It was early morning on February 12, 2010, in the village of Khataba near the city of Gardez in Paktiya Province, Afghanistan. A local family was celebrating the birth of a child. Suddenly, gunfire erupted from a nearby rooftop striking two men, two pregnant women, their unborn children and an 18-year old girl. The two men appear to have been killed instantly. The women were injured and reported bled to death because the gunmen would not allow them to be taken to a local hospital. Other family members were forced out of the home and detained. The gunman turned out to be American special operations troops.
Realizing that they had killed seven innocent people, the Americans immediately began to create what would become a series of false stories and fabricated incidents. They would destroy evidence of this potential war crime and ultimately attempt to blame the killings on the Taliban. The killings might well have been accidental, but the cover-up was premeditated, intentional and criminal. It causes one to wonder what other alleged Taliban and al-Qaeda “atrocities” have been manufactured by the Pentagon, and how many other Afghan civilians have been killed by the American military, with the Taliban being falsely blamed. The credibility of the American military is at stake in this case.
This article seeks to unravel the facts. It sets out some of the lies and fabrications, and attempts to identify some of those responsible. This incident may merit the United Nations Security Council appointing a special prosecutor as it did in the case of the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Harari.
At approximately 4 a.m. on February 12, 2010, noises outside the compound of Hajji Sharaf Udin, prompting his son, the Zurmat District police chief (Mohammed Daoud) and his brother (Mohammed Saranwal Zahir), the provincial district attorney, to open the door of the compound to investigate. When the police chief saw that one of the exterior lights was out, he walked into the family courtyard where he was shot and killed. His assailant apparently was on a nearby rooftop. The police chief’s brother rushed to his rescue, along with three unarmed women.
One sniper shot them all. Two of the women (Saleha and Shirin) were pregnant and the third (Gulalai) was an 18 year old teenager. The women collectively were the mothers of 16 children.
The other occupants of the home were forced outside by gunpoint and interrogated. American forces sealed off the compound until approximately 11 a.m. (seven and a half hours later). After that, Afghan government officials were permitted to enter the compound. One eyewitness reported that the Americans were not wearing military uniforms. If true, such conduct would violate the rules of war.
Later that day, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), in Kabul, issued a news release. We reprint it in its entirety:
“Joint Force Operating in Gardez Makes Gruesome Discovery.”
“An Afghan-international security force found the bound and gagged bodies of three women during an operation in Gardez district, Paktiya Province last night. The joint force went to the compound near the village of Khatabeh, after intelligence confirmed militant activity. Several insurgents engaged the joint force in a fire fight and were killed.
Subsequently, a large number of men and women and children exited the compound and were detailed by the joint force. When the joint force entered the compound, they conducted a thorough search of the area and found the bodies of three women who had been tied up, gagged and killed. The bodies had been hidden in an adjacent room. The joint force immediately secured the area and requested expert medical support and will conduct a joint forensic investigation. Eight men were detained for further questioning.”
ISAF officials then briefed the news media and expanded on the news release. They stated that two “insurgents” had “engaged” (i.e., fired on) ISAF forces and had been killed. They stated that troops then discovered three women inside the compound. The women had been dead for a number of hours, they were stabbed and were discovered bound and gagged. ISAF officials initially implied that the women had been the subject of an “honor killing” by their relatives. Other officials later suggested that the women had been killed by the “insurgents” occupying the compound. As The Times (of London) reported on April 13, 2010, ISAF was clearly attempting to blame the killings on the Taliban.
On March 13, 2010, ISAF spokesperson U.S. Navy Captain Jane Campbell issued a second news release entitled: “ISAF Rejects Cover-up Allegation.” Captain Campbell repeated the initial story about the American soldiers discovering the bodies of three women. The story about the women being “bound, gagged and killed” was slightly modified. Captain Campbell now explained that “The women’s feet had been tied, and they had cloth straps that immobilized their jaws, evidently in preparation for burial.” This of course was not true as the Special Operations troops had shot and killed them.
On April 4, 2010, ISAF issued another news release, this one apparently drafted by Canadian Brigadier General Eric Tremblay. After two months, ISAF finally admitted the following:
- Its forces had killed two innocent men and three women, and
- There had been no fire fight.
General Tremblay made no mention of the unborn children that the Americans had killed. Tremblay stated the statements about the women being bound and gagged and killed was “due to a lack of cultural understanding.” [this of course is nonsense] Tremblay concluded by stating:
“While investigators could not conclusively determine how or when the women died, due to a lack of forensic evidence, they concluded that the women were accidentally killed as a result of the joint force firing at the men.”
Any lack of forensic evidence was solely the result of the military’s refusal to collect such evidence. It had absolute control of the crime scene for more than seven hours. On April 4, 2010, ISAF spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Todd Breasseale, insisted to the Kabul news media that there had been no cover-up and that there was no evidence of any inappropriate conduct by any military personnel. He stated that the troops were acting on intelligence information from a reliable source.
Mohammed Tahir, the father of the 18 year Gulalai, told investigators that he witnessed American troops taking photographs and he saw one soldier with a knife trying to extract the bullets from his daughter’s body. Other witnesses present included Sayyid Mohammad Mal, who is the Vice-Chancellor of Gardez University. His son was engaged to Gulalai.
ISAF officials revealed that the troops involved were American special operations forces and that they were not under ISAF command. It appears that the troops were either from Delta force, or more likely from Navy Seal Team 6. They were operating in Afghanistan under the immediate authority of Vice Admiral William McRaven, Commander of the Joint Special Operations Command. Ultimately the troops were under the command of Admiral Eric Thor Olson, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, MacDill Air Force Base. Admiral Olson remains sequestered in his Tampa, Florida headquarters. He needs to show some leadership and integrity and hold a press conference. At that conference, Admiral Olson should:
- Explain what occurred;
- Provide details as to the orders that were issued to the troops;
- Address each of the false statements;
- Release the complete military report on the killings;
- Identify those responsible for the killings and the false statements;
- Explain why none of these military officials are being prosecuted; and
- Provide information on the informant that provided the “intelligence” and what action has been taken against the informant.
There are seven issues here.
First: Were these killings an accident or were the killings so reckless and unnecessary so as to constitute seven murders?
Second: Why has it taken two months for the American military to admit that its troops killed the civilians in Khataba? The investigation should have taken hours - not months. Why will the military not admit to killing the two children?
Third: Regardless of whether the killings were accidental or reckless, the evidence is overwhelming that there was a cover-up. Admiral Olson needs to detail who was involved in this and who knew about it. No official who had any knowledge or complicity in any of the false statements deserves to still be in either ISAF or the U.S. military.
Fourth: What steps have been taken to prevent a recurance of this scandal? The public deserves more than a vague statement that ISAF will try to do better in the future.
Fifth: Why will the Pentagon not admit that, after nine years of warfare, it is still launching raids based on faulty intelligence? What is it doing to sanction or prosecute informants who deceive the military into attacking innocent civilians?
Sixth: Why is there silence from the American Embassy in Kabul. U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s refusal to speak out regarding this scandal should destroy whatever credibility he has left.
Seventh: What is the impact of this scandal?
IMPACT NO. 1:
The killings and the cover-up, and the refusal to prosecute those responsible, may fuel the insurgency. On March 26, 2010, The New York Times published an article by Richard A. Oppel. Based on interviews with ISAF officials at Bagram prison, The New York Times was able to confirm that most of the Taliban prisoners in American custody had joined the Taliban to avenge the arbitrary arrests, prison abuses, killings, bombings and other outrages that have been carried out by American and ISAF forces.
By all accounts the Taliban was militarily and politically defeated by December 2001. What The New York Times article reveals is that American military heavy-handedness and blunders are largely responsible for reviving the Taliban and turning it into the 30,000+ army that it is today.
The irony is that the Pentagon, in 2001, established rules of engagement for its forces in Afghanistan which essentially permitted soldiers to kill anyone who they subjectively believed might be a threat. Those rules were designed to reduce American casualties. In actuality, those rules sanctioned the killing of an excessive number of noncombatants, which began a cycle of revenge which has continued for nine years. These rules of engagement may have ultimately increased American casualties and may jeopardize the withdrawal of American forces. Despite the growing evidence that its rules of engagement are escalating the war, the Pentagon has refused to modify them. The Pentagon still does not understand that excessive killing begets more killing. More killings only increase American casualties.
Prior to the Fall of 2001, the Taliban was a reclusive army of religious extremists. Today, they are a savvy, multinational insurgency, with broader support because their umbrella now includes nationalistic and anti-foreign forces elements, along with those seeking revenge for ISAF and American abuses, killings and secret prisons.
If history is any judge, the Khataba killings and their cover-up may have pushed family members, relatives, tribal members and others into the ranks of the Taliban. The impact on the battlefield from this scandal may continue to be felt for years.
IMPACT NO. 2:
The second impact is that ISAF and the Americans may find themselves with zero credibility in the future. This is not an instance where there was an exaggeration, or spin or a false statement or two. This is not the tale of a few bad apples. What occurred in the aftermath of these seven killings was a carefully orchestrated cover-up. The level of detail and the number of military officials who would have to be involved, is evidence of a systemic effort to blame the Taliban and others for civilian killings carried out by American special operations troops.
The refusal to appoint a general or flag rank criminal investigating officer exposes the high level of official support for this criminal conspiracy. The impact is nothing less than the loss of the moral high ground to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. If the American military can kill civilians and try to place the blame on others, then they have only themselves to blame if future statements of theirs are characterized as lacking in credibility. Incidents such as these aid the enemy and can change the course of a war.
It is not too late to fix this. General Stanley McChrystal should begin by firing General Tremblay, Captain Campbell and Lieutenant Colonel Breasseale and sending them home. Next he should release the full military report on the incident and third, he should appoint a four-star General or Admiral as, what the U.S. military calls, an “Article 32 Investigating Officer.” The criminal investigation should encompass the killings and the cover-up by ISAF and U.S. Special Operations Command. All these actions should be transparent and expeditious.
For more information go to:
www.salon.com - “U.S. forces’ horrifying Afghanistan coverup” by John Kepka.
www.afghanistan.blogs.cnn.com - “Man loses 5 family members in disputed NATO raid” by CNN correspondents Atia Abawi and Muhib Habibi.
www.cnn.com - “Bodies found gagged, bound after Afghan “honor killing.”
www.timesonline.co.uk - US special forces tried to cover-up botched Khataba raid in Afghanistan” by Jerome Starkey.
www.nytimes.com - “Afghan Investigators Say U.S. Troops Tried to Cover-Up Evidence in Botched Raid” by Richard Oppel and Abdul Waheed Wafa.