Afghan probe excluded key witnesses By Gareth Porter and Ahmad Walid Fazly
WASHINGTON - A follow-up investigation ordered by General Stanley McChrystal in
early April of a botched Special Operations Forces (SOF) raid in Gardez, in
Afghanistan's eastern Paktia province, on February 12 was ostensibly aimed at
reconciling divergent Afghan and United States accounts of what happened during
and after the raid, in which two government officials and three women were
That implied that the US investigators would finally do what they had failed to
do in an earlier investigation - interview the eyewitnesses. But three
eyewitnesses who had claimed to see US troops digging bullets of the bodies of
three women told Inter Press Service (IPS) they were never contacted by US
The failure to interview key eyewitnesses, along with the refusal to
make public any of the investigation's findings, continued a pattern of
behavior by McChrystal's command of denying that the SOF unit had begun a
cover-up of the killings immediately after the raid.
Both the original report of the US investigation and an initial North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO) report on the February 12 night raid in Gardez
remain classified, according to Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale, the officer
who was spokesman for McChrystal on the issue before the general was relieved
of his command on June 23.
Casting further doubt on the integrity of the investigation, the officer who
carried out the follow-up investigation was under McChrystal's direct command
after completing the investigation.
As a member of the SOF community who had promoted night raids as a privileged
tactic in his strategy in Afghanistan, McChrystal had an obvious personal and
political interest in keeping evidence of an SOF cover-up of the killings out
of any official US report on the Gardez raid. Even while claiming that he could
not reveal anything about the conclusions of the report, Breasseale told IPS,
"Based on the findings of this investigation, I can reaffirm what I wrote on
April 5 - there is no evidence of a cover-up."
Breasseale had said in an e-mail to IPS before McChrystal was relieved of
command last month that "many" survivors of the raid were interviewed,
"depending on whether they were available to speak to the investigating
But the father and mother of an 18-year-old girl who died from wounds inflicted
by the raiders and the brother of a police officer and a prosecutor killed in
the raid all said in interviews with IPS last week that they had never been
contacted by US investigators about what they had seen that night. All three
gave testimony to the Afghan investigators.
In an interview with IPS, Mohammed Tahir, the father of Gulalai, the 18-year
old girl who was killed in the raid, said, "I saw them taking out the bullets
from bodies of my daughter and others." Tahir said that he and as many as seven
other eyewitnesses had told interior ministry investigators about the attempted
cover up they had seen. But he insisted, "We have never been interviewed by the
Mohammed Saber, the brother of the two men killed in the raid - Commander
Dawood, the head of intelligence for a district in Paktia province, and
Saranwal Zahir, a prosecutor - said he had not been interviewed by any US
investigator either. Saber told IPS, "The Americans were taking out the bullets
from the bodies of the dead with knives and with other equipment that they
Saber said the US soldiers refused to let relatives go to help the victims as
they lay bleeding to death. Saber said he and other eyewitnesses were taken to
a US base and detained for three nights and four days.
Sabz Paree, the 18-year-old woman's mother, also denied being interviewed by US
investigators. "I saw everything," she told IPS. "The Americans had knives and
were taking out the bullets from her."
In response to a request for comment on the denials by the three family members
that they or other eyewitnesses had been interviewed by the US investigator,
Breasseale wrote in an e-mail, "All available family members who offered
themselves up to take part in the investigator's questions when he was there
were interviewed during his visit[s]."
Breasseale said the name of the army colonel in charge of the investigation
would not be made public for reasons of "privacy". He acknowledged in an e-mail
before McChrystal was relieved of duty, however, that the officer was under
McChrystal's "operational control", although he was not at the time he was
appointed and during the investigation.
The target of the raid was a young man who had been at a celebration at the
compound but he was not detained, according to Mohammed Saber, who was shown
pictures of the target while being held in detention for four days. The man
turned himself in for questioning a few days later but was then released
without charge, according to Saber.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the combined US-NATO
command then headed by McChrystal, issued a statement within hours of the
February 12 raid declaring that the two men who died in the raid were
"insurgents" who had fired on the raiding party, and that the troops had found
the bodies of three women "tied up, gagged and killed" and hidden in a room.
Military officials later suggested that the women - who among them had 16
children - had all been stabbed to death or had died by other means before the
The officials told reporters the bodies had shown signs of puncture and
slashing wounds from a knife - a claim that appears to support the eyewitness
accounts by family members of the use of knives by SOF members to dig bullets
out of the dead bodies.
The New York Times quoted a family member, Abdul Ghafar, as recalling that he
had seen bullet entry wounds on the bodies of the three dead women that
appeared to have been scraped out to remove bullets. "The holes were bigger
than they were supposed to be," Gafar was quoted as saying.
When Jerome Starkey of The Times of London reported on March 13 that more than
a dozen people interviewed at or near the scene of the attack had said the
three women were killed by the US-NATO gunmen, McChrystal's spokesman, Rear
Admiral Gregory Smith, tried to challenge the accuracy of Starkey's reporting.
On April 4, ISAF admitted for the first time that the woman had been killed as
a result of the SOF raiders firing on the two men.
However, the ISAF statement suggested that the US and Afghan investigators had
conducted a "thorough joint investigation" and maintained that there was no
evidence of a cover up. It explained the earlier statement about the women
being found bound and gagged as the result of "an initial report by the
international members of the joint force who were not familiar with Islamic
But the head of the Afghan Interior Ministry's Criminal Investigation
Department, Mirza Mohammed Yarmand, publicly contradicted the ISAF statement,
telling the New York Times on April 4 that his investigators had taken
eyewitness accounts from survivors of tampering with the bodies of the dead.
Yarmand told the New York Times that his investigation had concluded that
"there was evidence of tampering in the corridor inside the compound by the
members" of the SOF raiding unit.
Within 24 hours of the publication of Yarmand's revelations, McChrystal's
spokesman was telling reporters that McChrystal had ordered a new US
investigation, even as he was continuing to deny that there was any evidence of
SOF tampering with the evidence.
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. Ahmad Walid Fazly reported from Kabul.