A New Nadir in Tribal Relations*

by Joshua Foust on 9/15/2008 · 5 comments

One of the more confusing aspects of the air strike at Azizabad (a name that is disturbingly close to an official cable news hype-the-scandal animated graphic) is the snippets of evidence that the compound hit, and the men killed inside, despite being written off as Taliban militants, had badges to work at the nearby U.S. base. Locals had even complained of this, saying that the tragedy was not just that innocent people died but that the U.S. killed one of its own collaborators.

Now Hamid Karzai’s spokesman is claiming that is exactly what happened, and that not a single Taliban fighter was killed in the strike.

The operation, conducted by U.S. Special Forces and Afghan soldiers, targeted Afghan employees of a British security firm and their family members — the reason the U.S. military recovered weapons after the battle, Hamidzada said.

The U.S. has said its forces were fired on first during a raid that targeted and killed a known militant commander named Mullah Sidiq. But villagers say their homes were targeted because of false information provided by a rival tribesman named Nader Tawakil.

An Afghan parliamentarian has said Tawakil is in the protective custody of U.S. forces. The coalition has declined to comment.

“How the information was gathered, how it was misfed, and their personal animosity led to trying to use the international forces for their own political disputes, which led to a disastrous event and caused a strain on the relationship of the Afghan government and international forces,” Hamidzada said.

“Not a single Talib was killed,” he added. “So it was a total disaster, and it made it even worse when there were denials, total denials.”

The U.S. at first said that 30 militants and no civilians were killed. A formal military investigation found that the operation killed up to 35 militants and seven civilians.

But after video images showing at least 10 dead children and up to 40 other dead villagers surfaced last week, the U.S. said it would send a one-star general from the United States to investigate the strike.

Christian, though subtly poking people like me who focus on the communications aspect of this incident, raises a vital point:

Many of them may lack a formal education, they may even be illiterate. They may have never been outside of Afghanistan, save perhaps some time spent in a refugee camp in Pakistan or Iran. They may remain silent, saying little or nothing at all. They may feign ignorance. They might just concur with everything that you say. They might not even be visible, instead operating through proxies.

But never assume that you are smarter than anyone in this country. Your education does not count for much here. The social cues you are accustomed to watch for are very different here. There have been cases of “simple villagers and peasants” deceiving anthropologists who lived amongst them for as long as a year. Comparatively speaking, a US Army officer is easy “prey” for deception by men such as Nadir Tawakal.

He posts an al-Jazeera segment of the site, in which the claim is repeated.

It is worth repeating that this still doesn’t mean 90 innocents died there. In all likelihood, the U.S. counted or estimated the number of dead pretty accurately, it just got their identity wrong. Which is still a big deal, but it’s not nearly the scale that Karzai’s shills are screaming about.

In case you didn’t already groan and roll your eyes, I officially apologize for the pun.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 5 comments }

Christian September 15, 2008 at 8:15 pm

Its more that I was thanking people like you for discussing the communications aspect of this incident so that I don’t have to.

Anyways, massive blogger feud starts now. ;)

Joshua Foust September 15, 2008 at 8:30 pm

The feud begins… NOW.

kao_hsien_chih September 15, 2008 at 10:42 pm

Well, seriously, though…whoever the dead “really” are, it wouldn’t really matter much. As far as many Afghans–and many others in Pakistan and elsewhere–are concerned, they are innocent villagers–and no amount of evidence will convince them otherwise. Knowing this, is there a good option from the US side? If US does not acknowledge the deaths at all, that’s bad. If US does acknowledge the deaths but insists that they are militants–which may or may not be true–that’ll seem like blatant lying to the audiences in the region. If US does acknowledge that they may be innocent civilians, then US looks incompetent at best or malicious and murderous at worst. Still, I tend to think the 3rd is probably the best of all options. Apologies, whether the dead “really” deserve it or not, don’t cost much. If they were indeed militants, they are still dead, whether one apologizes or not.

Helena Cobban September 16, 2008 at 1:16 pm

I agree with Kao that when you kill people expressing condolence to those thereby bereaved and apologies for the deaths is NEVER inappropriate. Much better than continuing in heartless denial…

At a broader level, though, regardless of the ‘ground truth’ of what happened in Azizabad, the fact that Karzai’s people are claiming the victims as their loyalists means that the incident both reveals and exacerbates an extremely serious political problem for the US military in Afghanistan.

(And regarding the ‘ground truth’, couldn’t someone get another read-out on this from the British mercenary company involved?)

fnord September 17, 2008 at 1:56 am

It seems Mullen is on the case, at least: http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/world/international-pakistan-usa.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

Also, new groundrules for NATO came into place yesterday as well: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/17/world/asia/17gates.html?ref=asia

Patrick Lang reported that the Pakistanis held all NATO resupply convoys as hostages a couple of days ago, causing the NATO to fork up 230 mill in unpaid roadtolls. (What is it with the US and the inability to pay bills on time, anyway?) So there may have been yet another interesting powerplay going on in the court of the pasha, sorry, the US administration.

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