Two months ago, I wrote a piece for the “The Los Angeles Times” proposing that Afghan civilians who had lost relatives, limbs, homes and businesses due to errantly-targeted U.S. bombs receive compensation from Washington. The article was reprinted; I talked up the idea on television and radio. And never have I received more hate mail, with my assailants virulently accusing me of being anti-American and pro-terrorists. Bill O’Reilly bashed me for demanding the United States pay “reparations.” But my point simply was that when the United States accidentally inflicted damage upon civilians (such as one young boy who lost his right arm, his left hand and his sight when U.S. bombs struck his home near Tora Bora), it should try to help those harmed. Now, I am happy to note, the C.I.A. is on my side, for the Agency in the past few days has been handing out cash to relatives of Afghan soldiers mistakenly slaughtered by the United States.
On January 24, U.S. Special Operations troops attacked two small compounds in Haraz Qadam, a town 100 miles north of Kandahar. At least eighteen people were killed. Twenty-seven were captured, and the Pentagon announced its prisoners were Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. The daring operation was front-page news. But days later, media reports, based on interviews with local residents, undermined the official account. The townspeople said one of the compounds was being used as a weapons depot for a local disarmament drive and that the Afghans killed and snatched by the Americans were not Taliban or al Qaeda but troops loyal to the interim government of Kabul. According to local Afghans, the bodies of two individuals had their hands tied behind their backs. About a week later, C.I.A. officers were in the field working with tribal leaders to pay $1000 to the family of each Afghan wrongfully killed.
What is interesting is how the Pentagon at first tried to deny a tragedy had taken place. When Craig Smith of “The New York Times” wrote a story questioning the raids on January 28–after interviewing dozens of local folks whose testimony was compelling–the Pentagon, in automatic-pilot fashion, defended the operation. “We take great care to ensure we are engaging confirmed Taliban or Al Qaeda facilities,” Maj. Bill Harrison, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, told the newspaper. “As a result of this mission, we detained 27 individuals, and believe that our forces engaged the intended target.”
Three days later, after Afghan officials kept insisting innocent troops had been killed, the Pentagon announced it was reviewing the episode. But General Tommy Franks, the Central Command chief, said the Pentagon had no information to suggest friendly forces had been killed. (Guess he doesn’t have time to read the papers.) Two days after that, “senior military officials” told the Associated Press that some of those killed, but not all, might have been loyal to the new government and that the individuals captured and killed including persons of mixed political loyalties. Slowly, the Pentagon was backtracking.
On February 4, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld finally acknowledged that “friendly” Afghan forces might have been killed during the raid. Forty-eight hours later, the Americans released the 27 Afghans it had grabbed at the compounds, and the Pentagon announced that not one was a Taliban or al Qaeda fighter. By now, U.S. officials were confirming the C.I.A. was arranging compensation payments. Still, Maj. Ralph Mills, a spokesman for Central Command, maintained, “The release of the detainees isn’t an admission that we made a mistake.” He asserted that during the raid the U.S. forces had been shot at by “people who weren’t in uniform.”
This was a weak defense. What did the Pentagon expect? Its commandos hit a compound of soldiers in the middle of the night–a target apparently chosen on the basis of lousy intelligence–and the people attacked shouldn’t shoot back? Were the targets first supposed to have asked the Americans to identify themselves? The Afghans probably did not have the chance to do so before being wiped out. Craig Smith reported that a farmer who claimed to have witnessed the attack said he heard people in one compound screaming, “For God’s sake, do not kill us. We surrender.” And an AP report quoted Afghan witnesses who maintained that no one fired back during the raid. Moreover, these witnesses said that during the attack two local government-appointed officials were handcuffed and shot in a schoolyard by U.S. Special Forces.
The Pentagon cannot yet admit this raid was a massive screw-up–even as the C.I.A. doles out compensation money. (A thousand dollars may go far in Afghanistan, but the Pentagon is getting off cheap.) The U.S. military says that its ongoing inquiry will take another two weeks.
It is worth noting that it took a lot of pressure–from media reports and Afghan officials–to force the Pentagon to concede there may have been a problem with this raid. Recall that the Pentagon’s first reply was, we hit the intended target–which is always its first reply when a military action is questioned. Even after Afghan leader Hamid Karzai recently stated that a U.S. airstrike in December that killed twelve people had actually hit a convoy carrying tribal elders supporting his government, the Pentagon still maintains that particular strike was legitimate. Karzai said the Americans had been “misled”–presumably by a local warlord–into believing the vehicles were carrying Taliban. There are indications that the Americans were similarly duped regarding the January 24 raid.
Which raises questions about the performance of U.S. intelligence on the ground. When C.I.A. director George Tenet appeared before the Senate intelligence committee for a rare public hearing on Wednesday, Senator Bob Graham, the Democratic chairman of the committee, said, “I think one of the lessons that we’ve learned since September 11th is just how good our intelligence agencies are.” But a senator could have asked, if they are so good, why are C.I.A. people dispensing cash to relatives of Afghans slain on the basis of faulty intelligence reports? At the hearing, though, none of the Senators raised this issue.
Still, the C.I.A.’s better-than-nothing, hard-money response to the Haraz Qadam tragedy can serve as the foundation for a more humane and just approach to wartime accidents. There are hundreds of Afghan civilians–perhaps more–who have been killed or harmed by U.S. bombs. Rumsfeld has said, “we mourn every civilian death.” If that is true, then the Bush Administration should build upon the C.I.A.’s latest program in Afghanistan and compensate all civilians who have been the victims of Pentagon errors. If the C.I.A. supports restitution, how unpatriotic can it be?