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Afghan civilian deaths: Who is to blame?

The road to Bala Baluk district stretches arrow-straight ahead, with heat-shimmered cucumber fields on either side. But determining exactly what transpired nearly two weeks ago in a hamlet called Garani takes a far more twisted path.

A battle raged. Bombs fell. Afghan officials say at least 140 civilians died, two-thirds of them children and teenagers, in what may prove the most lethal episode of civilian casualties since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Days of interviews with U.S. and Afghan commanders, mourning villagers and jittery provincial authorities, doctors and human rights activists about the fighting of May 4 yielded accounts that could be likened to a series of linked circles; some elements overlap while others appear irreconcilable.

Villagers consistently told of a bombardment that came at least 90 minutes after the Taliban had melted away from Garani, a village just 22 miles from the provincial capital, Farah City. The military insists that the airstrikes were based on real-time information and driven by precise battlefield imperatives. Local people are adamant that bombardment caused the civilian deaths; the U.S. military asserts that at least some were inflicted by the Taliban, and it sharply disputes the toll of 140.

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Whatever emerges as something akin to truth, the events that took place in this desolate patch of western desert stand as a microcosm of the Afghan war, a stark illustration of the enormous obstacles faced as the new American administration commits greater numbers of U.S. troops than ever before to confront an increasingly powerful Taliban insurgency.

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Piercing wails rose into the antiseptic-scented air where four blistered and bandaged little girls lay in side-by-side hospital beds. One of them, 5-year-old Ferishteh, writhed and cried almost continuously, unable to find a position that did not cause her pain from the burns that covered her arms, legs and torso.

On the night of May 4, the girls’ families, frightened by hours of fierce fighting between insurgents and Afghan and Western troops in and around Garani, had sought shelter, together with dozens of neighbors, in a pair of sprawling compounds belonging to the village’s most powerful tribal clans.

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After the clashes subsided in the early evening, residents said, many were bedding down by about 8:30, still huddled together in hope of safety.

That, they say, is when the bombs fell.

Nine-year-old Nazbibi, whose large brown eyes were half hidden by swollen eyelids with eyelashes burned away, remembered falling asleep with her mother and 10-year-old sister by her side.

“I heard a big boom, and I was buried except for my head,” she said. “Everything collapsed -- the roof was on me, and there were flames. I was so frightened.”

Her sister, Gulbuddin, was killed. Her mother, Sanam, suffered burns but survived, although the night’s events so unhinged her that she apparently suffered a mental collapse.

Because of the seriousness of their condition, the girls were eventually brought to the country’s best burn treatment center, at the regional hospital in Herat, about 150 miles north of Farah City.

Marie-Jose Brunel, a nurse working for a French humanitarian group that helps run the unit, grimaced when asked if they would live. She thought yes, but wasn’t sure.

Nurses and doctors said Nazbibi’s father, Saeed Malham, rarely left her bedside. Like many of the village’s men, he works as a laborer across the border in Iran, and did not learn of the catastrophe that had befallen his family until two days later.

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“When they told me what had happened, I fainted under a tree,” he said. Then he rushed home, returning to a village marked by destroyed homes and fresh graves.

The father of the other three girls in the burn unit, Saeed Barakat, was also separated from his wife and children at the time of the bombardment. He had gone to the mosque in the early evening, and then to the home of an elder married daughter to spend the night.

When the alarm was raised, he hurried to the compound where his family had been sleeping. There he encountered a nightmarish landscape of blood-covered rubble and severed limbs. A hand was found in a nearby tree. Only seven of more than 70 people inside were alive, according to Barakat and others interviewed.

Echoing sentiments that would be expressed in the following days by many other villagers, Barakat aimed his bafflement and fury squarely at the U.S. military.

“We blame America,” he said. “With all their technology, they don’t determine who is a fighter and who is an innocent. Now my house is gone. My wife is dead. My children are burned.”

But the other father, Malham, was angrier at the Taliban.

“I say this to them,” he said in a low voice, glancing over to make sure he was not frightening his daughter with the vehemence of his tone. “May God bring their houses down on their heads.”

Call for help

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The fighting in Bala Baluk began soon after dawn, after insurgents took over an old fortress in Garani and high ground in an adjoining village, Ganjabad.

The entire district has only 140 police officers; the Taliban outnumbered them at least 2 to 1, perhaps 3 to 1.

By midday, the police were taking casualties as they tried to advance through agricultural fields near Garani, maneuvering past walls and culverts that provided abundant cover for the enemy. The Taliban fighters, it seemed, were everywhere.

The insurgents captured one officer, set fire to a police vehicle. The police lines grew shaky.

Still outmatched after reinforcements from the neighboring capital district arrived, commanders called the Afghan army for assistance, said the provincial police chief, Abdul Ghafar Watandar. The first of its arriving soldiers, too, swiftly found themselves pinned down by a fusillade of heavy machine-gun fire and a rain of rockets from Taliban forces.

It was time to call for help again -- this time, from the Americans.

‘This was massive’

In the minds of Western officials, part of the grand scheme for Afghanistan is that its national army will one day be able to shoulder responsibility for the country’s security.

To that end, units of U.S. troops are partnered with Afghan police officers and soldiers, living and working alongside them. In Farah, these teams are made up of U.S. Marines.

The training that takes place is hardly theoretical in nature. More and more often, the mentors find themselves, along with their trainees, in the middle of a shooting war. On May 4, that happened yet again.

Navy Cmdr. Benjamin Nicholson, the senior American military official at the U.S. base outside Farah City, described a battle whose ferocity and complexity escalated as the day went on.

“There are skirmishes all the time, but this was massive,” he said. “Generally you see a small attack and withdrawal. This time they pressed the engagement. It didn’t stop.”

Just as the Afghans had, the Americans called for their own reinforcements.

With Marines from the mentoring teams already in the thick of the fighting, special operations forces joined in, first one group of them, and then a second.

Airstrikes

“It kept growing and growing,” said Nicholson, who as head of reconstruction in the province did not command either the trainers or special forces, but closely followed the battle’s progress.

The U.S. contingent was made up entirely of elite fighters, but they totaled fewer than 100. Even combined with their Afghan allies, they were outnumbered by the Taliban, with no further reinforcements close at hand.

Although Farah is one of the biggest Afghan provinces, it contains only a relatively light contingent of U.S. troops, far fewer than the Western forces in neighboring Helmand province.

“Farah used to be quiet. This was where the Taliban came for R & R,” Nicholson said. “But fighting in the east is pushing the insurgents west, and we’re having more and more difficulties out here.”

That’s a common pattern in combat across the country: insurgents being dislodged in one place, then regrouping elsewhere, often where foreign forces are thin.

Back at the Farah base, the atmosphere grew taut as the day dragged on. Radios crackling by his side, 26-year-old Army Spc. Michael Richardson, just three days on the job, dispatched a medevac chopper and a “chase bird,” both Black Hawk helicopters, to pick up two wounded soldiers, one an Afghan, the other an American.

But as the helicopters approached Garani, the air darkened: A sandstorm was blowing in.

Richardson’s heart sank as the pilots advised him that visibility was too poor to land.

“There was tension,” he said. “You know there’s people wounded, and you need to get to them. But you prepare yourself mentally for what’s coming, you do the job.”

It was an hour before the medevac helicopter was able to put down safely and pick up the two wounded men.

At some point in the late afternoon or early evening, the decision was made to call in airstrikes, a measure most often taken when Western commanders believe an outpost or a field contingent is in danger of being overrun.

Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai, say the tactic is overused in populated areas. But the Obama administration has rejected Karzai’s calls for an end to airstrikes, saying they are an essential part of the Western arsenal.

The aircraft summoned to Garani, two F-18 fighter jets and a B-1 bomber that U.S. officials said were based outside Afghanistan, took aim at three targets. In strikes that came about 20 minutes apart, three village landmarks, the mosque and two large compounds, were hit, residents said.

Citing an ongoing internal military investigation, U.S. officials declined to detail how the targets were chosen, or exactly when the decision was made, but said there had been insurgent fire from all three locations.

“This was not some kind of indiscriminate bomb-the-village kind of thing,” Nicholson said.

There is no cellphone service in most of Bala Baluk at night, so villagers were unable to summon help, and they were too frightened to make the drive to Farah City. The wounded who weren’t lucky enough to be unconscious shrieked themselves hoarse until morning finally came.

After the bombs

Bilquis Roshan’s phone rang early on May 5, and did not stop ringing. An outspoken provincial council member, she is a well-known figure throughout Farah.

“People rely on me to get things done,” she said with no small amount of pride.

By midday, she had visited the first victims arriving at Farah City’s rudimentary hospital. Speaking to families she knew, Roshan began compiling a list of the dead. One family gave her 19 names, another 11. The toll she compiled quickly grew to 100, then 150. She alerted news media and human rights contacts in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Almost immediately, cracks began to show within the provincial government. Roshan, along with some others, complained that the governor, Rohul Amin, initially downplayed the extent of the disaster because he has close ties to the Americans.

By late afternoon, angry villagers showed up outside the governor’s compound with two truckloads of bodies, about three dozen in all. Two days later, hundreds of angry demonstrators besieged the governor’s compound, shouting anti-American slogans.

Amin denied any foot-dragging in response to the reports from Garani, but acknowledged that he sometimes felt tugged in two directions by his loyalties to his restive public and to the U.S. officials on whose largesse he depends, in a city where the zone of relative safety extends about six miles, and no more.

“The public and the Americans,” the governor said with a small, tight smile. “It’s like trying to balance two babies in your arms.”

‘Want this child?’

Eight days after the bombardment, a doleful procession made its way to the governor’s compound. A high-level government panel sent from Kabul had compiled a list of 140 dead in Garani, and their families had come to receive condolence payments: crisp bills doled out from a battered black suitcase, in a mournful ritual that would last two days.

The Afghan government payments were the equivalent of $2,000 each, more than most Afghan workers could earn in several years. But Mahmoud Gul Mohammed, balancing 1-year-old Dawajan in his lap, was a portrait of desolation. His wife had been killed, along with a second son, and his home destroyed, he said. Even his cow and three sheep were dead.

“I don’t see how the West or the government can bring us peace,” he said, cradling his son, who was wearing tattered trousers and a tunic secured with a safety pin.

When Dawajan reached for a dirty baby bottle, the father fumblingly mixed a batch of sugared water and fed it to him.

He hoped to use his condolence money to arrange another marriage, he said, because he did not know how to care for an infant.

Seeing the eyes of two foreign visitors on him, he looked up hopefully.

“Do you want this child?” he asked.

Evidence fades away

No one predicts a full accounting of what happened in Garani.

The U.S. military said its inquiry, a forensic-style examination of everything from flight logs to radio transmissions from the field, could take weeks more. American officials have advanced the theory that the Taliban killed large numbers of villagers with grenades, infuriating local people who describe buildings clearly blown apart by far larger external blasts.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only independent outside group to have reached the village, has not yet released its findings. A United Nations delegation was unable to secure a military escort to the scene last week because travel was deemed too dangerous.

Local people said they wanted outside observers to see the destruction, but even with Afghanistan’s unbending tradition of personal hospitality, tribal elders warned that they could not guarantee any visitor’s safety. Drivers in Farah City refused to venture any farther in the direction of Garani than the village of Qale Zaman, about six miles outside the city.

Meanwhile, under the scorching desert sun, traces of evidence fade away daily. The dead have been buried. And in all likelihood, the Taliban of Bala Baluk will be back.

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laura.king@latimes.com


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