Apr 8, 2010

The media waits: four months on and still no official Nato press release on the existence of Special Forces Death Squads

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."
"It has the earmarks of a traditional honor killing," said the official, who added the Taliban could be responsible.

"The operation unfolded when Afghan and international forces went to the compound, which was thought to be a site of militant activity. A firefight ensued and several insurgents died, several people left the compound, and eight others were detained."

One month later, on March 13, after contacting "[m]ore than a dozen survivors, officials, police chiefs and a religious leader... at and around the scene of the attack", Starkey and the Times published an article which gave a very different version of the events that occurred that evening.

According to Starkey, coalition special forces entered the compound of a residence that was owned by a policeman, Commander Dawood, 43. He was "a long-serving, popular and highly-trained policeman who had recently been promoted to head of intelligence in one of Paktia’s most volatile districts."

"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".

Commander Dawood was the first to go outside, his 15 year old son was at his side. They were shot from a rooftop as they ran across the courtyard - Dawood was killed, his son survived. Shortly afterwards, Dawoods brother Zahir is reported to have stepped forward, yelling in English "don’t fire, we work for the Government", and at the same moment, he was shot. As he fell to the ground, two pregnant women, and a teenage girl standing behind him were hit - all four were killed.

Based on information obtained by individuals who were attending the gathering, and who were subsequently detained for questioning - the coalition force was looking for an individual by the name of Shamsuddin. Shamsuddin was at the compound that evening - but the coalition forces failed to apprehend him. He turned himself in days later - and was released without charge.

While it's not clear from the Times' articles if witnesses reported whether or not Dawood or Zahir were armed (ISAF claims that they were), they did report that no shots were fired beyond those of the coalition forces - contradicting ISAF's assertions of a firefight.

On March 13, ISAF issued a news release entitled ISAF Rejects Coverup Allegation (now rescinded). In the release, ISAF rejects Starkey's report of a coverup - although they fail to back this up in any coherent way, and they go on to accuse Starkey of inaccuracies. ISAF first claimed to have a recording of Starkey's interview with one of their officers to back up their claim of a misquote. Later, when Starkey requested to listen to the recording - they ignored him. When he pressed them - they informed him that there had been a misunderstanding, there was no recording - they had taken notes.

ISAF now claimed that, as a result of their investigation that had "taken weeks" to conduct, they had determined that the women had not been victims of an honour killing, but that their bodies had simply been prepared for burial - however, they still claimed that the women had been killed before the firefight.

On April 5, Starkey detailed information he had received from Afghan investigators and witnesses at the scene who reported that "US special forces soldiers dug bullets out of their victims’ bodies in the bloody aftermath of a botched night raid, then washed the wounds with alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened."

A day earlier, ISAF had issued a release outlining the results of their investigation into the incident which had determined that: 

"[I]nternational forces were responsible for the deaths of three women".

The two men "were shot and killed by the joint patrol after they showed what appeared to be hostile intent by being armed."

"[T]he releases issued shortly after the operation were based on a lack of cultural understanding by the joint force and the chain of command. The statement noted the women had been bound and gagged, but this information was taken from an initial report by the international members of the joint force who were not familiar with Islamic burial customs."

The release failed to provide any information that would explain how the "members of the joint force" would confuse the bodies of women they killed, as well as those of two men they killed, with bodies that had been murdered in a separate honour killing. Also missing from the release was any explanation regarding the origin of the initial statements regarding the "several insurgents" that died in the "firefight" - as well as any reference to the allegations of evidence tampering that was made by Afghan investigators.

On April 7, Mirza Mohammad Yarmand of the Afghan Ministry of Interior investigation reiterated their findings of "evidence of tampering at the scene by the patrol members" and added that "[i]n the end, NATO accepted our findings, and Gen. McChrystal agreed with the conclusions of our team." McChrystal's spokesperson, Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale has stated that McChrystal had been briefed by Afghan officials in "late march" - prior to the conclusion of the ISAF investigation announced on April 4.

Breasseale has indicated that McChrystal has now "ordered [a] subsequent investigation in order to reconcile certain aspects between the two investigations." As is the case with the promised joint investigation of the events at Ghazi Khan - it is not clear when, or even if the results of this investigation will be revealed.

A UK based organization, Media-Lens has provided some excellent reports on the media's lack of coverage of the Ghazi Khan incident. A BBC response to criticism by Media-Lens and its readers regarding the Corporations nearly non-existent coverage of the events at Ghazi-Khan included the following:

"It's worth noting that the circumstances of the incident are disputed, unlike some previous examples of civilians killed by coalition forces. The Afghan government and the UN believe that civilians were killed as the result of the US operation in Kunar. NATO still does not accept this and strongly argues that US forces killed insurgents." (Email from BBC complaints to Media Lens reader, February 19, 2010)

This statement was made by BBC on February 19, six days prior to NATO's admission that the boys it killed were not insurgents. To date - no significant coverage has been produced by the BBC or any other network news outlets for the purpose of uncovering the events that occurred in Ghazi Khan on December 27.

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.

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