Newly Released Documents Show Pentagon Whitewash of U.S. Killing and Mutilation of Afghan Family in 2010
More than six years after a notorious night raid gone wrong by U.S. Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan, Pentagon documents shed new light on the event including the determination that mutilating the bodies of dead pregnant women was an “appropriate use of force,” according to a new report in the Intercept by Jeremy Scahill.
Scahill had previously written about the February 2010 night raid near Gardez in Paktia Province in his 2014 book, Dirty Wars. Seven civilians were killed, including two pregnant women, and troops used knives to remove bullets from their bodies after the shooting. The victims were all members of a family that opposed the Taliban and had worked with U.S. forces to build up the Afghan police and judicial system.
However, a trove of Pentagon documents released in late April showed how the military initially fabricated a story for press consumption about what happened, was reluctant to investigate when challenged by press reports with other witness accounts, and finally attributed the mistakes and atrocities committed to “tactical errors.”
“Although two children were shot during the raid and multiple witnesses and Afghan investigators alleged that U.S. soldiers dug bullets out of the body of at least one of the dead pregnant women, Defense Department investigators concluded that ‘the amount of force utilized was necessary, proportional and applied at appropriate time,’” Scahill wrote. “The investigation did acknowledge that ‘tactical mistakes’ were made.”
Scahill noted the handling and explanations given echoed the findings by U.S. Central Command after last fall's mistaken attack on a Doctors Without Borders-run hospital where 42 patients and medical workers died.
The Night Raid
The 2010 attack on the family compound of Mohammed Daoud Sharabuddin, a police officer who had been promoted and who had trained with U.S. forces, began with bad intelligence that he had been working with the Taliban. In fact, the opposite was true; Daoud’s home was filled with photographs of himself with America soldiers. When the attack began at 3:30am, the policeman and his teenage son went outside to see what was happening, thinking it was a Taliban attack. “Both were immediately hit with sniper fire,” Scahill wrote.
Other adults in the family, awakened by the raid, rushed out to help the stricken and were also shot and killed. As the survivors started preparing burial shrouds for victims, the Special Operations troops came into the compound and started separating the men and women. Some men were arrested and taken away for questioning by military interrogators.
“Several of the male family members told me that it was around this time that they witnessed a horrifying scene: U.S. soldiers digging the bullets out of the women’s bodies,” wrote Scahill, who went to the village in 2010 to talk to family members and witnesses. “I asked him bluntly, ‘You saw Americans digging the bullets out of the women’s bodies?’ Without hesitation, he said, ‘Yes.’”
The raid was initially portrayed by a U.S. military press release as a heroic attack against the Taliban and included a detail that led reporters to take a second look. “A press release by NATO in Afghanistan soon after the raid asserted that a joint Afghan-international operation had made a ‘gruesome discovery,’” Scahill wrote. The military said, “The Americans killed the insurgents and were securing the area when they made their discovery: three women who had been ‘bound and gagged’ and then executed inside the compound." Later, "a 'senior U.S. military official' told CNN that the bodies had 'the earmarks of a traditional honor killing.'”
Scahill said that last assertion was so outrageous that other reporters, like Jerome Starkey, who is British, started investigating. His reports, “which first uncovered the horrifying detail of what happened that night, forced NATO and the U.S. military to abandon the honor killings cover story,” Scahill wrote. “A half-hearted official investigation ensued.”
The Pentagon’s investigators, as revealed in the documents, initially did not want to go to the crime scene and talk to surviving family members, but instead forced them to travel to a U.S. base to be questioned. These include some of the same men U.S. troops had arrested the night of the attack and were questioned as suspected Taliban.
The Pentagon’s documents, though filled with redactions, were revealing, Scahill said, because they are filled with statements whitewashing operations like this, such as, “Coalition Forces take every precaution to ensure noncombatant civilians are protected from possible hostilities during the course of every operation.”
The documents are also notable in what they do not publicly address, he said, such as the mutilation of the dead women’s bodies. “The sections of the investigation addressing this allegation were almost entirely redacted,” he wrote, although one document said, “the detainee [arrested relatives] reports corroborate that the women died when they tried to stop Zahir (one of the men killed) from exiting the building.”
The Pentagon documents also assert there was no attempted coverup of the operation’s mistakes and atrocities.
“‘This investigation found no attempt to hide or cover up the circumstances of the local national women’s deaths,’ the executive summary of the investigation concluded,” he wrote. The official report also said, “The ground force was confused by the unfamiliar sight of the women prepared so quickly for burial and firmly believed that they did not kill the three women.”
“It is undeniable that five innocent people were killed and two innocent men were wounded in the conduct of this operation,” the Pentagon report said. “To simply call this ‘regrettable’ would be callous; it is much more than that. However, the unique chain of events that led to their deaths is explicable.”
Thus, as Scahill noted, “In the end, the investigation determined that American forces had followed the rules of engagement and standard operating procedures during the raid, concluding only that there were ‘tactical mistakes made.’ The investigation recommended that the coalition forces ‘make an appropriate condolence payment to the family as a sign of good faith in our sincerity at the seriousness of the incident.’”
Scahill’s own reporting, when he interviewed family members soon after the 2010 attack, revealed what prompted the nighttime raid. “‘We told them [American and Afghan interrogators] truthfully that there were not Taliban in our home.’ One of the Americans, he said, told him they ‘had intelligence that a suicide bomber had hidden in your house and he was planning an operation.’ Samir told them, ‘If we would have had a suicide bomber at home, why were we playing music in our house? Almost all guests were government employees.’”
Scahill said the victim’s family cannot forgive the Americans. “Months later, when I sat with the family elder, Hajji Sharabuddin, at his home, his anger seemed only to harden. ‘I don’t accept their apology. I would not trade my sons for the whole kingdom of the United States… Initially, we were thinking that Americans were the friends of Afghans, but now we think that Americans themselves are terrorists.'"