The U.S. says a recent midnight raid in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad killed a Taliban operative. Afghans say the botched attack killed only civilians. It's the latest incident to highlight the key issue of civilian casualties and contribute to Afghan distrust of U.S. forces.
U.S. and Afghan forces staged a midnight raid May 14 on a farmhouse near the eastern city of Jalalabad, killing nine military-aged males. Looking back at the operation, those facts are about all that the Americans and the Afghans agree on.
U.S. officials say they killed a Taliban operative after days of surveillance and shot only armed men. Afghan eyewitnesses say it was a botched raid that killed only civilians, and just another reason why the U.S. is losing a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.
Raifudin Kushkaki's farmhouse lies just south of Jalalabad. Acres of fields with mountains in the distance surround the complex of mud-brick houses where about 40 people live and work the land. The serenity is deceptive.
Afghans Allege Innocents Killed
On a recent day, Kushkaki climbs up a shaky bamboo ladder to show visitors the spent rifle shells on his roof, left there when U.S. soldiers surrounded his house, climbed up the thick courtyard walls, and Kushkaki says, shot nine people.
It happened at 1 a.m., and Kushkaki was asleep until the shooting started. But he reconstructs what he thinks happened: The Americans on the roof attracted attention from two drivers sleeping outside the courtyard. Fearing thieves, the drivers may have fired their guns and were shot by the Americans. Then Kushkaki's brother woke and stepped out into the courtyard where bullets felled him as well. And then, Kushkaki's 16-year-old son Habibudin, his eldest, went out toward the front gate.
Kushkaki points out the broken door where Habibudin fell as American soldiers blasted open the lock. There is blood on the wooden threshold and more in the courtyard where Kushkaki says he heard his son shouting. And inside the bedroom there is a dark stain on the carpet where Habibudin bled as the shooting continued outside.
This is my son's room, says Kashkaki. Pointing out a computer and an English textbook, he asks, does this look like a Talib's room?
Kuskaki goes on to tell a familiar tale: He says that Americans were looking for a Taliban commander from nearby Logar province named Shamsudin. Instead, they came here and killed a farmer's son named Shamsurahman.
Kushkaki says he called the police but the Americans didn't let them enter as the special forces went room by room, confiscating several pistols and rifles -- normal household items here. It was dawn when the helicopters came and the American soldiers left, taking one of Kushkaki's surviving brothers along to be interrogated.
"All my family in the states," Kushkaki says, crying in frustration that his family is modern and has no ties to the insurgency, and that foreign forces got it wrong and killed nine innocents.
U.S.: Insurgents 'Chose To Fight Their Way Out'
The Americans describe a completely different event.
Col. Wayne Shanks is a spokesman for international forces.
"Our forces, with the Afghan forces, called into the compound and said, 'Come out, we known you're in there, come out,' and they chose to fight their way out," he says.
Shanks says that American forces, with Afghan soldiers and interpreters, surrounded the house. He says they used bullhorns to let everyone know who they were and the man they wanted to arrest.
"Our reporting says they made multiple call-outs without success, and that the insurgents inside the building fired on our forces, [which] fired back," Shanks says.
Everyone who died in the raid was attacking the coalition soldiers, he says. And there was no mistaken identity, no misleading tips: Using high-tech surveillance, the Americans had monitored Shamsudin for three days, and they say he was planning rocket attacks on coalition forces. Americans photographed weapons they say came from the farmhouse, including a sophisticated sighting tool for launching mortars as well as ammunition vests.
Civilian Casualties A Public Relations Challenge
But that information wasn't enough to convince local Afghans. The next day, residents protested and clashed with Afghan police. Tribal elders denounced the American practice of raiding homes at night. After nearly nine years, Afghans don't trust the official story, says Jonathan Horowitz, a human rights researcher in Kabul.
"With the history of civilian casualties and wrongful detention linked up to night raids, international forces don't have the benefit of the doubt anymore to distribute facts and for them to be received as the gospel," he says.
American and NATO forces are acutely aware of their public relations challenge. The civilian casualty issue is seen as pivotal in the contest for public support between the Taliban and the American-backed government. Horowitz says that the coalition needs to offer more than the explanation of raiding Afghan homes at night and then killing the residents in self-defense. He points to another raid in February, where women and children died, and coalition forces initially denied any wrongdoing.
"The investigations that take place usually aren't transparent; it's unclear how robust they are. Latest incident of a seriously botched night raid that happened in Gardez in February, it really appears that the more serious investigation took place only after the media and human rights groups had brought attention into the public," Horowitz says.
Clearing Up Misperceptions
The U.S. military later accepted that mistakes had led to the civilian deaths in February. But equally, the Americans are eager to improve what they think is a misperception about their work and methods. Two senior officials with the special operations task force that directed the raid on Kashkaki's house briefed NPR extensively
They said between April 2009 and April 2010, the task force carried out 946 raids. They said targets are tracked by technical means in addition to human sources. Four out of five times, when they surround a house and call out on the bull horn, the suspect comes out without a shot fired. Afghan authorities are briefed on every raid, they said.
In a recent seven-week period, nine members of the special operations task force have died in the line of fire, the officials said. But they say they are confident that the night raids have effectively stopped insurgents from killing Afghans and coalition forces. Civilians died in less than 2 percent of the raids, the senior officials said, and that was sometimes in crossfire with insurgents.
As for the raid on Kashkaki's house, they said the target, Shamsudin, was positively identified at the site, and that the radios and mortar sighting equipment found at the house had no civilian use. The officials said they were fired upon first and returned fire.
Regarding 16-year-old Habibudin, who bled to death, the officials said they believed he had a weapon in his hand, but they could not say for certain. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.