U.S.-Afghan relations damaged by air strike

KABUL, Afghanistan — Accusations and denials continue to swirl around Kabul and Washington as Afghan government and international military forces try to unravel the facts surrounding an Aug. 21 air strike in the village of Azizabad, in the western province of Herat.

On one side is the Afghan government, which insists that more than 90 civilians, mainly women and children, were killed in the attack, a stance supported by investigators dispatched by the United Nations.

On the other side are the Americans, who insist that only a small number of suspected insurgents were killed in the raid. In a report issued Tuesday, U.S. military officials reiterated their claim that the attack killed 25 to 30 insurgents, including a leading Taliban commander, and that only five to seven civilians died in the attack.

Amid the conflicting statements, anger is growing among Afghans.

"Americans think that all Afghans are terrorists, and they send rockets and missiles against us," said Gulbuddin, a resident of Azizabad. "I myself buried more than 50 women and children. Are all of them terrorists?"

Other interviewed who claim they survived the attack support the Afghan version of events. They said they were attending a memorial service for a man who had died a year earlier when the raid occurred.

"We were holding a memorial service in our home," said Fatima from a hospital bed in Herat. "Suddenly the infidels attacked and I lost consciousness. When I came to, I was in hospital, and they told me that all of my family were dead and already buried. Was my 2-year-old child a terrorist? Then am I not also a terrorist? Why did they let me live?"

The Afghan government has been firm on its version of events.

Naimatullah Shahrani, the minister for the Hajj who was appointed head of a presidential commission investigating the Azizabad attack, insisted that no insurgents were killed in the raid.

"According to our investigation, there was not a single armed individual from the opposition in the area," he said. "During the air attack on Azizabad, 90 people died, including women, children and old men. This is cruel behavior on the part of the foreign forces, and it can greatly complicate the security situation."

The Azizabad bombing is the latest in a string of attacks on civilian targets in the past few months.

In July, American bombs hit a wedding party in the southeastern province of Nangarhar, killing at least 47 people, including the bride.

Over the summer, civilians have also been killed in Nuristan, Laghman and Kunar provinces, according to Afghan government sources. While the Azizabad incident is by far the bloodiest incident, but it is by no means isolated.

The Afghan government blames poor coordination between the Afghan National Army and its foreign military allies for many of the civilian deaths

"The coalition forces coordinated the ground attack (in Azizabad), but there was no coordination on the air strike," said Gen. Zahir Azimi, addressing journalists in Kabul. "When you study the area that was bombed, you can see that there was no need for an air strike."

U.S. military officials say all their operations are conducted with the full cooperation of Afghan military forces.

But Afghans are convinced that Americans too often rely on false information when determining their targets.

"The Americans act on the basis of incorrect information, and bomb residential areas," said Abdul Salaam Qazizada, a member of parliament from Herat. "If this continues, hatred for the Americans will increase day by day."

President Hamid Karzai, who has announced plans to seek re-election, has offered compensation to survivors $2,000 for each relative killed in the air strike and $1,000 to those who were injured. But local TV footage showed angry residents of the village throwing rocks at those attempting to distribute the funds.

One image showed a father screaming, "Karzai can keep his money. I want my child. Will this money bring him back?"

While the civilians' deaths raise the level of anger directed at foreign forces in the country, they also damage Karzai's standing among his countrymen.

"It is useless to ask the president. He has no power or authority," said Sultan Mohammad Aurang, a member of parliament from Badakhshan in the northeast of Afghanistan. "All he can do is condemn these air strikes. We should be talking directly and quite seriously to NATO, demanding that they do not target civilians."

Meanwhile, such air strikes often generate new recruits for the insurgents.

"The Taliban were better than this puppet government and its masters," said Nur Ahmad, 55, who said he was saved by a rescue team in Azizabad after being buried in rubble by the attack. "The Taliban would at least distinguish between civilians and enemies. But these thugs think everybody is their enemy."

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi and Sediq Behnam are reporters in Afghanistan who write for the non-profit Institute for War & Peace Reporting, based in London.