What happened in Kunar Province in Afghanistan on Saturday, August 18? One thing we know: dozens of dead bodies, following an airstrike by the US/NATO command on what the American military says was a gathering of Taliban officials. But, typical of the eleven-year-old war, even scores of deaths in a remote location barely register on the Richter scale of casualties, no matter whether the dead are unarmed civilians, armed civilians (and most male Afghans have weapons), part-time or casual supporters of the Taliban and its allies, mercenaries (the so-called “ten-dollar Taliban”) or hard-core insurgents.
Here’s the New York Times account:
A coalition airstrike killed more than 20 Taliban insurgents after they had gathered to oversee a public execution in northeastern Afghanistan on Saturday, Afghan officials said. Some Afghan officials in Kunar Province, where the attack took place, put the death toll much higher, at 40 to 50. NATO said only that “at least two dozen” insurgents were killed after a joint Afghan-NATO ground operation observed a large gathering of armed men and called in an airstrike.
After the attack, Afghan and NATO officials inspected the site and said no civilians were killed by the bombing, the coalition said. The bombing took place in the Chapa Dara district of Kunar Province, a remote area close to the border with Pakistan. According to locals and the police chief of the Chapa Dara district, the insurgents had gathered after a quarrel between two families resulted in a death. The victim’s relatives surrounded those they said were responsible for the death and called in the Taliban to administer justice.
The wildly different estimates of dead are also typical of the war, with coalition officials routinely providing low-ball estimates and local officials, human rights groups and the United Nations often providing far higher estimates. In this case, note that the Times, without naming its sources, says that the gathering resulted after a family quarrel, and that ordinary civilians called in the Taliban to “administer justice.” Why call the Taliban? Could it be because the incompetent and corrupt government in Kabul has little or no authority outside the capital? Could it be because the so-called “Taliban”—often merely angry and resentful villagers with guns—is hard or impossible to distinguish from civilians?
Now, here’s the entirety of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) release on the events in Kunar (ISAF, of course, is the euphemism for the US-led occupation and counterinsurgency force that has been in Afghanistan since 2001):
Afghan and coalition officials confirmed today that a senior Taliban leader, Maulawi Nur Mohammad, and his deputy, Atiqullah were among the dozens of heavily armed insurgents killed in a precision airstrike, in a remote area of Chapah Darah district, Kunar province, yesterday. Muhammad, also known as Turabi, was the senior Taliban leader for Chapah Darah district. He planned and directed all Taliban activity in the district including attacks against Afghan civilians and Afghan and coalition forces. Atiqullah, also known as Khalid, served as Muhammad’s deputy.
During the operation, the Afghan and coalition security force observed a large group of heavily armed insurgents engaging in insurgent activity. After ensuring there were no civilians in the area, the security force engaged the insurgents with a precision airstrike. After the strike, the security force conducted an initial follow-on assessment and confirmed the strike had not injured any civilians or damaged any civilian property.
Note the phrase “observed a large group of heavily armed insurgents engaging in insurgent activity.” What about the Times report that the people killed were involved in adjudicating a local, family dispute? Nothing. And “ensuring there were no civilians in the area”? How, exactly, did they do that? Did they utilize some advanced sort of facial recognition software from high altitudes to find out that the people in the crowd were making angry, anti-American grimaces? Well, Nick Turse—who’s working on a project for The Nation on civilian casualties in Afghanistan, along with this reporter—asked ISAF to explain how they investigated the event, and here’s the run-of-the-mill non-response ISAF provided:
“Thanks for your query. ISAF can tell you that our coalition force uses a variety of methods to assess the effects of our operations. In regard to the bomb strike in Kunar province you reference, for operational security reasons we will not discuss the specific methods used.”
Xinhua, the Chinese news service—which often draws on wire reports from AP, Reuters and AFP—has more detail from the villagers. And, unlike the brief mention in the Times, they cite officials by name. It reports that it was a drone attack, a fact not mentioned in the ISAF release, and it says that it targeted “four suspected vehicles”:
About 50 militants were killed on Saturday afternoon when a NATO pilotless plane carried out an attack in Afghanistan's eastern province of Kunar, the police said. "The drone targeted four suspected vehicles in Shinallai area of Chapa Dara district at around 1 p.m. local time Saturday, killing 50 militants, including 13 insurgent's local commanders," police chief of the district, Najibullah Khan, told Xinhua. Khan said a Taliban shadowy police chief for the district named Hattiqullah and another Taliban leader named Turabi were among the killed.
Then there’s this report, from Digital Journal, which suggests that the killings occurred as Afghans gathered to carry out an execution, presumably to deliver rough Afghan justice to the perpetrator of the killing mentioned in the Times:
As Taliban swarmed around their intended victim(s) in preparation of carrying out an execution Saturday, armaments delivered by coalition aircraft killed scores of the Taliban would-be executioners.…
The attack occurred in the Chapa Dara district of Kunar Province, a sparsely populated region near the Pakistan border. Najibullah, the police chief of the Chapa Dara district, claims the insurgents came to settle a dispute between two families after one person was killed in a domestic account (Afghans often go by first name only). It was not clear whether the Taliban were about to execute women, children or men.
The domestic victim’s relatives detained an unknown number of persons they said were responsible for the initial killing and then requested the Taliban to execute them, according to locals. However, the large huddle of Taliban presented NATO with an opportunity to execute its own effective air strike, according to a separate BBC report.
So you be the judge. What happened? Is this what counterinsurgency is supposed to be, namely, lethal drones swooping in on villages in a remote province such as Kunar, hard against the border with Pakistan, to slaughter unknown people?