Washington Post, Thursday, January 10, 2002; Page A01

Villagers, U.S. At Odds Over Lethal Bombing

Residents Say Al Qaeda, Taliban Were Never There

By Edward Cody

QALAI NIAZI, Afghanistan, Jan. 9 -- The U.S. bombs that blasted this clump of mud-brick homes a few hours before dawn on Dec. 29, killing dozens of civilians, were aimed at Taliban and al Qaeda leaders who survivors deny were ever here, and an arms cache they say they never saw.

What remains in view is the tattered evidence of a little world blown apart:

Journalists who arrived here on Sunday found a large store of ammunition that filled one little house, from boxes of rifle rounds to stacks of antitank rockets. But, by today, it had been hauled away, and people now swear it was never here in the first place.

There is much that is not known -- and maybe never will be -- about what happened that December night and what caused it to happen. But from conversations with people in the area today, this much seems established:

Burhan Jan's 15-year-old son, Inzar, married a local girl about his age, and people came to Qalai Niazi from miles around for the wedding. About 3:30 a.m., while the family and their guests slept in the largest house after an evening of celebration, the U.S. planes attacked.

After an initial series of blasts in which men, women and children died, people fled in panic out of Qalai Niazi, which is located north of Gardez in eastern Afghanistan's Paktia province. Then more bombs fell, killing a dozen other people as they moved across the barren landscape.

Bai Jan, 45, an elder in a neighboring village who helped pick up the mangled bodies that morning, estimated 80 people were killed. Khanzad Gul, a Russian-trained physician who runs the hospital at Gardez, estimated the number of victims at 100. The United Nations put its estimate at 52. By any of those tallies, the bombing here would likely constitute the deadliest civilian toll from a single U.S. attack since the Bush administration launched its war on Afghanistan on Oct. 7.

The Pentagon said it was acting on intelligence that Taliban and al Qaeda leaders were in Qalai Niazi. It also mentioned the arms store, saying a surface-to-air missile was fired at the U.S. warplanes on the bombing runs, but would not confirm reports of civilian casualties.

"There were multiple intelligence sources that qualified that target, and there were multiple secondary explosions out of that target," Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week. "That is to say, significant explosions from more than one location as a result of the attack, which would tend to persuade one that it was a military target."

Local people, however, said no Taliban or al Qaeda militants were in the village, although some wedding guests were from the former Taliban strongholds of Khost and Jalalabad. There never were many foreign al Qaeda fighters in this region, the residents said, and Taliban activists fled south toward Kandahar soon after Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance in November.

"There was nothing of the Taliban here," Jan said. "All around, there was nothing left of them."

Gul, the Russian-trained doctor who treated one of three wounded survivors, noted that most men in this heavily Pashtun region wear full beards and the same traditional turbans that the Taliban made its trademark. But that does not make them Taliban leaders, he added.

"If they say that anybody who grows a beard is a Taliban or an al Qaeda member, they should take me, but in fact I am a medical doctor who studied in Russia," he said.

"It was just a misunderstanding," said Noor Mohammed, a nurse at the hospital. "They thought there were some al Qaeda members living over there. But when the new government took over, all the Taliban ran away from here."

The people of this area got along with the Taliban during its five years of rule; however, some members of the new local governing council, or shura, were also part of the Taliban's local administration. Following the Afghan tradition of getting on the side of whoever holds power, they have renounced their Taliban adherence, at least formally, and have begun to cooperate with the new administration in Kabul.

Although U.S. Special Forces troops have conducted searches in this region for Taliban and al Qaeda militants, most of the bombing in recent weeks has taken place about 50 miles to the east, south of Khost, near the border with Pakistan.

It is not known who controlled the ammunition stored in one of Qalai Niazi's five buildings. But reporters saw it stacked there Sunday; today it was gone and residents said there never was such a cache. Previously, residents had told investigators for a nongovernmental organization that Taliban fighters stored the ammunition there and left it when they fled.

Whatever the exact tally of dead, and whatever the quality of the U.S. intelligence that night, the bombing has taken its toll on the goodwill of people around Qalai Niazi toward the U.S. military campaign. There was no reason to bomb the wedding party, they said, and the Pentagon should own up to a mistake.

"We picked up small pieces of people's bodies," said Jan, reaching down to the ground and digging into it with his hennaed nails to pantomime his gruesome task that morning. "And we put them in the ground so the dogs would not eat them."

Holding up a bit of blood-matted hair, he said: "The bombing should stop. Where can we go?

"Look at these shoes," he moaned, lifting a part of plastic slip-ons that looked right for a 10-year-old girl. "Are these Taliban shoes?"

All five of the houses in the village were reduced to rubble. A metal trunk used to store clothes was perforated with shrapnel. A man's woven cap, the kind Afghans wrap their turbans around, lay crumpled in the dust. A paperback book on the proper way to conduct Islamic prayer, titled "The Purity of Truth," flapped in a cold wind coming off mountains dappled with the season's first snow.

In the debris, scattered atop a layer of fine dust, lay a nylon bag used for grain or flour. "USA," said letters in red, white and blue. "USAID," it read just above the image of a handshake symbolizing U.S. foreign aid.

One of the bombs that burrowed into the ground created a deep hole exactly in the path of an aqueduct. As a result, the water coming down from the mountains now drops into the hole, cutting off the water supply to nearby villages whose normal sources have dried up because of a long drought.

A group of elders from the Gardez region took their complaints to Hamid Karzai, head of Afghanistan's interim administration in Kabul. Karzai promised to look into the incident but also has backed U.S. resolve to continue the air attacks until all Taliban and al Qaeda leaders are killed or captured.

President Bush's special Afghanistan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the United States is investigating what happened here and will take "appropriate steps" if a mistake is found to have been made. But, addressing reporters in Kabul on Tuesday, he also said the bombing must continue until al Qaeda and the Taliban are eliminated from Afghanistan.