Expecting Taliban, but Finding Only Horror

By Carlotta Gall
New York Times

Monday, 8 July, 2002

KAKRAK, Afghanistan, July 6 -- After an American plane bombarded this village on July 1, American and Afghan soldiers surrounded the settlement and advanced at first light, searching houses and detaining people, apparently expecting to find Islamic militants, residents said today.

But as the soldiers neared the center of the cluster of mud-walled farmhouses, they found a horrifying scene, survivors said.

Women and children lay dead and wounded in and around one big house where they had been gathered for an engagement party, torn apart by cannon fire from the American attack plane, an AC-130 gunship. Survivors said they were gathering up the bodies, picking up limbs and body parts from the streets and adjoining orchard, and carrying the wounded to the village mosque, when the soldiers arrived.

What began as a major operation involving 300 to 400 American and Afghan soldiers against suspected Qaeda and Taliban positions in this isolated corner of southern Afghanistan had apparently turned into a slaughter of innocents. An Afghan delegation says the attack killed 48 people, mostly women and children, and injured 117, figures that American commanders said they accepted.

The Pentagon said after the attack that it had been responding to antiaircraft fire aimed at allied planes. Local officials said here today that faulty intelligence may have been provided by an Afghan.

A delegation that included the American commander of allied forces in Afghanistan concluded after a preliminary investigation that there had been civilian casualties but failed to come to firm conclusions about how they came about. President Bush called President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan on Friday to express his sympathy.

The ferocity of the attack, which encompassed four villages in Oruzgan Province, has angered local officials, though. And the incident has revealed the first rifts in Afghan government support for the American-led military campaign. The Afghan foreign minister has called for the American military to review its intelligence gathering and operational procedures and to improve coordination with local authorities. Province leaders said they wanted such raids to end altogether.

Villagers here in Kakrak said the American soldiers who appeared here were visibly shocked and saddened by the carnage they found last Monday morning.

"They were approaching from the neighboring village," said Pir Jan, a villager who was helping to gather up the dead. "They were very serious, and they were searching the houses and tying the hands even of the women. And then when they came right into the village and saw the dead women and children they were very sad and their attitude changed toward us.

"They told me through a translator that they had made a mistake," Mr. Jan said. "They said, `We are sorry, but what's done cannot be undone.' " The soldiers left later that day.

Mr. Jan was sitting in the courtyard of a house where the attack had blasted a hole in the roof and killed two boys, ages 7 and 13, who had been sleeping on the flat rooftop, he and others said. Five other children were injured at the house.

But the greatest effect was on the house next door, where the engagement party was under way. The women and children had been sitting on the flat mud roof of the farmhouse, enjoying the cool night air and singing wedding songs, when the first shell struck at 1 a.m. It blasted a huge hole in the roof and sprayed shrapnel across the rooftop and around the courtyard. A second explosion hit the adjoining compound, where the men had been sitting in groups in the open courtyard, drinking tea and chatting.

There was pandemonium as people fled the compounds, and more were cut down as they sought a place to hide behind walls or in ditches outside, survivors said.

A 70-year-old woman, Nazaka, ran from the house into an orchard beside the house. "When the first bomb hit, I escaped to the garden," she said. "I took my grandson and another woman who had been injured. I pulled her by her shirt. I was in the orchard in the far corner, and it got me." She showed a shrapnel wound on her leg.

Around her in the orchard, there was unspeakable gore. A woman's torso had landed in one of the small almond trees. Human flesh was still hanging on the tree five days after the attack, and more putrifying remains were tangled in the branches of a pomegranate tree, its bright scarlet flowers still blooming.

"They were collecting body parts in a bucket," said the governor of Oruzgan Province, Jan Muhammad, who arrived the day after the attack.

Sahib Jan, 25, a neighbor who escaped the worst of the bombardment, was among the first to help the wounded and gather up the dead. Walking through the compounds five days later, he named those who had been killed, pointing out the blood stains and the shreds of shrapnel still lying around.

He stood over a dark patch of congealed blood under an arch where a 12-year-old boy had died. "His name was Shirin, the son of Zaher Jan," he said. "There was shrapnel in his head."

The scene was similar in the village of Siya Sang, five miles away, where villagers said that six people had been killed and more injured. Jamala, a local woman, wept over a pile of bloody clothes in her courtyard. She pointed to the blood on the wall where her son, 15, had fallen dead, and a corner where she had found the bodies of her daughter and grandson. A neighbor woman had also been killed.

"My grandson and daughter's mouths were full of dust," she said, pulling her veil across her face. "Write about this so it will stop, so they leave us in peace to pray and fast."

It remains unclear what allied forces were trying to achieve here. This is the home province of the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, and remnants of Taliban and Qaeda forces are thought to have retreated to this hard to reach area.

Both the province governor and the district chief of Deh Rawud, where Kakrak and the other villages lie, gave little credence to the initial American contention that there were antiaircraft guns in the villages that had shot at coalition planes in past weeks and had even been active in the previous 48 hours. Searches here have produced no such weapons.

The district chief, Abdul Rahim, said that when he pressed an American commander who arrived from Kandahar, the regional capital, the American said that forces had been acting on faulty intelligence.

The two Afghan officials said that American commanders had since told them that they had had information that Mullah Omar and one of his top commanders, Mullah Bradar, were in the village of Kakrak, which lies less than five miles from Mr. Rahim's base in Deh Rawud. Neither of the Afghan officials were advised of the operation beforehand, they said, and only learned of it after the airstrike.

"If Mullah Omar and Mullah Bradar were sitting up the road with a whole load of soldiers, would we be sitting here?" Mr. Rahim, a longtime opponent of the Taliban, asked incredulously.

They said, though, that an Afghan might have supplied the faulty intelligence in order to use the Americans to settle a score or to win some advantage in a local power struggle. The governor even said he knew the man responsible and that he worked in the government in Kandahar.

But it is the scale of the operation in reaction to that intelligence that has angered people, from the villagers right up to ministers in Kabul.

"If they have information, they should surround the village and then question us. This is not the way to do it, to bomb the village," said Muhammad Shah, who is the bridegroom's brother and was wounded and lost 25 relatives in the raid.

Mr. Rahim said he asked an American commander who visited the scene: "Mullah Omar and Mullah Bradar are just two people and you bombed four villages. Why?" He went on to say that the four villagers arrested by the American soldiers were ordinary farmers.

The American who commands the coalition forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill, has promised a formal investigation to determine what caused the civilian casualties and what can be done to prevent more in the future.

That may not satisfy the leaders in Oruzgan Province. The governor, Mr. Muhammad, said that after 21 of his own soldiers, loyal to Mr. Karzai's government, were killed in an American-led raid in January, American promises of closer cooperation to prevent such mistakes never materialized.

"They said they would not make a mistake again and that they would contact us and cooperate with us on future operations, but they did not," he said in an interview in the provincial capital, Tirin Kot.

"We don't want these kind of raids, where they are killing women and children and innocent people. We want raids, but not against ordinary people. We want raids against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, we want them to finish them for good," he said.

Mr. Rahim, whose district has been hit by at least four deadly raids in the past few months, said he wanted a complete end to American attacks. He said that American forces should only attack if President Karzai asks for help.

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