October 7, 2008 – An investigation by the military has concluded that American airstrikes on Aug. 22 in a village in western Afghanistan killed far more civilians than American commanders there have acknowledged, according to two American military officials.
The military investigator’s report found that more than 30 civilians – not 5 to 7 as the military has long insisted – died in the airstrikes against a suspected Taliban compound in Azizabad.
The investigator, Brig. Gen. Michael W. Callan of the Air Force, concluded that many more civilians, including women and children, had been buried in the rubble than the military had asserted, one of the military officials said.
The airstrikes have been the focus of sharp tensions between the Afghan government, which has said that 90 civilians died in the raid, and the American military, under Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top American military commander in Afghanistan, which has repeatedly insisted that only a handful of civilians were killed.
The report was requested by General McKiernan on Sept. 7, more than two weeks after the airstrikes, in response to what he said at the time was “emerging evidence” about the raids. While American commanders in Afghanistan have contended that 30 to 35 militants were killed in the raid, the new report concludes that many among that group were in fact civilians, the military officials said.
According to the new report, fewer than 20 militants died in the raid, which was conducted jointly by American and Afghan forces, and in subsequent airstrikes carried out by an AC-130 gunship in support of the allied ground forces.
The revised American estimate for civilian deaths in the operation remains far below the 90 that Afghan and United Nations officials have claimed, a figure that the Afghan government and the United Nations said was supported by cellphone photos, freshly dug grave sites and the accounts of witnesses who saw the dead bodies.
But General Callan’s findings ran counter to those of the earlier American investigations. American Special Operations forces conducted an initial battlefield review, including a building by building search, and four days later, military investigators traveled to the vicinity of the raid. General Callan found that the people who conducted those investigations did not or could not do what was necessary to establish the full extent of the civilian killings, the military officials said.
In contrast, military officials said, General Callan was able to review the scene of the airstrikes more extensively. They said his team interviewed villagers, which the other military units had not done before, and examined new evidence, like cellphone videos and other images showing the bodies of women and children that were not available previously.
The report sticks to the military’s assertion that the compound was a legitimate target, a finding that is likely to rekindle tensions with the government of President Hamid Karzai. As a result of that finding, the report does not single out any individual for blame or recommend that any American troops be punished.
The report’s general findings were described by two American military officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the report has not yet been made public, and Afghan officials have not yet been briefed on the matter.
In recent days, both General McKiernan and Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the acting commander of the military’s Central Command, who appointed General Callan on Sept. 9 to investigate the episode, have received briefings on the report’s findings.
The New York Times on Sept. 8 described freshly dug graves, lists of the dead, and cellphone videos and other images showing bodies of women and children in the village mosque seen on a visit to Azizabad. Cellphone images a Times reporter saw showed at least 11 dead children, some apparently with blast and concussion injuries, among some 30 to 40 bodies laid out in the mosque.
Afghan and United Nations officials backed this accounting of a higher civilian death toll, putting them in direct conflict with the American military’s version of events. In that account, American Special Forces troops and Afghan commandos called in airstrikes after they came under attack while approaching a compound in Azizabad, a village in the Shindand district of Herat Province. Among the militants killed, the military said at the time, was a Taliban leader, Mullah Sadiq.
By the next day, Afghan officials complained of significant civilian casualties and President Karzai strongly condemned the airstrikes. American military officials rejected the claim, saying that extremists who entered the village after the bombardment encouraged villagers to change their stories and inflate the number of dead.
The initial investigating officer, an Army Special Forces major, visited the village after the airstrikes. Guided by aerial photographs, he visited six burial sites within a six-mile range of the attack, a military spokesman said; only one had any freshly dug graves, about 18 to 20. Afghan villagers said there were other burial sites that the Americans did not visit.
One of the military officials who agreed to discuss the new report said the Special Forces troops who had called in the strikes could conduct only a limited assessment of the damage and casualties afterward because they were forced to leave the village soon after the strikes, fearing retaliation from the villagers.
“We were wrong on the number of civilian casualties partly because the initial review was operating under real limitations,” said one of the military officials, who said of the Special Forces soldiers, “They were definitely not welcome there.”
Even before he requested the more senior investigator, General McKiernan issued orders on Sept. 2 tightening the rules about when NATO troops in Afghanistan were authorized to use lethal force. The new rules emphasized putting Afghan forces out front in searches of homes and requiring multiple sources of information before attacking targets.
General McKiernan told reporters in Washington last week that one of his “top challenges” was “to try to make sure we have the right measures in place to minimize the possibility of civilian casualties.”
He said the American military was trying to work with the Afghan authorities to ensure that further allegations involving civilian casualties would be investigated jointly rather than separately.