that only five civilians had died, the early count by the Interior Ministry put the death toll at seventy-six. The next day, President Hamid Karzai said the death toll had reached ninety-five. The Afghan government, the US military and the UN all pledged to investigate the slaughter.