War is hell. War is fog. The Pentagon seems committed to proving these axioms in Afghanistan. On July 1, the US military attacked a compound in the village of Kakrak. At least 54 people were killed and 120 wounded. They were civilians; many were women and children attending a wedding celebration. Twenty-five members of the bridegroom's family were destroyed.
The event was horrible, the latest in a string of US military mishaps that have caused the deaths of Afghan civilians -- the total estimate of those killed ranging from hundreds to several thousand. It is probably sadly true that major military action is not possible without what's euphemistically known as "collateral damage" -- especially when that action consists of air attacks and bombing raids.
But throughout the war in Afghanistan, the Pentagon has been loath to acknowledge errors and to deal with the supposedly unavoidable and supposedly unintentional consequences of its operations. The Defense Department refused to concede that in December it had wrongly hit a convoy of tribal elders on their way to the inauguration of interim president Hamid Karzai. In January, US Special Forces raided two compounds and killed over a dozen troops loyal to Karzai's government and captured and held almost two dozen more (some of whom claimed they were abused). Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld eventually conceded the US troops had killed and grabbed the wrong people, but he refused to characterize the US actions as a mistake. No one apparently was disciplined.
With the most recent event -- the worst known case of civilian casualties of this war -- the Pentagon, once again, tried at first to duck responsibility and to explain away the slaughter. But as more information became available about the attack in Kakrak, it became harder for the Defense Department to hold the line. A look back at its changing story is instructive.
On the day of the assault, US military officials told reporters that a 2,000-pound satellite-guided bomber dropped from a B-52 had strayed off course and slammed into the village. They noted that an Air Force AC-130 gunship operating in the area had returned fire after receiving sustained antiaircraft fire. One US military officer scoffed at the initial report that a wedding party had been hit, noting that the last time such a claim was made, "even the 'bride' had a beard and an AK-47." This unidentified officer further told Thomas Ricks of The Washington Post, "This group is masterful at disinformation." In other words, don't believe what the locals say about this incident.
The day after, the Pentagon rejiggered its story and said the 2,000-pound bomb had struck an uninhabited hillside. It refused to accept responsibility for the civilian deaths and injuries. Defense Department officials could not explain what happened, though they now focused on the AC-130 gunship, again saying it had attacked targets in this area after being shot at. As the Post reported, the US military officials "insisted that US forces ... were responding to a deliberate attack by antiaircraft guns or other weapons." At a Washington press conference, Marine Corps Lt. General Gregory Newbold, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "This is an area of enormous sympathy for the Taliban and al Qaeda." He and Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon's chief spokesperson, pointed out that it was a common tactic for the Taliban and al Qaeda to place weapons and troops in civilian areas. Military officials also suggested that locals might have been harmed by falling antiaircraft fire. Rumsfeld said it would take up to two days to come up with "useful information."
The whiff of justification was in the air. But as reporters were able to speak with survivors of the attacks, an awful tale emerged. Villagers said that at about 2:00 am a warplane blasted them at the wedding party. Some saw family members cut in half. Body parts were flying. Survivors spoke of fleeing through rice and corn fields as the aircraft seemed to chase after them, firing away. Some said the attack went on for several hours and also targeted other villages. Some reported that American and Afghan troops arrived shortly after the assault ended and remained on the scene until about noon. (Presumably, these US troops were not in a position to send "useful information" to Rumsfeld.) And local villagers maintained they were supporters of Karzai and explained they were from his ethnic Pushtan tribe. As one said, would we be having a wedding celebration with music and dancing, if the Taliban were around?
Two days after the attack -- and as it became more clear a massacre had occurred, intentional or not -- the Pentagon began to acknowledge errors might have been committed during the raid, but it asserted the US forces had cause to attack the compound. Major Gary Tallman, a US spokesman in Afghanistan, said that US aircraft had flown over the area repeatedly the two days prior to the attack and each time had encountered antiaircraft fire, and, he added, the antiaircraft gun was firing when the AC-130 attacked on July 1. He acknowledged, though, that no trace of the gun had been found. Pentagon officials would not confirm that the airstrike had caused civilian casualties. But Tallman also said that US Special Forces had "reliable information" that senior Taliban officials were being sheltered in Kakrak. At the same time, US military investigators told reporters, off the record, that they had not found evidence that many people had been killed and injured. "There should be more blood," one said.
It looked as if the Pentagon was attempting to wiggle its way out of this mess -- to dodge responsibility, as it had become accustomed to doing. One problem was, the Afghan government could not join its American allies in this mission. With the villagers protesting -- and other Afghans outraged -- Foreign Minister Abdullah decried the raid, noting, "This situation has to come to an end. Mistakes can take place ... but our people should be assured every measure has been taken to avoid such incidents." President Karzai blamed the US military for the deaths and declared, "People should not be hurt, and the campaign against the Taliban and terrorism must not become the cause of harassment of the people."
Though Karzai had raised questions about civilian Afghan casualties in the past, his government was more forceful this time. With a tenuous claim to power, his administration had to address the controversy and demonstrate to its constituents it can serve and protect them. (Who cares about helping the US war on terrorism if that means a gunship can blow away you and your family?) Karzai's comments were a gentle but clear warning to the United States: Don't think you can get away with this.
President George W. Bush expressed his sympathies -- without apologizing or assigning blame. And five days after the strike, Lt. General Dan McNeill, the US commander in Afghanistan, conceded that civilians were indeed killed in the airstrike. He announced that a "formal investigation" would be conducted to determine what transpired. "It is important that we keep this coalition together," he remarked. Yet he asserted there were "ample indications" the assault was mounted in response to antiaircraft fire. Maybe so, but there were "ample indications" by this point that the wrong target -- and people -- were struck.
Meanwhile, back in Kakrak, human flesh was still hanging on the trees. And local Afghan officials were telling journalists that American commanders had informed them that US forces had acted on faulty intelligence. Apparently, the Americans had received word that Mullah Omar, the number-one Taliban, was hiding in Kakrak. After Osama bin Laden, he's next on the get-him list. That might explain why the AC-130 attacked with such ferocity, why it may have strafed people running from the compound, and why it also attacked nearby villages (could every one of these villages have had an antiaircraft gun firing at the gunship?).
On July 8, as the Pentagon announced an investigative team was heading to Kakrak in a day or two (no rush there), Victoria Clarke was claiming the Defense Department had no solid information regarding what had happened: "The issue of the number of civilian casualties and civilians killed is much less clear. We know they occurred, and we regret every one of them, but we do not have hard and fast numbers from what we have seen thus far." And Lt. General Newbold was still claiming US forces were shot at first. But he produced no evidence of this. No communications tapes ("we're taking fire"), no reported on-the-ground sightings of antiaircraft weaponry in Kakrak.
Could the US military in an entire week not figure out what had happened in Kakrak? After all, US troops were present right after the raid. This seems a bad sign for the war on terrorism. If US forces cannot gather information on an attack they mounted in territory they control, how can they be expected to discover and effectively handle reliable information on the location of al Qaeda and Taliban remnants?
The bloody assault upon Kakrak raises another matter: compensation for Afghan civilians. For months, I and a few others have been proposing that the United States ought to make payments to Afghans who have lost relatives, homes, businesses, and limbs because of US mis-attacks and errant bombs. The CIA did quickly dispense cash to the innocent victims of the January raid, but hundreds, if not thousands, of Afghans injured have received nothing. The latest blunder has prompted additional calls for compensation -- and not only from Afghans. "If American forces prove to be responsible for the deaths of innocent people, compensation should be paid and US commanders should give a public accounting of how and why such a tragedy occurred," the Post editorialized. And Post columnist Jim Hoagland suggested the same.
Will the nightmare of Kakrak lead the Bush administration finally to agree to compensation, the lousy but only remedy available for redressing a lethal raid gone wrong? There's reason to be pessimistic. If the Bush administration paid to ease the suffering of the villagers of Kakrak, it would have a tough time arguing that all other Afghan civilian victims should be ignored. The money is not the issue. We're talking tens of millions of dollars -- barely an asterisk in the budget for the war in Afghanistan. Rather, the Pentagon and the Bush administration do not want to enter the business of evaluating claims and determining guilt (their own). That can only distract from the mission at hand and create one helluva precedent for a war on terrorism that Bush and Rumsfeld say may last as long as the Cold War. Truth is the first casualty of war, goes another axiom. Accountability may be the second.
David Corn is Washington editor of The Nation.