AFTER nearly a week of denials and counter accusations, an anonymous U.S. military official admitted today that their airstrikes Monday in Afghanistan killed at least 50 civilians. Despite that conclusion, local authorities still insist that as many as 140 innocent civilians were savagely bombed in their own homes as they took refuge from an unraveling battle between Taliban and Afghan/coalition forces.
Initially, the U.S. military gave their standard (infuriating) denial that civilians were killed, as they have in all of the many instances where civilians have been killed by the collateral effects of U.S. dominated raids and bombings (several deliberately targeted, only to find later that 'faulty intelligence' led them to kill the wrong people). Later, when local police and other Afghan officials protested loudly and produced bodies of the women and children who had been caught in the way of the deliberate bombing, Pentagon officials immediately strained to find some way to blame the Taliban - by the weekend settling on claiming that it was actually the Taliban who had killed the civilians in an effort to generate protests from the Afghan population.
The anatomy of this latest in a string of collateral and bad intelligence-driven killings of Afghan civilians provides a perfect view of the state of the military mission there and its predictable effects on the population, and on the level of acceptance of our presence by Afghans. The airstrikes which destroyed a community of homes was preceded by a typically fierce firefight between Afghan/coalition forces and Taliban combatants who had gotten the better of the skirmish, managed to destroy some vehicles, and had killed a number of soldiers, including one American. It's at that point that reports say that U.S. airstrikes were called in to help in the pursuit of the fighters.
According to Patrick Cockburn, reporting from Herat for The Independent, the airstrikes were neither pinpoint nor brief:
The US admits that it did conduct an air strike at the time and place, but it is becoming clear, going by the account of survivors, that the air raid was not a brief attack by several aircraft acting on mistaken intelligence, but a sustained bombardment in which three villages were pounded to pieces. Farouq Faizy, an Afghan radio reporter who was one of the first to reach the district of Bala Baluk, says villagers told him that bombs suddenly, "began to fall at 8pm on Monday and went on until 10pm though some believe there were still bombs falling later". A prolonged bombing attack would explain why there are so many dead, but only 14 wounded received at Farah City hospital."
After reports from the Red Cross and others confirmed that civilians had been slaughtered in the three villages - Gerani, Gangabad and Koujaha - which sustained the brunt of the hours of bombardments, Mr. Gates (and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well, in a statement with Karzai in D.C.) did indeed express 'regret' over the deaths. However, his comments implicating the Taliban suggest a new tactic from the Pentagon which would deflect from criticism and stifle the growing movement among Afganis who are insisting that the U.S. dominated forces stand down from these reckless and deadly raids and airstrikes.
"We regret any, even one, Afghan ... innocent civilian casualty. And we will make whatever amends are necessary," Gates said in Afghanistan Thursday. "We all know that the Taliban use civilian casualties and sometimes create them to create problems for ... the United States and our coalition partners. We will have to wait and see what happened in this particular case."
His subordinates at the Pentagon didn't wait, however, to float to the press what they admitted were "loosely sourced" rumors which suggested the combatants had taken the time during the hours of bombings to stage the killings of villagers in the Taliban stronghold to make it appear as a result of the U.S. airstrikes.
told CNN that, the U.S. military believed the insurgents were holding people in the homes as a means of causing civilian casualties.
Tech Sergeant Chuck Marsh repeated the accusation to VOA: "The investigation suggests that villagers had taken refuge in a number of houses in each village," he said. "Reports also indicate that Taliban fighters deliberately forced villagers into houses from which they then attacked ANSF and Coalition forces."
However, other reports show that civilians took refuge in the homes after news of the 12 hour battle between Taliban and government forces. "We know that those killed included an Afghan Red Crescent volunteer and 13 members of his family who had been sheltering from fighting in a house that was bombed in an air strike," the ICRC's head of delegation in Kabul, Reto Stocker said.
CNN also reported that 'U.S. officials' told them there is 'some information' that some civilians were beheaded by insurgents in the area during the several hours of heavy fighting." But, investigations into the killings have not supported any of the accusations that the Taliban combatants targeted members in their own villages as they fled. The investigations have, however, found many Afghans who have reported the deaths of family members and neighbors as a result of the sustained bombing numbering over 140 in total. Riots broke out Thursday after the bodies of more than a dozen of the civilians killed were brought by protesters to Farah City, with angry Afghans throwing stones at police__ who, in return, opened fire on the crowd, wounding several.