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Earlier this month, a series of American airstrikes on a village in western Afghanistan killed dozens and dozens of people -- including at least 25 civilians. Now, U.S. forces are weighing the release of a classified video, taken from a B-1 bomber involved in the battle. The military is convinced that the footage will justify American troops actions during the firefight -- and show that the Taliban committed human sacrifice in the village of Garani. Human rights groups say the video may only reinforce just how questionable those airstrikes really were.
There is indeed video from a B-1 bomber, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus tells National Public Radio. What it will prove is that the targets of these different strikes were the Taliban.
What it does not prove, is that there were not civilians killed. I think we agree, actually, that there were civilians killed in this incident along -- again -- with a substantial number of Taliban. This is a very tough case because this was a very significant ambush of an Afghan force that had our advisers with it, and it was in response to that force -- literally rescuing that force at the request of Afghan political leaders as well as Afghan police and military leaders -- that our forces then moved in a very tough fight that these bombs were dropped.
Secretary of State Clinton, President Obama, and new U.S. ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry have all apologized for the civilian deaths in Garani. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, those killed include an Afghan Red Crescent volunteer and 13 members of his family who had been sheltering from fighting in a house that was bombed in an air strike.
But U.S. military officials continue to defend their troops actions. According to them, at about 3pm on May 4th, a coalition quick reaction force arrived in the village of Garani to help a combined force of Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army that had been ambushed by hundreds of Taliban fighters. An Afghan sergeant had been shot -- and was trapped by heavy Taliban machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire.
American F/A-18 jets were sent in, to zoom up low and fast over the town. The idea was to scare off militants while coalition troops tried to rescue the sergeant. When that failed, the coalition forces began bombing. From approximately 4pm to 6pm, the fighter planes dropped four bombs 500-lb bombs on enemy compounds. As the battle continued, the F/A-18s made a number of strafing runs over Garani, shooting off flares and firing its 20mm guns.
After a lull, the bombing began again. American military officials wont say what event, specifically, caused the airstrikes to restart; they do admit, however, that at least some of the Taliban force may have left Garani during this period. Locals tell Human Rights Watch that most of the fighting had died down. Nevertheless, over the course of the next three hours, the F/A-18s dropped five more 500 pound munitions on compounds and a grove where insurgents had gathered. It was like Judgment Day, Habibullah, a health worker, tells Human Rights Watch. Words cannot describe how terrible it was. Who can bear to see so many killed, from a two-day-old baby to a 70-year-old woman?
A B-1 bomber, flying far overhead, dropped four one-ton munitions onto a pair of large mud-brick compounds. Villagers say more than 160 civilians, mainly women and children, had taken shelter inside the buildings, which were near a mosque and residential compounds. According to the military, observation from forces on the ground and the video from the B-1s weapons sight show that the buildings were on the outskirts of the village, and packed with Taliban. The video shows two groups of fully-grown adults going inside the compounds. Radio traffic confirmed the the insurgents presence. Additional footage shows women and children streaming into other buildings that were not bombed, the military says.
The U.S. also claims it has intelligence showing that the Talibans deliberate planning to create a civilian casualty disaster for us, Lt. Commander Christine Sidenstricker, a spokesperson for U.S. Forces Afghanistan, tells Danger Room. The militants planned to draw U.S. fire onto buildings crammed with innocents, she says. If not enough women and children were killed, the Taliban made plans to use grenades to ensure an international outcry over civilian deaths. American intelligence also shows Taliban fighters congratulating themselves on forcing survivors to lie to doctors -- and on taking American compensation money meant for the victims families, Sidenstricker adds. This wasnt collateral damage. It was human sacrifice by the Taliban. Deliberate civilian murder.
Its a claim U.S. officials have repeated any number of times, when civilians have been caught in firefights between coalition forces and the Taliban. Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch, finds the argument unconvincing. The U.S. military spokespeople can be quick to blame Taliban shielding for civilian deaths, even when unproven, but this does not remove their responsibility to avoid civilian harm under the laws of war. In fact they have cried foul over Taliban shielding so many times, they ought to now be anticipating the tactic, Reid tells Danger Room.
Yes, theres some evidence of Taliban shielding in Garani village. To deliberately risk the lives of civilians for military gain is a ruthless tactic of the insurgents. But even if thats true -- and even if the B-1 video shows exactly what Petraeus and Sidenstricker say it does -- there are many questions that remain to be answered by the U.S. about the Garani incident, Reid says. Although the U.S. had intelligence that some insurgents remained, the proportionality of such a heavy air attack must still be in doubt. If they were unaware of the civilian presence, their intelligence is cast into doubt.... If they knew that civilians were still present, and dropped 8 bombs anyway, then what was the calculation of military gain versus civilian death that was made?
Perhaps more of those questions will be answered next week, when the military hopes to show this supposedly-definitive B-1 video.
Source: Danger Room (Wired News)