How Many Died in the Kunduz Fuel Tanker Air Strike?

The incineration of dozens of Afghans–in a mushroom cloud produced by 500 lb GBU-38 bombs fired from an unmanned U.S. F-15E fighter jet on two hijacked fuel tankers early morning Sept. 4—has generated an enormous outcry.

Commander of U.S. and “international” forces Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has pledged since assuming his post in June to cut back on the air strikes that have so alienated Afghan public opinion and to make “safeguarding the lives of Afghan civilians” his priority. There had been too many mistakes under his predecessor Gen. McKiernan, such as the attack that killed 47 people walking to a wedding July 6, 2008. The Afghan president, sounding less and less like a U.S. puppet, and parliament had become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the bombing and unacceptable civilian death toll. Some change of tactics was necessary as a concession to Afghan nationalism and mounting impatience with the occupation.

This incident, coming at a time of serious friction between Washington and the Karzai regime, obviously worries the U.S. commander. Gen. McChrystal called Karzai Friday night promising to conduct an investigation. He visited the bombing site, met with wounded civilians at the local hospital, and made a statement on TV and radio declaring that “nothing is more important than the safety and protection of the Afghan people. I take this possible loss of life or injury to innocent Afghans very seriously.” He promised them too an investigation.

But as a Los Angeles Times piece on the Kunduz incident notes, “It is not uncommon for such incidents to end with disagreement between Afghan and Western officials about the scope and nature of civilian casualties.” What will this investigation conclude, and will it satisfy the Afghan public?

Here are fatality figures from the incident posited by different sources that I have seen to date:

Friday, Sept. 4: Kunduz MP Moin Marastial announced, “We don’t know how many people died exactly because the bodies of Taliban and locals were taken away after midnight, but it is definitely more than 120 people in the area.” He was referring to the video feed that had been analyzed by the US Air Force as showing 120 people around the tankers just before the strike.

Kim Sengupta in Kabul reporting from Kabul for the London Independent reported “95 people, dozens of them civilians” had been killed in the strike.

Kunduz provincial governor Engineer Mohammad Omar stated that there were an “estimated 90 dead,” of whom 45 were Taliban fighters including local commander Mullah Abdul Rahman. But he also said “most” of the dead were militants, judging by the number of charred pieces of Kalashnikov rifles found at the site.

Kunduz provincial police chief stated 65 Taliban fighters had been killed in the strike.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told al-Jazeera that as many as 90 civilians, who had come out to take fuel from the trucks, had been killed.

Saturday, Sept. 5: Kunduz local government spokesman Mohammad Yawar inexplicably revised the total figure downward, stating more than 70 people had been killed.

Gov. Omar fixed the total figure at 72, stating there were only 30 insurgents, including the Taliban commander Rahman and four Chechens. But he suggested the others were “probably fighters or relatives.”

Yawar stated that at least 45 of the 70 he now calculated as total killed had been militants.

Sept. 6: Gov. Omar told German press that there were only 54 dead, only 6 of them civilians.

AP reported that German forces claimed 57 Taliban had been killed in the Kunduz bombing attack.

Washington Post revealed that a NATO fact-finding team had visited the site Saturday and concluded “that about 125 people were killed in the bombing, at least two dozen of whom — but perhaps many more — were not insurgents.”

Human rights group Afghan Rights Monitor announced, on the basis of interviews with 15 villagers, that that only a dozen gunmen died and 60-70 villagers had been killed. It indicated that they may have been Taliban supporters (which might allow the authorities to conflate them “insurgents” in justifying their incineration). “Even if all the victims were supporters of the Taliban,” stated the organization’s director Ahmad Sami Yawar, “the fact that most of them were unarmed and were not engaged in any combat activity does not warrant their mass killing.”

So who to believe? It certainly looks as though local officials have scurried to produce a minimal civilian death count. (How did Gov. Omar get from 45 to 6 civilian dead in a few days?) The fact that the bodies have been buried expeditiously in accordance with Muslim law may make it easier to do that. And if, as Gov. Omar as noted, the area is “under Taliban control” and local people likely supportive or cooperative, it may be possible to blur the line between legitimate Taliban target and any local adult male, especially if he’s sporting a Kalashnikov. (There are more of these than men in Afghanistan.)

A Taliban spokesman declares that the group escaped any losses, and that all the dead are non-combatants, a claim as implausible as that of one Asmatullah at Kunduz Hospital who told AFP, “All the dead were Taliban.”

Today’s Washington Post gives some insight into the mentality of local officials in Kunduz. Greeting the McChrystal party when they came to investigate the air strike incident, a key local official who declined to be named declared, “I don’t agree with the rumor that there were a lot of civilian casualties. Who goes out at 2 in the morning for fuel? These were bad people, and this was a good operation.”

In other words, the boy on the donkey who rides out to siphon gas and gets incinerated as a result deserves it.

Kunduz provincial council chairman Ahmadullah Wardak told McChrystal that NATO forces in the area need to be acting “more strongly” and bombing more. “If we do three more operations like was done the other night, stability will come to Kunduz,” he told the general. “If people do not want to live in peace and harmony, that’s not our fault. We’ve been too nice to the thugs.”

Given that mentality, one might expect a whitewash as McChrystal undertakes his promised investigation of this incident. On the other hand there are forces within Afghanistan, including around Karzai who has his own contradictions with Washington, who may wish to use this episode to embarrass their patrons even as the latter accuse them of corruption.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu. Read other articles by Gary.

14 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on September 8th, 2009 at 1:37pm #

    The interesting thing is the negative reaction in Europe generally and Germany in particular (the Germans have a thing about military forces killing civilians!). Added to high British casualties, it has meant that no one is now defending “the war worth fighting” in Europe anymore! The German defence minister is apologising to everyone who comes within earshot of him. Brown and Merkel immediately called for a conference to plan an exit strategy, although, amusingly, there has be little coverage of their statement since (I actually saw it being made) and the purpose of the conference is now being presented in the press as how to carry on to the bitter end!

    But exit strategy there will have to be. Merkel has an election in a few weeks (hence all the press talk about Germany coming out of recession!), which she is expected to win, but last time, she did a lot less well than the pundits claimed. Brown has to hold an election before next summer and the farcical US health care debate has actaully helped him by damaging his Tory opponents (smoked them out, particularly that screwball MEP!). The same thing will probably start in Afghanistan as happened in Iraq: European countries will quietly withdraw their forces, little by little.

  2. Weatherpunk said on September 8th, 2009 at 2:34pm #

    If some of the facts of this article are correct (GBU-38 munition used & F-15E configuration aircraft as the launch platform) than a glaring error is apparent at the beginning: F-15 “Iron Eagle” fighter jets require a pilot to operate/fly. You can’t fly them unmanned.

    While I agree it is going to be a pig’s ear sorting out who was militant or not in this embarassing & tragic incident of collateral damage, there is also the fact that people were approaching these vehicles to siphon off fuel for free or for a price that would have sent money into Taliban coffers. If you can’t pay for fuel or you’re willing to support the black market in Afghanistan, then woe be unto you when the situation goes south & you find yourself some place you shouldn’t have been in the first place.

    Isn’t stealing just as frowned-upon in this part of the world’s traditions/culture as in ours?

  3. brian said on September 8th, 2009 at 2:46pm #

    ‘Commander of U.S. and “international” forces Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has pledged since assuming his post in June to cut back on the air strikes that have so alienated Afghan public opinion and to make “safeguarding the lives of Afghan civilians” his priority. There had been too many mistakes under his predecessor Gen. McKiernan’

    black comedy, white faces….
    Pledges mean nothing, coming from the US.
    The way to alienate a public is to bomb them!
    Best way to safeguard afghan lives is for the US to leave Afghanistan!

    Stop trying to make the world safe for israel … sorry, democracy, americans…your only adding to the bodycount.

  4. Annie Ladysmith said on September 8th, 2009 at 11:40pm #

    Stealing? STEALING, you freakin’ loon! It is THEIR country, it is THEIR freakin’ oil, they don’t have a pot to piss in and they have to steal their own gas, probably for heat and cooking.
    Bud, turn it around and ask yourself how insane you would get if some foreign fighter jet flew over your neck of the red-woods and dropped a 500 pounder on your head?

    NEWSFLASH! the US does not own the world. The US does not own the oil in the Middle East. It is morally WRONG to be dropping bombs on these poor people ( most of them barely have a roof over their heads, never mind health-care). They can support whoever they care to, even if it’s the Taliban, they may camp out with the Taliban if they choose to, what are you going to do about it, kill them for exercising free-will in their national domain.

    Listen guy, Punk, whatever, you need to get an education on civil liberties and on the root cause (the person who ordered the attack on the towers) of 9/11 by which the US has intitled itself to go into the Middle East and kill everyone. I’v got news for you, a lot of us don’t entertain for a second, that the “Taliban” was responsible for such a sophisicated hit as 9/11. O! Crap!, am i talking to the wall again?

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain said on September 9th, 2009 at 12:59am #

    What happened, I believe, is plain. The Taliban hijacked the tankers and set about distributing the precious fuel to impoverished Afghans, most Afghans, like most humans in this Yankee dominated global dystopia, being dirt poor. The US did what it always does in its brutal, racist, ‘counter-insurgency’ wars-it punished the people for associating with the Taliban.
    The US tactics in counter-insurgency guerilla wars, where the populace is the enemy and are having a pro-US puppet regime forced on them, invariably amount to draining the sea (often referred to as a ‘swamp’ with undisguised racist contempt) in which the guerillas swim, as Mao said. This amounts in practice to terrorising the civilians in any area dominated by the guerillas, hoping to intimidate the locals into turning against their own people. It is motivated by a deeply contemptuous view of the various ‘niggers’ being terrorised, who are expected to act like craven curs and lick the boots of the boss out of sheer terror for their children and families. It doesn’t work of course, and only increases resistance. It does slake the psychopathic bloodlust of the Western ubermenschen, but like all serial killers, they have to go on killing. Naturally this truth is so precious that it must be protected by a bodyguard of lies and media liars, who peddle blatant untruths concerning civilian casualties and the manner in which they died. The latest incarnation of Western lying is the ‘protection’ laugh, where the Western terrorist claim to be ‘protecting’ the populace from the evil Taliban. This is ‘protection’ as the Mafia know it.I see the 35 year crucifixion of Afghanistan by Western racism and fascism actually coming to a close soon, for a while at least. I sense an opening to allow the Taliban to return to sharing in power coming, but only in order that they can be turned against Iran. We shall see.

  6. Weatherpunk said on September 9th, 2009 at 7:28am #

    Annie, before you suggest I get an education in anything, much less civil liberties, I suggest you get an education in using a dictionary or a spell-checker.

    I’m not “intitled” to a single thing in life, but I do feel “entitled” to being debated in proper English. Take a few deep breaths before the next post & proof-read your own argument.

  7. Annie Ladysmith said on September 9th, 2009 at 9:43am #

    Obviously NOT! Blow ‘em up and then bury ‘em quick.
    It’s an old favorite.

  8. Annie Ladysmith said on September 9th, 2009 at 9:45am #

    P.S. If weatherpunk works for the CIA Please delete all blogs!

  9. RG said on September 9th, 2009 at 10:56am #

    ‘Punky: While you’re in here nitpicking about spelling errors, others are looking at the big picture, addressing issues such as why we are even in Afghanistan in the first place. After all, the FBI says it doesn’t have enough evidence to charge Usama Bin Ladin with involvement in 9/11.
    http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/topten/fugitives/laden.htm

    There are, however, many who make a strong case that government officials, including Bush, Cheney and their Neocon allies were involved. For example:
    http://www.patriotsquestion911.com/
    http://www.ae911truth.org/
    http://pilotsfor911truth.org/
    and so on…

  10. catherine said on September 9th, 2009 at 10:56am #

    “Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told al-Jazeera that as many as 90 civilians, who had come out to take fuel from the trucks, had been killed.”

    “Saturday, Sept. 5: Kunduz local government spokesman Mohammad Yawar inexplicably revised the total figure downward, stating more than 70 people had been killed.”

    Well, see, that’s okay then. Fewer people killed.

    Christ on a crutch, if I were as afraid of “terrorists” as the U.S. admin wants me to be, I’d be hiding in a cave after a massacre like this. But I’m not afraid of blowback, I’m terrified and enraged about the actions of the U.S. and Australia, etc.

  11. Major Maven said on September 9th, 2009 at 2:15pm #

    Well, it’s “Cover your ass time” again. Starting with our German Colonel Klein, who’s accused of not being aggressive enough in the past, then not being caring enough to even visit the site for several hours to calculate the damage of his decision. But, look how sensitive he was ! Used only two 500 pounders instead of the advised two tonners from his USAF advisers, launched from an F-15E platform. To destroy two trucks stuck in the mud ! Are these men professionals ? Where did they learn their “power to target ratios ?” Or was it that their action report would look better if they killed two trucks and some supposed Taliban ? And then, McChrystal makes his necessary appearance with entourage on the world stage. Now,that’s being a General !

  12. ayub said on September 10th, 2009 at 1:33am #

    ladysmith, you could be right, weatherpunk a cia mole, a mole with a dictionary> then this penible person goes for the spelling and not for the substance, well he will have a lot to chew on my comment as i throw my grammer to the dogs. saves time !

    mumblebrain is right too, weatherpunk should first get it straight, whos’ the thief , the aggressor, the occupier, the terrorist who accounts for most body bags?
    may be weatherpunk is from the old colonial era, dreaming that the earth was made for the ‘white sahib’ and everything belonged to him, he keeps all he wants and sells what he does’nt.
    the master of death and destruction for, be it zulus, aborigins, asians,even boers ,arabs etc.

    ladysmith correct too. when the americans say they bring freedom to you ! run for the caves as catherine would do, , when they bring their ‘sort’of freedom –it means they are setting you free ‘from’ life !!!

    yes mulga
    did anybody notice that more french civilians were killed by the american invading forces and more damage done to the towns and cities in the 2nd WW than the germans invading france!
    and imagine the bombing genocide of the german civilians, both by yankees and brits.

    how long will the true americans who believe in thomas jefferson and the likes of him ,bear their foreign atrocities in the name of israel,… sorry democracy?
    when will you learn? on 9/11 your own govt sacrificed american lives to let silverstein build a new tower with his illgotten and planned insurance, let you invade iraq then afghanistan, save you armament maschine and production rolling and keeps your generals on their ‘job’ of killing. , steal iraqi oil (weatherpunky talks about two miserable tankers !) he should talk of ‘grand theft’ !

  13. ayub said on September 10th, 2009 at 1:42am #

    and let me add the wtc 7, as if two towers are not enough,
    silverstein an cohort had prepared wtc 7 ‘to be pulled’ right on the same evening.
    all dubious records from a multitude of agensies destroyed, sure for a price again, you scratch my back i scratch yours, now for this great favour ,how can cia-fbi investigate mr. silverass?
    he is in a win,win,win, win ,win …. situation.

  14. b99 said on September 10th, 2009 at 7:52am #

    Weatherpunk – This was not so much an ‘embarassing & tragic incident of collateral damage’ as a crime against humanity. Whatever legitimacy the US had in attacking al-Qaeda in Afghanistan for 9/11, that legitimacy is long lost. Every other government (except Israel, and even Israel would like US military assets redeployed against Iran or Syria) in the world now fully understands this.

    PS – Stealing is not frowned upon in the US – at least not at the corporate level. What do you think the insurance companies do? The credit card companies. The mortgage lenders. Really – this is legalized theft! Theft is not just something other cultures engage in. Besides, in as much as the US does not have Afghan permission to be there everything in that country belongs to the Afghans.