- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

KABUL | The morning after the deadly U.S. air strike in western Afghanistan earlier this month, Homayoun Farahi received a phone call from his father. Two of his uncles were killed, he was told, along with an uncertain number of other family members.

Mr. Farahi made the full day’s journey back to see for himself. It was an early homecoming for the 22-year-old, who moved to Kabul from Farah province just 2 1/2 months ago to study agriculture at the university.

“It was total destruction,” he said, holding up a list of victims he compiled himself.

While the true sequence of events and death toll will remain in dispute, Mr. Farahi’s survey of wholesale family loss - taken days before investigators arrived on the scene - conflicts sharply with the account given by the U.S. military earlier this week, that between 20 and 30 civilians perished during nighttime bombardments on Taliban targets in the villages of Gerani and Ganjabad in Bala Boluk district.

The controversy is part of a troubling pattern of civilian deaths caused by coalition military operations in recent years that have undermined public support for the Afghan government and stoked tensions with Washington, too often compounded by an inability to provide timely answers and apologies in the aftermath.

In August, Afghan and U.N. officials claimed that up to 90 civilians were killed in a U.S. air strike in the town of Azizabad, in Herat province, which borders Farah to the north. The military initially disputed the findings, saying no civilians had died, only Taliban militants.

But heavy pressure from President Hamid Karzai, fierce street protests and some grainy footage recorded by a cell phone camera led to a follow-up investigation. When it was over, the U.S. military raised the civilian toll to 33, insisting that two-thirds of those killed were militants.

Now, the military says a comparable majority of the dead in Farah were Taliban militants trying to hide among the civilian population after an intense and prolonged firefight with U.S.-supported Afghan security forces, who called in air support to suppress the militants.

Afghan officials maintain that 140 civilians died in the operation, which would amount to the single deadliest attack on civilians since the invasion that ousted the Taliban in 2001. A separate probe by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the leading organization of its kind in the country, found that between 90 and 100 people died, with some Taliban militants suspected to be among the deceased.

Col. Greg Julian, the chief spokesman for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, said Wednesday the latest findings were based primarily on video footage from cameras onboard a B-1 bomber in the area, which apparently showed two groups of about 30 people entering village homes before they were hit with 2,000-pound bombs.

Although the people could not be identified from the footage, Col. Julian said “other information, which I wish I could release” proved they were Taliban fighters, backed by confirmation from ground commanders.

A spokesman for the Afghan president’s office could not be reached for comment.

Another military spokeswoman, Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, told The Washington Times that burial sites seen by U.S. investigators were insufficient to corroborate government claims.

Of three sites that were examined, one had four graves, another had 22 graves and a third mass grave had the remains of an estimated 19 to 69 people inside. Extensive interviews and circumstantial evidence indicated that a majority were Taliban militants, she said.

Military investigators say that 300 people fled the area as fighting intensified, leaving open the possibility that many of those declared dead are still alive. Moreover, she said, the mass grave in question does not face Mecca as is the custom - an unusual lack of respect that suggests the bodies could be those of Taliban.

In several instances, the spokeswoman explained, some of the locals interviewed by U.S. investigators claimed to have lost relatives who were later found to be “standing in the crowd.”

Cmdr. Sidenstricker called the video footage the “most important” piece of evidence that bears out the military’s version of events. It will “fully explain” the military’s version of events and casualty figures, with “possibly a few more,” she said.

However, given the destructive power of the bombs used and how nearly all the victims were buried by the time investigators reached the scene, she conceded that “we’re never going to know just how many people died.”

The military video is expected to be made public this week.

Nader Nadery, director of the Afghan rights commission, said his organization stands by its figures and would have to see the video footage before it formally responds to U.S. claims. A press conference scheduled for Sunday has been delayed.

A western diplomat in Kabul, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect his job, said the vast difference between the American and Afghan narrative has been complicated by Taliban strength in the area that has made it hard to “get to the bottom” of what really happened.

He noted that a U.N. investigation into the Azizabad air strike in August was carried out despite the presence of insurgents in the area. This case has been far more difficult, he said. “But the search for numbers often misses the point. There’s no question that many [civilians] died.”

Nematullah Gul Muhammad, head of a literacy program in Bala Boluk district, said by telephone that the attack cost him 12 family members and numerous friends. He was less than a mile away, at home, when he said bombs shook the ground around him.

Mr. Farahi, for his part, said most of the bodies were covered when he arrived. After three days of interviews and observations he concluded the remains of about 50 people had been hastily placed in the mass grave; an additional 64 bodies were found more or less intact. As many as 50 more people could not be accounted for, he said.

The loss of his two uncles - Rahullah, a retired schoolteacher, and Muhammad Amir, a farmer - was accompanied by that of 10 cousins. Their names and ages are carefully written in columns on the five-page packet he has photocopied and hand-delivered to Afghan lawmakers since returning to Kabul.

He confirmed that surviving relatives of his deceased family members were paid $2,000 each by the Afghan government, as in past instances.

“Is this the price of life?” he asked.

“Before this happened, we felt hopeless about our situation at home. Now we are hopeless and angry.”

• This article was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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