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Local Probe Challenges U.S. Military Account of Killings in Afghanistan

The U.S. military insists forces stormed a militant stronghold in Kunduz. But locals, including the mayor, strongly dispute this version of events.
 
 
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Kunduz -- An IWPR investigation has challenged the American military's account of a recent raid by its forces on a town close to the border with Tajikistan, in which a number of men were either killed or taken away for questioning.

Over the past few weeks, local and international media reports have speculated about the motive for the March 22 dawn attack on Imam Sahib and the identity of those killed and detained.

The United States military has insisted that its forces stormed what it describes as a militant stronghold in Kunduz. It claims the troops battled insurgents, killing five and detaining four. But an IWPR probe, based on extensive interviews with local people, questions key aspects of the U.S. army's version of events.

The principal IWPR findings suggest the five men killed had no connection with extremists and cast doubt on the American claim that the victims had opened fire on the troops. Reporters' inquiries indicate that only one of those killed owned a weapon and that two were asleep when they were shot.

It was the middle of the night, about 3:30 am, when the two Chinook helicopters landed in Imam Sahib, residents told IWPR, and approximately 60 soldiers zeroed in on a compound belonging to the mayor of the town, Sufi Abdul Manan. They blew in the gate, and then, equipped with night-vision goggles and guns with silencers, advanced into the courtyard and surrounded a guesthouse where visitors to the town often stayed, locals claim.

"I was awoken by the sound of these large helicopters and saw Americans approaching the gate of the guesthouse," said the owner of a fuel station nearby. "They had things on their helmets. I hid, so I could not be seen. I heard a sound from shots -- like a 'phhht-phhhht'."

A baker in an adjoining compound said, "I could not see anything, but I heard a big bang, I think it was the Americans blowing up the gate."

Townsfolk say there were nine men in the guesthouse that night. Judging by the position of the bodies, seen by an IWPR reporter in an amateur video shot by a local right after the incident, the soldiers shot two men as they lay sleeping in their beds: Hassan Jan and Almed Imam.

Residents say the former made tea for guests and enjoyed listening to his music in the garden; while the latter, a long-time resident of the guesthouse, did some cleaning and washed vehicles parked inside the compound.

The soldiers also shot the mayor's driver Obaidullah, who -- from the video evidence -- appeared to be trying to run away, and the mayor's bodyguard, Nasrullah, along with his cousin Naqibullah, who had been living in the guesthouse for several weeks while he looked for a job in Imam Sahib, locals say.

They insist Nasrullah was the only one of the victims to possess a gun -- his Kalashnikov was registered with the local authorities and was used to protect the mayor.

"We were in a room near the courtyard of the guesthouse, and we could hear the shots -- those 'phhht' sounds of guns with silencers," said the mayor. "We could hear Nasrullah, my bodyguard, who was probably standing in front of the gate to our house. He was begging the Americans not to enter, he kept saying 'there are women and children there.' Then there was another shot, and we did not hear Nasrullah any more."

The mayor said the troops then left.

He maintained that he had no knowledge of four guests taken away by the troops for questioning. He said the guesthouse was often used by travellers, since there is no hotel in Imam Sahib.

"But even if those guests were terrorists, the Americans could have simply surrounded the house and knocked on the door. Why did they have to kill five innocent people?" he said.

At 4:30, residents say the soldiers were airlifted out, carrying, or dragging, the four prisoners. A short time later, locals entered the compound and found the bodies, some of them barely recognizable. They say all of the rooms around the courtyard had been searched, car windows had been smashed, but nothing was missing except for Nasrullah's Kalashnikov and the four guests taken away by the soldiers.

The identity of the four men who were taken away is unknown -- no one in Imam Sahib is missing any friend or relative. All those who had seen them were dead.

Dr. Amir Barakzai, an Afghan-German agrarian scientist who works for Deutscher Entwicklungsdienst, a German development agency operating in Kunduz, visited the area the day before the attack.

"I knew all five [dead] people very well, because I stayed in the guesthouse for two and a half months when I came back to Imam Sahib from Germany," he said. "There is no hotel in Imam Sahib, so everybody stays there. Four of the men had been working there for years -- the tea cook, the driver, the bodyguard, and someone who was always washing cars. The fifth man was the cousin of the bodyguard."

The U.S. military rejects any suggestion that the men who were killed in the early morning of March 22 were anything other than dangerous militants.

"We stand by our information and the report that the individuals killed were armed militants," said Colonel Greg Julian, spokesperson for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, responding to queries from IWPR. "The Coalition force used multiple sources of intelligence to confirm the presence of the targeted individual.

"The force surrounded the target building and called out to the occupants to come out unarmed -- when five individuals began firing on the Coalition force, they assaulted the building and killed them. They were armed combatants, not civilians."

Locals insist they heard no loud gunfire, only the sounds of the U.S. soldiers' silenced firearms.

Julian said the U.S. troops "detained four individuals whom they are now obtaining information from. Further details are not releasable at this time".

The spokesman could give no further information on the identity of the "targeted individual", nor could he either confirm or deny reports that the U.S. soldiers involved in the attack were part of an elite unit tasked with the search for Osama bin Laden.

"Unfortunately, the answers to your questions are not releasable," said Julian.

He went on to reject reports that the guesthouse was a common stopping-off place for travellers. "The presence of unknown foreigners as guests of the mayor should raise some serious questions," he said. "As well as the drug connections."

Drugs were something that had been mentioned only tangentially in reports about Imam Sahib. The German news magazine Der Spiegel quoted unnamed intelligence sources as saying that the U.S. military had been "tricked" into disposing of a rival drug lord.

While this information remains conjectural, such failures of reconnaissance are common in Afghanistan, and often result in catastrophic mistakes. In July 2008, international forces dropped bombs on a wedding party in the eastern province of Nangarhar, killing 47 people including the bride. They were acting on information that a gathering of insurgents was in progress.

One month later, they again targeted suspected militants in Azizabad, hitting a funeral service instead. According to the United Nations, the Afghan government and numerous media investigations, over 90 civilians were killed, including women and children.

While insisting that the men killed and apprehended were terrorists, not drug traffickers, Julian insisted that there was little distinction between the two.

"The linkage between narcotics trafficking and the insurgency is a security and force protection threat and, therefore, a legitimate target," he said. "New guidance from NATO directs [the International Security and Assistance Force] to support the Government of Afghanistan in taking action against drug labs and traffickers supporting the insurgents. Although, in this case, they were targeting a terrorist network."

But the residents of Imam Sahib reject this version completely. They told IWPR that those killed were all well-known in the small community and were quite sure that they were not part of any insurgent groups. Locals say the mayor himself has a reputation as a fierce opponent of the Taliban, who are rarely seen in the area.

The mayor has called for an investigation. So too has the interior ministry in Kabul

Such raids have created tensions in relations between Afghanistan and the U.S., and have resulted in the NATO command issuing new directives on dealing with situations where civilians might be present.

But U.S. special forces have often disregarded NATO strictures, operating under a separate command structure. The events in Kunduz may have already done severe damage to relations between the local residents and the foreign community. Germany heads the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kunduz, and has long prided itself on using development and diplomacy to build trust with the local population.

According to one western diplomat, speaking privately, "This type of incident puts us all in a very difficult position. We work for many months to build relationships, and then it is all undone by something like this."

A U.S. soldier who worked in Kapisa province, north of Kabul, agreed.

"I was in Tagab district, having some success with the local residents," he said, speaking privately. "They can sense your attitude, they know whether or not you respect them. But the special forces came in and in one night undid all our good work. I want to go home to my family, but I want my time here to mean something."

The residents of Imam Sahib, still mourning their dead, are determined to get the truth about the raid.

"We don't want revenge," said the mayor. "We just want an honest investigation into why these five completely innocent men were killed."

But others are not quite as generous.

"When we used to hear these stories of civilians killed by U.S. forces and villages bombed in the south, we always thought it was Taliban propaganda," said an elderly, well-dressed man near Imam Sahib's central mosque, where he had just attended a memorial service for the dead.

"But now we know that it is all true!"