- After a fortnight of flat denials from the Bush
and the US military, the truth is finally emerging about the bloody events
in the early hours of January 24 in the Afghan village of Hazar Qadam in
- The Pentagon claimed to have scored a significant
US Special Forces had attacked two "leadership compounds" that
contained significant quantities of arms. At least 15 Taliban fighters
had been killed in what one defence official described as "intense
fighting" and 27 prisoners were seized for interrogation at the US
base in Kandahar. Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke announced that they
included "relatively senior" Taliban leaders.
- From the outset, Afghan officials and villagers accused
the US of attacking the wrong target. Uruzgan governor Jan Muhammad Khan
insisted that there had been no Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters at the two
compounds. Some of the dead, he explained, were his own militia who had
been guarding weapons collected as part of a government disarmament
- The Pentagon, however, dismissed the allegations of Khan
and others, out of hand. Senior spokesman Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem
told the press there were "clear indications" that the buildings
were "a legitimate military target". The evidence, he claimed,
was that one compound had the appearance of a "meeting house"
and that US forces had been fired on.
- Last week the first begrudging admissions emerged that
the US military had made a mistake. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
that "friendly" Afghan forces may have been killed in the raid.
He offered no explanation or apology, saying that he did not want to
an ongoing investigation by the US Central Command. But without the results
of any inquiry or other evidence, he baldly declared that US forces had
been fired on first.
- In a tacit admission that its previous assertions were
false, the military released all 27 of the prisoners-again without any
explanation or apology. Journalists with the New York Times, Washington
Post and other US newspapers, all reported that CIA operatives had returned
to the area and were offering $1,000 each to the families of the victims
as compensation-or rather as hush money.
- However, four of the released prisoners spoke out, not
only describing the raid in detail but also accusing US troops of severely
beating them while in custody. The two "leadership compounds"
were a government building being used by officials loyal to the new Afghan
administration headed by Hamid Karzai, including the newly appointed
police chief Abdul Rauf, and a school. Both were being utilised to store
weapons gathered as part of Karzai's arms collection program, and for
reasons were guarded.
- US Special Forces burst into the two buildings while
most of the men were asleep. Rauf said he was awoken by shouting and
just before 3am, recognised American voices and tried to calm his men by
saying, "They are our friends." The police chief, who puts his
age at between 60 and 65, was knocked to the floor and repeatedly kicked.
One of his ribs was broken and heblacked out.
- At the government building, two of the local police were
killed. Rauf and 26 others were bundled into a helicopter and flown to
Kandahar-just to the south of Uruzgan. Those at the school were not so
fortunate. A Washington Post report described the scene: "Its
is now a graveyard of twisted, shrapnel-shredded vehicles. Its
is pocked with hundreds of bullet holes. The floor of one classroom is
marked with bloodstains. The administrative office is charred
- Amanullah, 25, was one of about 30 employees of the
commission, sleeping in the building. He explained that a rocket hit the
school then the troops burst in, spraying the room with bullets. He saw
his cousin struggling with soldiers, ran and hid in a nearby mosque. When
he returned the following morning his cousin was dead, with bullet wounds
to the back of his neck, stomach and shoulder. All the shots appeared to
have been fired from behind and his cousin's hands were bound with white
- Amanullah said eight of the bodies at the school had
been handcuffed. Other villagers made similar allegations, showing
the handcuffs cut from two of the dead. Two phrases-"Made in USA"
and "The user assumes responsibility for injury resulting from
were imprinted in the plastic. No official explanation has been
- A report in the Los Angeles Times conjectured that the
US soldiers had "handcuffed anyone who appeared to be wounded or dead
so they could move on quickly." But if the handcuffs were used to
immobilise, why were the men just left there? Why were some handcuffed
and not others? If only those who showed signs of life were bound, why
were they allowed to bleed to death? None of these questions are asked
let alone answered because the purpose of the speculation was to draw the
reader away from the more troubling question: were these men summarily
- The head of the local disarmament commission was among
those killed in the raid. His replacement Aziz Agha explained that he had
lost nine family members in an earlier US bombing raid when a family
was taken for a fleeing Al Qaeda vehicle. He angrily told reporters:
are coming and bombing places, killing people, tying up their hands and
taking them from here... This is a crime."
- Beaten and Interrogated
- The account in the Washington Post described what
after the prisoners arrived at the US base in Kandahar. "All 27 men
were forced onto their stomachs, with their hands tied behind their backs
and their feet chained, according to each of the four former prisoners
interviewed. They were then all connected with a rope, they said. 'They
were walking on our backs like we were stones,' Rauf said. 'They hit me
in the head. My nose hit the ground and became very swollen'."
- In the morning, US soldiers tore off their clothes and
instructed them to put on blue uniforms. At one point Akhtar Mohammad,
17, lost consciousness and was kept in solitary in a large shipping
for much of his detention. No reasons were given. Six of the 27 were being
held by the Afghan police on criminal charges when the US soldiers swooped
in. They were separated while the remaining 20 were kept in a
with wooden bars and a canvas top.
- Allah Noor, 40, a farmer turned policeman for the new
government, explained that he had suffered two fractured ribs at the
military base: "They were beating us on the head and back and ribs.
They were punching us with fists, kicking me with their feet. They said:
'You are terrorist! You are Al Qaeda! You are Taliban!'" While the
treatment moderated when the military realised the prisoners had no
with either group, the damage had already been done. The elderly Rauf,
who could barely stand because of blows to his kidneys, bitterly told the
press: "I can never forgive them."
- Having been forced to acknowledge that a
may have been made, the US administration, the military and the media are
now busily manufacturing further self-serving "explanations"
to justify the murder of innocent people and their brutal treatment of
- On the raid itself, Defence Secretary Rumsfeld gave the
lead to others when he said: "It is not a neat, clean, tidy situation
[in Afghanistan]." Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke elaborated
on the theme, saying: "To say the conditions in Afghanistan are
is an understatement. And it's impossible to say these people are on this
side and these people are on the other side. People are on multiple sides,
and they switch sides."
- A more sophisticated version of this explanation has
been floated in a number of press reports-that the US was deliberately
fed misleading information by the rivals of local officials. The Los
Times, for instance, explained that a local militia commander Mohammed
Yunis was bitter over his replacement as head of the local disarmament
commission-and had disappeared.
- It is true that loyalties in the Pashtun tribal areas
in the south and east of Afghanistan, previously stronghold of the Taliban,
are confused and confusing. But if the situation is confused then all the
more reason to take greater care, especially when lives are at stake. When
in denial mode, Pentagon spokesmen are at pains to assure the public that
no mistake is possible, that targets are exhaustively investigated, that
multiple sources of intelligence are used, including local informers and
a barrage of sophisticated surveillance from U-2 spy planes to pilotless
- What the attack on Hazar Qadam reveals, however, is that
very little care was taken in identifying the target. All the electronic
wizardry at the disposal of the US military could not distinguish the
loyalties of the men in the two buildings. At best it was able to focus
broadly on "suspicious activity". Information about political
allegiances could only come from local informers. The Pentagon has refused
to name its sources but it is clear they were not the Uruzgan governor
and other local officials who have asked the obvious question-why were
they not consulted?
- As to the beatings, General Richard Myers, chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flatly denied any mistreatment of the 27
during a press conference yesterday. "I simply don't believe that
any of the detainees... were subject to beatings or rough treatment,"
he said. For emphasis he added: "The fact that they were detained
and not killed I think is an indication of just how professional and
and dedicated our folks are." He neglected to comment on the 21
who were not so fortunate or what their deaths showed about the activities
of the US military.
- The raid at Uruzgan is just one of a number of incidents
that have surfaced in which innocent Afghans have been killed by the US
military. The rising toll and the completely unconvincing character of
the official response have prompted several editorials in the
press suggesting that the Bush administration adopt a different tack. There
is clearly concern in US ruling circles that mounting evidence of the
methods employed by the US forces will undermine public support for the
- The Washington Post, for example, commented: "It
may be that some or even all of these disturbing reports are inaccurate,
in part or in whole. But what is most troubling at the moment is the
reluctance of the Pentagon to respond seriously to them. Defence Secretary
Rumsfeld set the tone early on; in his televised press conferences, he
regularly dismissed reports of civilian casualties as terrorist
- The newspaper noted that "tragic mistakes that kill
the wrong people are inescapable in war" and urged the Pentagon to
"investigate vigorously, be clear and open in its explanations, and
be prepared to take action in cases of improper behaviour".
- But a review of what is known about the Uruzgan raid
suggests a more straightforward explanation both of the operation and the
Pentagon response. The special forces raid was not "a mistake"
or "an unintended tragedy". The military planners, CIA officials
and defence intelligence officials who targetted the two "leadership
compounds" were simply not particularly concerned who was caught in
the crossfire. Whether they captured Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters or not,
the operation would serve to terrorise a population which had previously
been sympathetic to the Taliban and is growing increasingly hostile to
the presence of US troops.
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