US probe finds fewer Afghan deaths than UN claimed
By JASON STRAZIUSO
Associated Press / September 2, 2008
KABUL, Afghanistan – A U.S. investigation into U.N. and Afghan allegations that dozens of civilians were killed in fighting around a village found Tuesday that seven of the dead were civilians.
An Afghan government commission concluded that 90 civilians were killed in the Aug. 22 fighting in Azizabad — a claim backed by a preliminary U.N. report. The U.S. report Tuesday said 30 to 35 of those killed were Taliban fighters.
The civilian death claims in Azizabad has caused new friction between President Hamid Karzai and his Western supporters. Karzai has long castigated Western military commanders over civilian deaths resulting from their raids.
The U.S. report said American and Afghan forces began taking fire from militants as the forces approached Azizabad in the early hours of Aug. 22. The incoming fire “justified use of well-aimed small-arms fire and close air support to defend the combined force,” the report said.
The U.S. said its range in casualty numbers was determined by observation of enemy movements during the engagement and on-site observations immediately after the battle. It said a known Taliban commander, Mullah Siddiq, and five to seven civilians were among the dead. Two civilians were wounded. Five Taliban were detained, the report said.
The report left open the possibility that evidence could emerge to prove that more people died in Azizabad. “No other evidence that may have been collected by other organizations was provided to the U.S. Investigating Officer and therefore could not be considered in the findings,” the report said.
No conclusive photos or video have emerged to back the claim of 90 civilians killed. However, Afghanistan’s secretive intelligence service is said to have video and photos of scores of dead civilians.
The U.S. report said that investigators discovered evidence that the militants planned to attack a nearby coalition base. Evidence collected included weapons, explosives, intelligence materials and an access badge to the base, as well as photographs from inside and outside the base, the report said.
The report said that the investigating officer took statements from more than 30 participants, both Afghan and U.S., watched video of the engagement, and looked at topographic photo comparisons of the area before and after, including burial sites.
Karzai ratcheted up pressure on Western militaries after the Azizabad incident by ordering a review of whether the U.S. and NATO should be allowed to use airstrikes or carry out raids in villages. Karzai also called for an updated “status of force” agreement between the Afghan government and foreign militaries.
Claims of civilian deaths can be tricky. Relatives of Afghan victims are given condolence payments by Karzai’s government and the U.S. military, providing an incentive to make false claims. And U.S. officials say Taliban militants force civilians to make false claims as part of their propaganda war against the West.
The top NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, told The Associated Press on Saturday that the U.S.-led coalition, Afghan government and U.N. would launch a probe into the raid.
No Afghan officials have confirmed that the Afghan government would take part in a three-way investigation.