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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Questions Lurk in a Dead Village

War: U.S. says it bombed hamlet to kill Talibs. But locals claim military fell victim to misinformation.

January 08, 2002|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

QALAYE NIAZI, Afghanistan — No one can be found to tell this story firsthand. There is disagreement from those who live nearby about the details of the bombing.

But what is clear is that where a small village once stood in the arid plains of east-central Afghanistan, there is little left but torn clothing, piles of brick, pieces of human flesh and hair, and a substantial stockpile of small-arms ammunition.

The United States launched a fierce bomb attack on Qalaye Niazi before dawn Dec. 29, as its inhabitants slept after a wedding celebration. Ten homes are said to have been destroyed and dozens of people killed; the exact numbers are in dispute.

What isn't clear is why the village became an American target.

The story of Qalaye Niazi raises difficult questions about the accuracy of the local information the United States is getting about the whereabouts of remaining Al Qaeda fighters. In this instance, and in the Dec. 20 bombing of a convoy of tribal elders headed to Kabul, the capital, for the new government's installation, it appears that the U.S. military may have unwittingly become prey to misinformation from local tribal chiefs and their cohorts, all of whom are competing for power and territorial control.

"People have received satellite phones for working as local agents. And there have always been enmities and tribal disagreements in the area," said Fazlullah, governor of Lowgar province, just to the north of Paktia province, where the bombing took place.

"There is no specific argument, just settling old scores and revenge. As each regime has come they have wanted revenge on those in the previous regime that have been unjust or cruel," said Fazlullah, who uses only one name.

Maj. Brad Lowell, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., acknowledged that American forces have given out satellite phones to local Afghans to help identify suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban hide-outs. He said those reports are always double-and triple-checked with U.S. special operations forces on the ground, intelligence reports from reconnaissance aircraft and other sources.

U.S. Special Forces have been in close contact with local groups in the country for more than 90 days, Lowell said.

Regarding the concern that the Afghans might steer U.S. warplanes wrong, Lowell said: "We recognize the possibility of those types of scenarios, and it's not like we would let someone like that call in the airstrike. There is a process that we have. There are checks and balances set forth to keep that from happening. We shouldn't rely on just a single piece of information."

The Qalaye Niazi episode epitomizes the dilemma the U.S. faces at this stage of the war in Afghanistan. If the military is going to eliminate every suspected former Taliban fighter still drifting around Afghanistan, civilian deaths may be unavoidable.

In the minds of tribal elders, relatives of Qalaye Niazi residents and leaders of neighboring provinces, there is no doubt that the inhabitants of the village were civilians, innocent of any activity related to terrorism. The United States military has claimed that Taliban leaders were hiding among the villagers.

"These were just civilian people, businesspeople, poor people and nomadic people," said Haji Saifullah, head of the tribal council, or shura, in Paktia province.

"The Americans received incorrect information to bomb that place," Saifullah said. "Maybe someone told them that they were Al Qaeda or Taliban. There are so many people who have satellite phones. The person may have reported that for revenge."

According to U.S. officials, two surface-to-air missiles were fired at the bombers during the raid. "We have identified that as a military target," Lowell said, adding that the Pentagon has investigated the Qalaye Niazi strike damage. "We have multiple ways to confirm."

There are few black-and-white situations in Afghanistan. A walk around Qalaye Niazi, for instance, makes clear that women and children were killed by the U.S. bombing--there are fragments of skull with black braided hair decorated with silver thread--an accessory common among women in this region. And in Afghan society more than many others, women have no role in the country's military or political life--they are true civilians.

But it is also evident that tons of munitions were stored here--hundreds of boxes of .50-caliber machine-gun bullets used in antitank weapons, antitank shoulder-fired missiles, crates of rocket-propelled grenades, 90-millimeter shells and mortar rounds. What was a village of about 100 people doing with all that ammunition?

Further complicating matters, many Taliban officials have melted into civilian life, and many tribal rivalries that have simmered for years have broken into the open.

"These tribal feuds have always been there--over land rights, water rights--and when the Taliban left it was a free-for-all and everyone wants a fiefdom of their own," said Amir Usman, the former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan.

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