Exclusive, on-the-ground interviews obtained by Brave New Foundation's Rethink Afghanistan project confirm what NATO forces repeatedly denied: U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan killed dozens of people in the Sangin District of Helmand Province on July 23.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office first acknowledged the incident when they condemned the killings on July 26. At that time, the Afghan National Directorate of Security claimed that the American-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) killed "52 civilians...including women and children" in a "rocket attack." (The Kabul government later revised that tally to 39.) By Sunday, August 1, there were protests in the streets of Kabul.
ISAF immediately attacked the credibility of the Afghan government's report, complaining bitterly of Karzai's decision to condemn the incident without conferring with U.S. and allied forces.
Working with our team in Afghanistan led by Anita Sreedhar, Brave New Foundation's Rethink Afghanistan campaign sent an intrepid local blogger into Sangin--one of Afghanistan's most volatile areas--to get the truth. The video interviews he obtained are incredible and horrifying. We made the full interview transcripts available online at http://rethinkafghanistan.com, and we encourage you to read them. Here's the short version: Every survivor our interviewer talked to confirmed that a massive civilian casualty event occurred, and that NATO was responsible.
NATO vs. the Kabul Government
ISAF began their push-back against press accounts of the Sangin incident with a simple press release on July 24: "We have no operational reporting that correlates to this alleged incident." No further press release available on the ISAF website expands or updates this statement. However, ISAF personnel soon ratcheted up their attacks on the Afghan government's narrative and, in the process, circulated alternative (and often contradictory) official responses, tallies and accounts of the event.
Quoted in a July 27 New York Times article, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith (whom you might remember from that embarrassing and horrific event in Gardez earlier this year) escalated ISAF's push-back by claiming Karzai's office's account was premature and speculative.
"Any speculation at this point of an alleged civilian casualty in Rigi village is completely unfounded...We are conducting a thorough joint investigation with our Afghan partners and will report any and all findings when known."
On August 5, ISAF spokespeople still claimed to lack information on the outcome of this promised "joint investigation." However, that didn't stop other ISAF officials from offering "speculations" of their own. Brigadier General Josef Blotz, for example, claimed that Afghan and coalition forces examined images of the scene and interviewed witnesses but found "no substance in terms of proof or evidence" to support Karzai's claim. He did, however, concede that "one to three civilians may have been inadvertently killed."
Later, again on August 5, while ISAF provided quotes from named sources for attribution that denied knowledge of the outcome of the investigation, an unnamed "senior intelligence official" told The New York Times that six civilians died with eight Taliban fighters when a troop fired a Javelin rocket into a structure from which U.S. Marines took fire.
When asked to explain the discrepancy between his tally and that of the Afghan government, the unnamed official cited "political challenges," as if "political challenges" account for a 33-person difference in the death tallies. This explanation reminds one of the Gardez massacre earlier this year, when ISAF tried to pass off its blatant lie about an American special forces team finding women "bound, gagged and executed" as a "cultural misunderstanding," when in fact they'd killed the women themselves and tried to dig the bullets out while one of them was still alive, screaming in pain. In effect, this unnamed source accused Afghan locals and officials of lying about civilian deaths because of hard feelings between them and the coalition.
What is going on here? One explanation might be that ISAF engaged in the same type of damage control campaign utilized in other horrifying incidents like the Farah airstrike and the Gardez massacre. In both cases, ISAF initially denied wrongdoing, aggressively attacked the credibility of alternative accounts that disputed the official story, and claimed that the evidence was either neutral or exculpatory. Only when new information made it impossible to deny responsibility did ISAF admit its guilt in both cases. Perhaps we're seeing a repeat of that behavior here.
Regardless of the source and possible motivation for all this contradicting information and blatant disinformation, what is clear, based on interviews obtained by our team on the ground in Sangin, is that ISAF troops killed dozens of civilians on July 23.
52 people were killed! We don't know how many children or women! ...The rest of my family is scattered and lost I don't know where they are. ...My mind doesn't work okay. ... My daughter's in laws were sitting in our house with their other children when the bombing started I saw them get killed with my own eyes!
--Mahmoud Jan Kaka
I saw a child on the floor was injured. I thought he was the only injured one so I took him to the clinic. When I came back my nephew told me that there were more injured people. I tried to pull my daughter from the rubble but I couldn't. I heard her calling for help but I couldn't reach her.
In all of my experiences not the Russians or the Taliban ever did what they (N.A.T.O.) did. ...I wanted to go to the government post and tell them to kill the rest of us too as we have nothing to live for anymore!
...In the morning we see bodies with heads, blood and guts everywhere, arms here and legs there. All of my loved ones who were still alive were soaked in blood. We tried to go and identify the bodies; everyone was looking for there missing relatives. There was so much sorrow and pain from those people who were lost in shock.
--Unnamed Sangin Resident 1
The most important takeaway from these interviews, aside from the universal attribution of blame to NATO, is that there is absolutely no way that the civilian death toll is in the single digits. One person described losing eight family members; another said he lost nine loved ones; still another lost 11. One of the men, Abdul Barg, insisted that, "the number of martyred were no less than 35 up to 50." He also related that "every family in the village was placing at least a couple of their loved ones in a bag."
These video interviews prove what NATO wants to deny. As you watch the footage of these Afghan men and hear their voices crack, it becomes sickeningly clear. U.S. and allied forces killed dozens of Afghan civilians in Sangin.
This incident is more than a moral outrage: it shows why the Afghanistan War undermines our safety. Thanks to the work of the National Bureau of Economic Research, we know that, statistically speaking, every time an incident like this happens, we can expect an additional six attacks on coalition forces. But we don't have to generalize from this incident to see the threat when the specifics spell it out so clearly:
More than 200 people demonstrated over the July 23 incident in the Sangin district of Helmand province... The protesters shouted "Death to America" and carried banners calling for justice and pictures of children they say were killed in the strike...
This is what our elected officials need to understand: when we debate the war in Afghanistan, it's not an academic exercise. It's a string of specific incidents like Sangin, concrete moral outrages that pay us back with increased strategic risk.
Our reaction to Sangin and the other similar catastrophes defines us. That's why when I go into a voting booth this November, or I get a solicitation for a political donation or a request to volunteer for a federal candidate, I'm going ask, "How did this person respond when he or she heard that we slaughtered the heart of a village? Did this person explain it away? Did they continue to support a policy that ensured more Sangins all across Afghanistan? Or did they finally catch themselves, finally realize that this war ensures the slow death of more children under rubble while parents claw at the pile?" These are the questions I'll ask myself before I punch the touch-screen at the local library, and if the opinion polls are any indication, I'll be far, far from alone.
I encourage all of you to visit http://rethinkafghanistan.com to send a note to your elected officials and let them know you'll be watching what they do in response to this disaster, and that you'll remember it when you vote in November.
Follow Derrick Crowe on Twitter: www.twitter.com/derrickcrowe