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Story Publication logo May 21, 2009

Afghanistan: Echoes of Azizabad

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In 2008, there were over 2,100 civilians casualties across Afghanistan. US airstrikes accounted for...

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Jason Motlagh, for the Pulitzer Center

The US military said yesterday that only 20-35 civilians were killed in airstrikes in western Afghanistan earlier this month, disputing the claims of the Afghan government and independent investigators.

Afghan officials maintain that 140 civilians died in the US bombardment of three villages in Farah province's Bala Boluk district, which, if true, would amount to the single deadliest attack on civilians since the US-led invasion that ousted the Taliban in 2001.

After a week long probe, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the leading group of its kind in the country, reported that evidence on the ground indicated between 90-100 people died, mostly civilians.

Now, more than two weeks later, the US military says its own investigation shows that 80-95 people were killed, mostly Taliban.

A spokesman said that video footage from cameras on board a B-1 bomber involved in the engagement showed two groups of about 30 people entering village homes before they were bombed, with confirmation from ground commanders.

It was unclear based on the footage if the moving figures were in fact Taliban. That was proven, the spokesman added, by "other information which I wish I could release."

The limited number of graves also cast doubt on the Afghan government's death toll, he said, before conceding that power of the bombs dropped would leave little to examine.

"We blew those buildings apart," said Col. Greg Julian. "There's not going to be much to bury."

If this scenario sounds familiar, that's because it is.

Recall the controversial airstrike last August on Azizabad village, in Herat province, an attack the US military says was carried out based on ground intelligence that a senior Taliban commander was in the area.

Here again, conflicting reports emerged.

Afghan authorities and the United Nations claimed that 90 people were killed based on grave counts and interviews. The US military initially countered that no civilians died, just Taliban militants.

Only after widespread protests -- and circulation of a mobile phone video that showed around 40 bodies -- was a follow-up inquiry launched.

The inquiry took several weeks to be completed. In the end, the death toll was raised to 33, with US officials still insisting that two-thirds of those killed were Taliban -- nearly identical to the Farah assessment.

A "tactical directive" was subsequently issued by Gen. David McKiernan, then-commander of US forces in Afghanistan, mandating stricter protocols to avoid future civilian casualties from airstrikes.

The general was dismissed after the latest incident in Farah.

In another airstrike on Tuesday, eight more civilians died in Helmand province after coalition warplanes attacked militants who had fired on a patrol. The admission came quickly, though details were vague.

"Tragically, it is believed that eight civilians were killed as a result of the air strike," NATO said in a statement.

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