The massacre at Oruzgan

The killing of 21 pro-Karzai soldiers by U.S. forces illustrates how hard it can be to tell your allies from your enemies in war-torn Afghanistan.

By Phillip Robertson
Published February 21, 2002 11:32PM (EST)

Outside the gates of the U.S. military base in Kandahar on the morning of Feb. 2, 300 fighters loyal to Hamid Karzai were waiting for the arrival of a corpse. They lined the opposite side of the road for a quarter of a mile, assembled in front of their late-model pickups, standing clear of the traffic and not saying much. There were high-ranking commanders and regular fighters, some still very young, and because there wasn't much happening, they all waited quietly. They must have been there for hours. At around 10 a.m., when a cargo plane started its final approach to the airport, the fighters turned and watched it come in low over the desert, shielding their eyes from the sun.

But the leviathan plane brought a weird sound with it, a deep, forbidding hum that shook the bones of the onlookers, and for some mysterious reason matched the opening note of Radiohead's "I Might Be Wrong." It was the secret anthem for a war that had started above ground in September but had in a matter of months burrowed back into the hills and out of our sight, documented by increasingly fragmentary and ridiculous Pentagon reports. We got statements like, "We take great care to endure that we are engaging confirmed Taliban or al-Qaida facilities." You can hear the hiss as such sentences come out of the freshly opened can.

The fighters outside the gates of the base were waiting for the body of Commander Qasim Jan, who was killed by a mis-targeted 2,000 pound bomb on Dec. 5 just north of Kandahar. The same explosion also killed three U.S. Special Forces personnel and five more anti-Taliban fighters; the disaster was due either to human error or a technical glitch in the bomb's guidance system. At least 38 others were wounded in the attack.

As the press walked around in the bright sun trying to find a story, any story, a ritual was beginning just inside the gates to the base. A red pickup driven by an Afghan commander had been allowed in, and a plywood casket was placed in the bed, covered in a black, green and red flag, the old national symbol of Afghanistan. Members of the Special Forces stood near the truck for a minute and then it headed back out the gates, where two young fighters jumped into the back, touching the box very gently, making sure that the flag on it stayed straight and presentable. As the truck pulled up with Qasim Jan's body, there was complete and utter silence. The Afghans stood perfectly still, and the reporters bowed their heads. Then, the hearse truck made a slow left turn and went down the line of fighters who rushed to get in their vehicles and follow the body back to Kandahar. It took less than 45 seconds for all of them to disappear.

The Dec. 5 bombing that killed Qasim Jan was one of the U.S. military's high-profile mistakes in its four-month involvement in Afghanistan. In recent weeks, word has spread of another -- the massacre at Oruzgan -- where a unit of pro-Karzai fighters was apparently mistaken for the Taliban. At least 21 Afghan soldiers were killed in the attack. Though the U.S. forces here have been tight-lipped about exactly what happened at Oruzgan, it appears that the raid was launched after U.S. forces received bad intelligence information. They thought they were fighting a pro-Taliban death squad. In Afghanistan, bad information can be the difference between a death squad and an effective anti-terrorist force. And in Afghanistan, bad information is everywhere.

It took 45 minutes to clear security at the base. When the Humvee turned and headed toward the terminal, Globe and Mail reporter Mark MacKinnon and I followed in his Corolla. The Humvee led us past a field where a machine was kicking up a tornado of dust by whipping the ground with chains. It was a flail, searching for mines. We parked at a roundabout, got out and walked to the search area, where we took off our boots, were sniffed by dogs, and were watched over by men with some serious death machinery at their disposal. The situation clearly required a certain amount of intense paranoia by security. We all knew why, after spending more than one night in Kandahar, and didn't have a problem with the searches. Inside the terminal, I looked out at the low mountains that separated the airport from Kandahar proper, and pretended it was an "Outer Limits" rendition of Bakersfield, Calif.

Once we were on the base, which was a strange organism that started out life as a civilian airport and was quickly growing into a heavily armed small town, I learned that the military offered the press an interesting deal. You could spend the night on the base if you brought your stuff, but there were no in-and-out privileges. If you left the base, you had to wait until the next morning to get back in, no arguments, no bending the rules; it was the military and its aggregate brain, functioning with strange, oiled clicks that didn't allow for ambiguity. Security reasons, sir. A truly mammoth category with an infinite number of cubbyholes, which allowed for a fair bit of censorship and accounted for several very good photographers' being kicked off for taking perfectly legitimate pictures of the prisoners.

The very first piece of advice imparted by Maj. Ignacio Perez was that we weren't allowed to move around the base without an escort. Then he walked us inside and forgot about us.

The terminal building had a fountain in its center, open to the air like the hole of a donut, surrounded by the rest of the structure. One of the windows had been kicked out for easy access, and everyone, both press and soldiers, would hang out there, sitting on wooden boxes labeled "Do not burn, this is a chair," eating MRE's and killing time. Reporters would duck through the empty space to get a breath of fresh air, and since nothing was happening, absolutely nothing, the fountain was the social center of the zone. We waited around for the press briefing, scheduled for some incomprehensible hour thanks to Zulu time that had the military watches turned four and a half hours behind what seemed like normal. I'd only been there an hour, but I felt like the soldiers were mostly nervous around reporters and didn't know quite what to say.

Finally Maj. A.C. Roper arrived to give the briefing. He got up in front of the cameras (a small thicket of them, standing in the dry fountain) and made a statement about how the Marines are leaving right on schedule and how the 101st Airborne is taking over control of the base. In fact, the Marines, who had taken the airport back in November, were lined up on the grass waiting for their flight out, and I blew it by not going over and talking to them. Roper gave us the traditional acronym-rich progress report, all numbers and letters (objectives, defend and secure, EOD blasts), which only has meaning to a person with a trained military ear. Then, at the end of the prepared statement, Roper said, "The enemy is looking for complacency and we can't afford to give him that." It didn't seem like it bore any relation to reality, but it wasn't really his fault. Roper kept it short and in a minute we were in the question-and-answer period.

After a few desultory questions were thrown out, a reporter walked up and said, "Major Roper, can you describe the events at Oruzgan a few days ago?" and the mood changed, clicking over into something more businesslike.

"That is still under investigation," he said.

What was under investigation at Oruzgan might be described best by the word "massacre," the result of bad intelligence, or no intelligence, depending on who you ask. The Special Forces had come in heavy. Twenty-one Afghan soldiers who were apparently loyal to the new Afghan interim government were killed by U.S. Special Forces, and 27 others were taken prisoner. The New York Times' Craig Smith, who was in Oruzgan, wrote about a man who had found a message on one of the destroyed vehicles after the attack that said, "Have a nice day, from Damage Inc." Pools of blood were seen near the sleeping mats, and at least some of the fighters had been shot through the walls and windows of one of the compounds.

It was a serious mistake by trained teams of killers who were apparently pointed in the wrong direction by rival forces within the town. The Americans may have gotten caught in the middle of a dispute between Afghans over two arms caches from the local disarmament drive. What caused the Americans to act is not clear, and no one is telling.

Nobody seems to be able to tell the truth about what happened. Nobody has had the guts to say "We were wrong," or "The Afghan soldiers look like Taliban to us." The men of central Afghanistan wear black silk turbans and look like exactly like Talibs, but they've looked this way for a thousand years.

Later, when I talked to Maj. Roper privately, I could see that he was doing the best he could for the press, but that he really couldn't say anything that made sense. Then we talked about his straight-A daughters back home near Birmingham, Ala., his big yard -- a peaceful suburban vibe. For a second, we could have been at his house, drinking beer from cans, musing about how sweet life was.

On the way out to the perimeter, I stopped by the terminal to get a press affairs officer, and we walked past the apron where Apache helicopters were being taken out of crates and assembled, out to a tent where Pfc. Joshua Blomeyer from Pasadena was hanging out with his friends. Blomeyer had a black eye, reminded me of my brother, and he knew more about the situation than all of the officers I'd spoken to so far. Out at its edge, the base had a half-finished look, intensified by the wreckage of old Soviet transport aircraft. There had already been at least one firefight out at the Kandahar airport, but it had happened three weeks before when the Marines still had the base, and Blomeyer hadn't seen it happen. "Talk to the lieutenant, he was here." I wanted to stick around but the press guy had come back and put a chill on the conversation.

Lt. McDonough told me about the firefight, how the enemy had found a high avenue of approach to the airport that enabled them to easily fire on it from a distance. There were also irrigation ditches out there that made it easy for people to move around outside the perimeter without being seen. Looking out toward the mountains, it seemed like a patch of featureless desert, but there were holes and furrows, big enough for small groups of fighters to harass the soldiers at the airport. There is a pervasive feeling of vulnerability on the base, of being exposed.

"Those were left by the previous soldiers," the press guy said, when we came across the graffiti just behind the perimeter. I saw a low building with a series of cells or storage sheds and each one had writing on it, like someone had gone mad, giving titles to each one. Over every doorway, there was a message in black paint. "Valhalla," "The Pit," "No Limit H.Q." I thought another said "Lynch Center." The paint looked just like the stuff used to write the giant "Texas 17" on the control tower for the airport, a call sign for the marines who had taken it.

I came back to the base two days later, to see if I could get a glimpse of the al-Qaida prisoners. Since it was forbidden to walk over toward the fence and look in, the trick was to ask about the air traffic control people in the tower and go up there. From the tower, it's possible to look down into the prison, at least one big section of it. Capt. Rivers took me over, once I explained what I wanted, and we climbed the stairs into the tower, where two men were directing traffic without the benefit of radar, using only visual flight rules and radio contact to make sure everyone was where they were supposed to be.

It was possible to see everything from up there, to get the feeling of the whole operation. A fire was burning some distance away, letting out a long coil of black smoke. The fire was left over from the controlled destruction of Taliban explosives, a blast that shook the windows of the terminal building. Helicopters waited on the pad. Everywhere something was being built. Small groups of Special Forces soldiers drove in small Land Cruisers, bearded, most of them in sunglasses, looking as spooky as they wanted to.

The prisoners were milling around in blue jumpsuits in the enclosure, watched over by soldiers in eight guard towers. One man was being carried like a piece of furniture by two big soldiers, his arms tied behind his back and his knees bent. They put him on the ground, then lifted him up by his arms and took him to another building where we lost sight of him. It didn't seem from that distance like the soldiers were mistreating him; later I saw the Red Cross people move in and out of the camp on one of their regular visits. The Red Cross asserts convincingly that the men are in fact prisoners of war and not "detainees," an argument that the Bush administration dismisses as irrelevant. Capt. Rivers said that they were down there giving some thought to what they had done, but I wasn't so sure of that.

A few minutes later, three attack helicopters came in to fly past the tower in close formation, three angry insect angels; they made a graceful turn and flew low, less than 500 feet, over the perimeter where anything could have happened.

As the machines swept past, the very last lines of "I Might Be Wrong" played in my head, like a Delphic oracle's warning of a bigger war, and a requiem for an age of peace that was canceled due to lack of attendance.

Let's go down the waterfall
think about the good times and never look back
never look back

Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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