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U.S. night raid harms Afghans' trust

Last month's strike left five civilians dead and dealt a blow to coalition efforts to win public confidence.

January 21, 2007|Jason Straziuso | Associated Press Writer

DARNAMI, AFGHANISTAN — When blasts of gunfire woke Mohammad Shafik at 1 a.m., he was sure the attackers were Taliban or Al Qaeda, out to punish his family for its close ties with the Afghan government.

Huddled with nine close relatives in their mud-brick compound in eastern Khost province, he heard a man with an accent from the southern city of Kandahar -- the Taliban's former stronghold -- order them to step into the icy winter night.

"Come out and be safe," the man said.

Shafik's father, Mohammad Jan, an official with the Agriculture Ministry, grabbed a gun.

"I told my father, 'Don't go out, it's Al Qaeda ,' " Shafik, 23, said. "When he opened the door the shooting started. Bullets flew in through the windows and doors. I could hear in my father's voice that he was injured."

Shafik's 13-year-old sister, Khadijah, rushed to her father's aid, but just then an explosion blasted open the door, fatally wounding her. The father lay bleeding in the cold for hours. He was eventually evacuated but later died.

The family learned too late that the assailants weren't militants hunting supporters of President Hamid Karzai's government, but the U.S. military.

By the time the Dec. 12 raid on Darnami village was over, five civilians lay dead, including two men killed while running to repel what they thought was a Taliban attack. Each side had mistaken the other for the enemy, and another setback had been dealt to efforts to win public confidence as Taliban and Al Qaeda militants bounce back from their defeat by U.S.-led forces in 2001.

The dozens of U.S. soldiers in night-vision goggles who swarmed the area were acting on "reliable intelligence" that a terrorist subcommander, implicated in attacks at checkpoints along the Pakistan border, was inside, U.S.-led coalition spokesman Col. Tom Collins said.

But the intelligence appears to have been wrong. No terrorist was found, and no incriminating evidence. A month later the compound still bears the scars of the raid: bullet holes punched through mud walls, gaping openings where doors were blasted open.

The raid was "a mess-up," said provincial Gov. Arsallah Jamal.

Of the five brothers living in the compound, four worked for the government, "and there is little reason to suspect them of being anti-government elements," he told the Associated Press.

"In 4 1/2 years we have accomplished a lot and should not open doors to the enemy," Jamal said. "This kind of operation is a serious setback."

And not the first.

2006 saw a spike in violence in which 4,000 people died, more than 600 of them civilians killed by NATO or U.S. military action, according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Going back as far as 2002, Karzai has publicly and repeatedly accused the U.S. of heavy-handedness in its counterterrorism operations. Last month the civilian death toll reduced him to tears in a public speech. The U.S. has said over the years that it has modified tactics to cut down on civilian deaths, but the toll has only grown as fighting has intensified.

Last year the Taliban also killed many civilians as it mounted a record number of suicide bombings and engaged thousands of U.S. and NATO forces sent into the militia's former southern strongholds for the first time.

NATO forces are sworn to defend Afghanistan security and development, but they are overstretched and often resort to airstrikes on residential compounds where militants are thought to be hiding.

The alliance acknowledges that too many civilians died last year, and promises remedial action. That promise is sure to be tested in the spring when a renewed Taliban offensive is expected.

The U.S. military described the Darnami raid as a joint coalition-Afghan operation, part of an effort to build the capabilities of the country's fledgling police and army. Family members say the soldiers were overwhelmingly American.

The governor pleaded for the U.S. to seek Afghan assistance before launching nighttime raids.

"This is our land. I've been asking with greater force, 'Let us sit together, we know our Afghan brothers, we know our culture better,' " Jamal said. "With these operations we should not create more enemies. We are in a position to reduce mistakes."

The Darnami raid gives graphic insight into such mistakes.

As Shafik and his family were hiding in their bathroom, on the other side of the compound, Shafik's uncles also believed they were facing a Taliban attack.

One uncle, Afisullah, the director of the local municipality, says he grabbed a gun and fired three shots as a warning to other villagers. Sahebdine, 70, and his son, Taher Khan, 30, ran to the rescue with guns in hand, acting on a recent government appeal to act as neighborhood watches against the Taliban. They were killed.

One mud house over, another uncle, Safaras Jan, an official with Afghanistan's intelligence service, stepped outdoors, also with gun in hand, and was immediately killed by a bullet to the head.

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