This past week's Wikileaks release of footage showing the deaths of more than a dozen Iraqis in the summer of 2007 has generated a great deal of desperately needed public dialogue in regard to the reality of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as opposed to the perception of the wars presented to us by the corporate media.
For more than three months, another story has been unravelling, the implications of which are far more startling than the information uncovered by Wikileaks. True to form - the corporate media's coverage of this event has an inverse relationship to its apparent gravity, meaning the coverage has been about zero.
Since the last days of December, the details of this event have been coming into focus - and the emerging image strongly suggests that coalition death-squads have been operating in Afghanistan.
Specific to this case, a group of Special Operations Forces landed outside a village in the middle of the night after receiving reports from informants that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were being manufactured there. After finding what appeared to be two groups of unarmed fighting age males sleeping in two rooms - the reports indicate that the force summarily executed all of them using silenced weapons. Unfortunately, it appears that the Special Ops team had not entered the sleeping quarters of an IED cell, but the dormitory of a private school for boys.
On December 27, media reports began filtering out of Afghanistan's Kunar province regarding the deaths of 10 civilians, including eight schoolchildren, as a result of "Western military operations". Initially, NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) "had no information on any operations or casualties in Kunar". However, a unnamed "senior Western military official" stated "that US special forces have been conducting operations against militants in the border regions of Kunar". These units had been operating "independently of NATO and coalition forces" and "killing a lot of Taliban and capturing a lot of Taliban".
After receiving word of the incident, Afghan President Karzai immediately dispatched a team of government investigators to Ghazi Kahn village, the site of the alleged events. The findings of the investigators were posted on President Karzai's website: "a unit of international forces descended from a plane Sunday night into Ghazi Khan village in Narang district of the eastern province of Kunar and took ten people from three homes, eight of them school students in grades six, nine and ten, one of them a guest, the rest from the same family, and shot them dead".
In response, the ISAF declared that "the dead were all part of an Afghan terrorist cell responsible for manufacturing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have claimed the lives of countless soldiers and civilians." According to a senior Nato insider “[t]his was a joint operation that was conducted against an IED cell that Afghan and US officials had been developing information against for some time.”
Another early report from the Sydney Morning Herald included more reactions by NATO officials in response to the reports of the Afghan investigators: "The evidence we have is that there were no civilian casualties... all the people who are claimed to be dead were all fighting-age males." The same senior officer noted that the international units involved in the incident were with US Special Forces... and did not involve NATO troops.
ISAF spokesman US Colonel Wayne Shanks indicated that the military operation involved had been a "joint operation" between Afghan and foreign forces - which, according to NATO, came under fire as they approached the village.
Capt Joe Sanfilippo, a US soldier in Asadabad, Kunar's capital "said none of the dead were 'innocents' but were armed and had been shooting at the troops - US and Afghan commandos - as they entered the district."
"These people were shooting back at us and we had to shoot back otherwise ... we would have been injured."
Both Sanfilippo and ISAF noted that "several assault rifles, ammunition, and ammonium nitrate used in bomb-making" were found in the village. It is notable that no mention of bomb making components has ever been mentioned. AK-47s are commonly owned by Afghans, and ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer, would not be uncommon in a remote farming community. In fact, a bill to outlaw ammonium nitrate was only passed by the Afghan government at the end of January.
Early reports out of the remote mountain village were predictably sparse in the days following the incident - but most statements relayed from village witnesses echoed the report from President Karzai's Security Council: “International forces entered the area and killed ten youths, eight of them school students inside two rooms in a house, without encountering any armed resistance."
Jerome Starkey of the Times of London spoke to a number of village residents days after the incident, including the school's headmaster, Rahman Jan Ehsas:
“A student and one guest were in another room, a guest room, and a farmer was asleep with his wife in a third building." “First the foreign troops entered the guest room and shot two of them. Then they entered another room and handcuffed the seven students. Then they killed them. Abdul Khaliq [the farmer] heard shooting and came outside. When they saw him they shot him as well."
"A local elder, Jan Mohammed, said that three boys were killed in one room and five were handcuffed before they were shot."
Responding to President Karzai's statements, Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, the director of communication for NATO and United States forces in Afghanistan stated that "we’ve already talked to President Karzai and he’s agreed to a joint investigation” by an impartial panel.
After the New Year, these were virtually the final words on the incident at Ghazi Khan by NATO and the corporate media. No additional information regarding the details of the investigation, nor whether or not an investigation was even underway were released by military authorities.
The silence was broken on February 25 when two reports were released by Jerome Starkey: "Western sources close to the case now agree that the victims were all aged 12 to 18 and were not involved in insurgent activity."
Nato sources say that the raid should never have been authorised. "Knowing what we know now, it would probably not have been a justifiable attack," an official in Kabul told The Times. "We don’t now believe that we busted a major ring."
Nato’s statement, issued four days after the event, said that troops were attacked “from several buildings” as they entered the village. Yesterday it said that “ultimately, we did determine this to be a civilian casualty incident”.
Starkey also reported on the results of his effort to bring two village elders to Kabul for interviews.
Taleb Abdul Ajan, 50, was present in the Village at the time of the raid: he "woke to the sound of dogs barking. Then he heard boots crunching on gravel and men’s voices outside his bedroom. 'Their guns killed without a sound,' he said."
On the night of the raid, Taleb came to the door of his room and was immediately ordered back inside by soldiers wearing night-vision goggles. "It was dark. I couldn’t see them, but they could see me."
Taleb's brother, Farooq, 48, relayed to Starkey that his son, Sefatullah, 19, has reported that he "was handcuffed, searched and marched around the family’s mountain compound by men he believes were Americans". “They took Sefatullah to each room and asked him who was sleeping inside... but they didn’t show him inside. He didn’t know they were dead. He told them, ‘My brothers, my cousins, they are students’. The Americans were writing down the names and their classes.”
As soon as the troops left, Sefatullah ran to his mother’s room and she cut the plastic cuffs that had bound his hands behind his back. “Then they went into one of the rooms, where six people had been sleeping,” Farooq said. “It was dark and my wife walked on her son’s dead body. Then they brought a hurricane lamp.”
They found Taleb’s son, Rahimullah, 17, and a boy called Samar Gul, 12, dead in a guest room. Taleb said that Samar Gul was staying overnight because he needed some wheat milled and Taleb’s family own the local mill.
“He was afraid to stay on his own so Rahimullah slept in the room with him.”
Next, Taleb said, the soldiers burst into the room of his half-brother, Najibullah, 18. According to his widow, Hassina, they dragged him out of bed and searched his belongings. “All they found were books,” Taleb said. The family discovered Najibullah’s body slumped together with Farooq’s son Sebhanullah, 17, and two of Taleb’s sons, Matiullah, 16, and Attahullah, 15, in a room that led on to a second bedroom.
In the second room they found Farooq and Taleb’s half-brother Samiullah, 12, Farooq’s son Atiqullah, 15, and a nephew, Ismael, 12. All of them had been shot.
The tenth victim was a farmer, Abdul Khaliq, 18, who was shot when he ran out of a nearby house, Taleb said.
After the soldiers shot the boys they took photographs of their bloodied faces. Farooq said his daughter heard a man curse their informant in the local language, using an expression that implied that the soldiers realised they had been fed bad information.
It is notable that NATO, now retracting their earlier identification of the victims as members of a bomb making cell, also appears to be distancing itself from the event - despite the level of information it was providing about the incident in December: “incidents such as this do not reflect any conduct that Isaf [regular Nato troops] would condone and it is not the way Isaf trains any of our Afghan partners.”
And while NATO is now willing to deny their involvement, as well as apparently willing to condemn the actions of the units as inconsistent with their rules of conduct - nobody is currently willing to identify which organization or units actually carried out the actions, despite the level of detail previously provided by military information officers: "US forces based in Kunar have denied any knowledge of the raid.. [o]fficials in Kabul confirmed that 'US forces' were present but refused to say if they were military or civilian."
It is difficult to reconcile the testimony of the villagers, all of which has been remarkably consistent, and none of which provides an account of any gunfire, with that of nameless, faceless personnel that the coalition refuses to identify, much less bring forward for the purpose of clarifying the events that took place that morning.
Most of the information uncovered regarding this story, and the direct witness statements of the villagers has come as a result of the work of Jerome Starkey. His work is inspirational for many reasons, including the fact that he manages to be a real investigative-journalist at a time when it seemed all but certain that every last one of them was extinct. On top of that, he works on behalf of the Times of London - a publication that is owned by Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp. In this case, credit needs to be given where it's due - and the Times is publishing serious and valuable journalism in Starkey's work.
Subsequent to the events at Ghazi Khan, Starkey is primarily responsible for uncovering a similar incident that occurred in the village of Khataba in eastern Afghanistan on February 12. While this particular incident has received a relatively higher level of coverage, it has still largely been ignored in the headlines and news feeds of the corporate media. An examination of these events as they unfolded can also prove to be of assistance to those who are attempting to determine the level of credibility that should be accorded to the various military information offices working in Afghanistan.
The Khataba incident unfolded as follows:
On February 12, ISAF issued a press release entitled: Joint Force Operating in Gardez Makes Gruesome Discovery (now rescinded). Based on the ISAF release, CNN reported that the bodies of two men and two women were discovered at a compound by a joint operation of Afghan and Nato led forces.
"The bodies of the two women were bound and gagged, and the U.S. official said the people were shot "execution-style".
"The U.S. official said it isn't clear whether the dishonor in this case stemmed from accusations of acts such as adultery or even cooperating with NATO forces."
"His brother, Saranwal Zahir, was a prosecutor in Ahmadabad district."
"That particular evening, Dawood was hosting a gathering to celebrate the naming of a newborn baby. One of the musicians went outside to use the facilities, when somebody shone a light in his face - he ran back inside yelling "Taliban".
And so the BBC, and virtually all other major news organizations wait. Although it is clear that the military information officers are now providing completely unreliable, and almost certainly fabricated information as a matter of course, these organizations no longer see it as their job to challenge them. No attempts to contact witnesses, no pressing Afghan officials, no stories designed to embarrass military and political officials into action.
One wonders if those who work in these organizations can even see the reality of who they have become in relation to the myth of the fourth estate: simple administrators of information, waiting for the next scoop to be served to them in the air conditioned briefing rooms of Washington, London, Baghdad or Kabul.