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Afghans describe relatives' deaths in recent U.S. drone strike

Residents of a village in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province say a Sept. 7 attack killed 14 civilians, most of them their relatives. The U.S. says 11 were killed, mostly Taliban fighters.

December 01, 2013|By David Zucchino
  • Abdul Ghafar, left, and Rahmat Gul, who both lost relatives in a U.S. drone attack in their Afghan village Sept. 7, watch as a U.S. drone flies over the city of Jalalabad.
Abdul Ghafar, left, and Rahmat Gul, who both lost relatives in a U.S. drone… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Miya Jan was filling potholes on the rutted trail that leads to his village in rugged eastern Afghanistan when he heard the whine of a drone aircraft overhead.

The sunburned 28-year-old farmer looked up and saw a gray, narrow-winged drone circling the village. A few minutes later, he said, it fired a missile that landed with a tremendous thud across a stony ridge line.

Jan ran to the explosion site and recognized the burning frame of his cousin's blue pickup truck. Inside, he said, he saw blackened shapes — people whose torsos had been sheared off. He recognized the smoking remains of his brother, his brother's wife and their 18-month-old son. Jan and other villagers say 14 people were killed in the attack; U.S. and Afghan officials place the toll at 11.

"There were pieces of my family all over the road," said Jan, recalling the deadly Sept. 7 late afternoon incident in an interview last week. "I picked up those pieces from the road and from the truck and wrapped them in a sheet to bury them.

"Do the American people want to spend their money this way, on drones that kill our women and children?" he asked.

The repercussions of such strikes are felt far beyond the dark escarpments of Kunar province. The grief and rage of Jan and his relatives help explain the approval among some Afghans of President Hamid Karzai's thus far non-negotiable demand that civilian casualties cease if he is to sign a proposed 10-year security agreement with the United States.

Karzai responded to the Kunar attack by accusing the United States of recklessness and callous disregard for innocent Afghans. After a child died in a drone strike Thursday in southern Afghanistan, Karzai suggested that the attack had ended any chance of an accord.

Civilian deaths at the hands of U.S. forces have long poisoned Karzai's relationship with the United States. That antagonism has hardened this month into a vise that could abruptly end America's 12-year, multibillion-dollar investment in Afghanistan, despite a decline in civilian casualties due to new safeguards by foreign forces.

Civilian deaths in neighboring Pakistan for which the CIA's covert drone program there has been blamed have elicited far more publicity than drone operations by the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Many Americans are not aware that dozens of armed drones fly over Afghanistan every day, part of the U.S.-led NATO coalition's 300 to 350 daily aircraft sorties.

The missile that turned the pickup truck into an inferno is symbolic of the mistrust between Karzai and his erstwhile American patrons. As is often the case, the identities of the victims are shrouded in doubt in a nation where the difference between an insurgent and a civilian is measured in degrees.

In cases such as Thursday's airstrike, both insurgents and civilians were said to be killed. The U.S. military typically responds by promising an investigation. Meanwhile, Karzai fans outrage with blistering denunciations of U.S. motives.

After the Sept. 7 attack in the village of Ganbir, the coalition initially said the airstrike killed "10 enemy forces" and emphasized that there were "no signs of civilians in the vicinity."

On Saturday, Col. Jane Crichton, director of public affairs for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, said a preliminary investigation had found that although the airstrike killed eight insurgents, "there were, unfortunately, believed to be three civilian casualties," for which the ISAF expressed "deep regret."

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Ken Wilsbach, who commands air operations in Afghanistan, said, "Our goal is to eradicate civilian casualties, but that is an incredibly difficult task when the enemy is intermixed with the civilian population. We're here to help the Afghan population, and there is absolutely zero intent to harm civilians."

ISAF commanders often point out that the Taliban, according to the United Nations and other independent observers, are responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths. Yet Karzai rarely condemns Taliban attacks that kill civilians, and certainly not as vociferously as when civilians are killed by coalition forces.

On Friday, the Karzai-appointed governor of Kunar told The Times that four women, four children and three civilian men were killed in the Sept. 7 strike. But Gov. Shuja ul Mulk Jalala also said he was told by the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's CIA, that three of the victims were suspected Taliban fighters.

"Let me tell you, about 70% of the people in that area, especially in Ganbir village, are Taliban," Jalala said. "The mullahs and the praying people are all Taliban."

Four men from the village said in detailed interviews last week that everyone in the pickup was a civilian, all but four from their two extended families. They said the truck picked up four villagers as it returned from taking Jan's sister-in-law to Kabul for medical treatment.

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