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.