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.