Pentagon 'rewrites' airstrike atrocity
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The version of the official military investigation into the
disastrous May 4 airstrike in Farah province made public last week by the
Central Command was carefully edited to save the United States command in
Afghanistan the embarrassment of having to admit that earlier claims blaming
the massive civilian deaths on the "Taliban" were fraudulent.
By covering up the most damaging facts surrounding the incident, the rewritten
public version of the report succeeded in avoiding
media stories on the contradiction between the report and the previous
arguments made by the US command.
The declassified "executive summary" of the report on the bombing issued last
Friday admitted that mistakes had been made in the use of airpower in that
incident. However, it omitted key details which would have revealed the
self-serving character of the US command's previous claims blaming the
"Taliban" - the term used for all insurgents fighting US forces - for the
civilian deaths from the airstrikes.
The report reasserted the previous claim by the US command that only about 26
civilians had been killed in the US bombing on that day, despite
well-documented reports by the government and by the Afghanistan Independent
Human Rights Commission that between 97 and 147 people were killed.
The report gave no explanation for continuing to assert such a figure, and
virtually admitted that it is not a serious claim by also suggesting that the
actual number of civilian deaths in the incident "may never be known".
The report also claimed that "at least 78 Taliban fighters" were killed. The
independent human-rights organization had said in its May 26 report that at
most 25 to 30 insurgents had been killed, though not necessarily in the
A closer reading of the paragraph in the report on Taliban casualties reveals,
however, that the number does not actually refer to deaths from the airstrike
at all. The paragraph refers twice to "the engagement" as well as to "the
fighting" and "the firefight", indicating that the vast majority of the Taliban
who died were all killed in ground fighting, not by the US airstrike.
An analysis of the report's detailed descriptions of the three separate
airstrikes also shows that the details in question could not have been omitted
except by a deliberate decision to cover up the most damaging facts about the
The "executive summary" states that the decision to call in all three
airstrikes in Balabolook district on May 4 was based on two pieces of
"intelligence" available to the ground commander, an unidentified commander of
a special operations forces unit from the US Marine Corps Special Operations
One piece of intelligence is said to have been an intercepted statement by a
Taliban commander to his fighters to "mass to maneuver and re-attack" the
Afghan and US forces on the scene. The other was visual sighting of the
movement of groups of adults moving at intervals in the dark away from the
scene of the firefight with US forces.
A number of insurgents were said by the report to have been killed in a mosque
that was targeted in the first of the three strikes. The "absence of local
efforts to attempt to recover bodies from the rubble in a timely manner", the
following morning, according to the report, indicates that the bodies were all
insurgent fighters, not civilians.
But the report indicates that the airstrikes referred to as the "second B1-B
strike" and the "third B-1B strike" caused virtually all of the civilian
deaths. The report's treatment of those two strikes is notable primarily for
what it omits with regard to information on casualties rather than for what it
It indicates that the ground force commander judged the movement of a "second
large group" - again at night without clear identification of whether they were
military or civilian - indicated that they were "enemy fighters massing and
rearming to attack friendly forces" and directed the bombing of a target to
which they had moved.
The report reveals that two 1,100-kilogram bombs and two 4,400-kg bombs were
dropped on the target, not only destroying the building being targeted but
three other nearby houses as well.
In contrast to the report's claim regarding the earlier strike, the description
of the second airstrike admits that the "destruction may have resulted in
civilian casualties". Even more important, however, it says nothing about any
evidence that there were Taliban fighters killed in the strike - thus tacitly
admitting that the casualties were in fact civilians.
The third strike is also described as having been prompted by another decision
by the ground commander that a third group moving in the dark away from the
firefight was "another Taliban element". A single 4,400-kg bomb was dropped on
a building to which the group had been tracked, again heavily damaging a second
Again the report offers no evidence suggesting that there were any "Taliban"
killed in the strike, in contrast to the first airstrike.
By these signal omissions, aimed at avoiding the most damaging facts in the
incident, the report confirms that no insurgent fighters were killed in the
airstrikes which killed very large numbers of civilians. The report thus belies
a key propaganda line that the US command had maintained from the beginning -
that the Taliban had deliberately prevented people from moving from their
houses so that civilian casualties would be maximized.
As recently as June 3, the spokesperson for the US command in Afghanistan,
Lieutenant Commander Christine Sidenstricker, was still telling the website
Danger Room that "civilians were killed because the Taliban deliberately caused
it to happen" and that the "Taliban" had "forced civilians to remain in places
they were attacking from".
The central contradiction between the report and the US military's "human
shields" argument was allowed to pass unnoticed in the extremely low-key news
media coverage of the report.
News coverage of the report has focused either on the official estimate of only
26 civilian deaths and the much larger number of Taliban casualties or on the
absence of blame on the part of US military personnel found by the
The Associated Press reported that the United States had "accidentally killed
an estimated 26 Afghan civilians last month when a warplane did not strictly
adhere to rules for bombing".
The New York Times led with the fact that the investigation had called for
"additional training" of US air crews and ground forces but did hold any
personnel "culpable" for failing to follow the existing rules of engagement.
None of the news media reporting on the highly expurgated version of the
investigation pointed out that it had confirmed, in effect, the version of the
event that had been put forward by residents of the bombed villages.
As reported by the New York Times on May 6, one of the residents interviewed by
phone said six houses had been completely destroyed and that the victims of the
bombing "were rushing to go to their relative's houses where they believed they
would be safe, but they were hit on the way".
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.