U.S. forces apparently launched an airstrike that killed six Afghan civilians, including four children, because they were misled by an Afghan interpreter trying to settle scores, a senior government minister said Tuesday.
Interior Minister Ali Jalali, a leading pro-Western moderate in President Hamid Karzai's administration, said a delegation from the area of Friday's bombing told him Afghan interpreters were intentionally misleading U.S. forces.
"They know some people who have long-standing hostility with them, and some were hired as interpreters with coalition forces," Jalali said here. "They suspect those interpreters probably gave them false information."
Like Afghan guides helping U.S. troops search for Taliban guerrillas, the interpreters are usually hired from the ranks of militia forces who answer to local warlords, not Karzai's government. They often are accused of deceiving U.S. forces, Jalali said.
"There are always complaints that, particularly the interpreters with the coalition forces, sometimes give false information to the coalition forces," the interior minister said. "Sometimes they try to implicate some of their enemies and some of the people they don't like."
The Friday night bombing destroyed two houses in the village of Warez, near Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan, the deputy governor of Nuristan province said Monday. The victims included an 11-year-old child. Two teenagers who died were the children of a former provincial governor who is now loyal to Karzai.
The Afghan president, who is struggling to impose his authority beyond Kabul, warned U.S. commanders here more than a year ago that close ties with warlords' militia forces were "counterproductive" in the war against terrorism, his spokesman said last week.
The U.S. military in Afghanistan declined to comment on the use of militia fighters. A Pentagon spokesman referred questions to the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. A Central Command spokesman had no comment.
The U.S. forces' Afghan guides include members of a militia from the southern city of Kandahar. They are under investigation by Jalali's police for allegedly beating, robbing and torturing villagers while working as guides for U.S. troops in the village of Dai Chopan.
An interior ministry team visited the village and reported that "yes, in some cases, people were mistreated and they were robbed in some places," Jalali said. "Some homes were damaged. For this reason, some peaceful villagers were forced to go into the mountains."
Jalali said he has sent a second team of investigators to Kandahar to "find the real people who are responsible for that."
Karzai also has instructed the governor of Zabol province to assess the damage to the village so that Kabul can compensate the victims, the interior minister said. The Afghan president also ordered that the U.S. forces' Afghan guides that were responsible for the abuses "should be identified and brought to justice," Jalali said.
The militia interpreters and guides are paid by the U.S.-led coalition to aid the search for suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, the interior minister said. "They are local people who know the area very well."
In September, Human Rights Watch appealed to President Bush to cut off the U.S. supply of money and weapons to Afghan warlords and renegade military commanders.
"Violence and intimidation at the hands of soldiers, militia and police under the control of warlords have created a generalized sense of insecurity," Brad Adams, Asia executive director for Human Rights Watch, wrote in an open letter to Bush on Sept. 19. "Even gains in education for school-age girls are now at risk as many parents are afraid to send their daughters out of their homes to go to school."
"Pressure should be exerted on Afghan military, police, and intelligence officials to submit to legitimate national and local civilian authority," the letter added. "You should order the Departments of State and Defense and United States intelligence agencies to implement this policy consistently and in a coordinated manner."
U.S. forces use Afghan militia fighters in their missions in at least half a dozen Afghan provinces, Jalali said.
"I cannot speak for them," he said. "But in Afghanistan, you have this 23 years of war behind us, and that has unfortunately brought a culture of violence to the country.... The militias are undisciplined and they resort to violence unnecessarily."
Times staff writer John Hendren in Washington contributed to this report.