U.S. forces' horrifying Afghanistan cover-up

Our troops killed five non-insurgents at a birthday party in Paktia. Could they at least give us an explanation?

Published April 5, 2010 7:06PM (EDT)

Wow. On February 11, a U.S.-led NATO force visited a house near the village of Khatabeh in Paktia Province, Afghanistan to investigate possible Taliban or militant activity. The next day, NATO's International Security Assistance Force Public Affairs Office released a statement saying that the force had "found the bound and gagged bodies of two women and dead bodies of two men in a compound during an operation last night." A joint investigation was initiated.

Rod Nordland wrote a brief about this for The New York Times that day, too, including an interview with the Paktia Province police chief, who said there were two men and three women killed, and that the killings -- which he blamed on Taliban militants -- were carried out during the celebration of a baby's birth.

If it seems both horrible and likely that the troops mistook a birthday celebration for a gathering of militants, you've been keeping score. If you're wondering how, exactly, there was a party going on around a couple of bodies, you're also asking the right questions. You may suspect that this is about to take a turn from "awful" to "extremely awful."

It does: Yesterday, the ISAF released a statement claiming oops, they were wrong, no one was dead when they got there -- they did that:

A thorough joint investigation into the events that occurred in the Gardez district of Paktiya Province Feb. 12, has determined that international forces were responsible for the deaths of three women who were in the same compound where two men were killed by the joint Afghan-international patrol searching for a Taliban insurgent.

The two men, who were later determined not to be insurgents, were shot and killed by the joint patrol after they showed what appeared to be hostile intent by being armed. While investigators could not conclusively determine how or when the women died, due to lack of forensic evidence, they concluded that the women were accidentally killed as a result of the joint force firing at the men.

"We deeply regret the outcome of this operation, accept responsibility for our actions that night, and know that this loss will be felt forever by the families," said Brig Gen. Eric Tremblay, ISAF Spokesperson. "The force went to the compound based on reliable information in search of a Taliban insurgent and believed that the two men posed a threat to their personal safety. We now understand that the men killed were only trying to protect their families."

This is the "wow" part. Jerome Starkey in the London Times reports that the lack of forensic evidence that's discussed above is because the team dug the bullets out of the compound walls and possibly out of the women's bodies in an attempt to hide what had happened:

US special forces soldiers dug bullets out of their victims’ bodies in the bloody aftermath of a botched night raid, then washed the wounds with alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened, Afghan investigators have told The Times.

Two pregnant women, a teenage girl, a police officer and his brother were shot on February 12 when US and Afghan special forces stormed their home in Khataba village, outside Gardez in eastern Afghanistan. The precise composition of the force has never been made public.

This was denied by the ISAF in March. The first stand -- and still partly the stand -- of the ISAF is that a man came to the yard carrying a weapon -- an AK-47, possibly -- and that the special forces unit felt threatened by him and shot him. This man, by the way, was a police officer. Another man then rushed into the yard, also with a weapon; three women followed him, possibly trying to hold him back from charging toward the troops, possibly to see what had happened. One of the American forces opened fire and killed all four. The man who'd rushed the yard was the police officer's brother.

Then, apparently, the terrible effort at a cover-up began.

It doesn't matter how many schools you build or community tea ceremonies you participate in; if the default position of any group of U.S. forces is not only to shoot first, ask questions later but also to eliminate evidence, there's no one in Afghanistan who's going to welcome the presence of any troops from any country. The two pregnant women who were killed were mothers of, between them, 16 children. Do you think they'll grow up grateful for the U.S. intervention into their country?

Beyond that, there were at least a dozen local witnesses to the crime -- those who were attending the party inside the house. Did U.S. troops and their NATO overseers (also mostly American) really believe that news of what actually happened wouldn't spread?

I can't believe they didn't think the word would get out in Afghanistan. I also think they didn't perhaps care that much -- that the real audience for NATO and for all U.S.-led efforts remains the Western, not the Middle Eastern, world. That's the strategic tragedy of this story: We have never appropriately absorbed the lesson that our interests aren't superior to Afghan interests. They are in fact one and the same, and the continued, inexcusable, and unpunished killing of civilians is exactly the fuel that Hamid Karzai needs to continue his "it's all their fault!" campaign.

Because, this time, it is all our fault. Our troops did this; our troops tried to cover it up; and now our troops have been caught doing exactly that. I hope we'll now see General McChrystal make a statement, and I hope we'll see investigation continue. Though a system has encouraged this kind of killing, a person pulled the trigger, and justice demands he be named and held accountable.

By Jenn Kepka

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