Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Airstrike Report Belies "Blame Taliban" Line


The version of the official military investigation into the disastrous May 4 airstrike in Farah province made public last week by the Central Command was carefully edited to save the U.S. command in Afghanistan the embarrassment of having to admit that earlier claims blaming the massive civilian deaths on the “Taliban” were fraudulent.

By covering up the most damaging facts surrounding the incident, the rewritten public version of the report succeeded in avoiding media stories on the contradiction between the report and the previous arguments made by the U.S. command.

The declassified “executive summary” of the report on the bombing issued last Friday admitted that mistakes had been made in the use of airpower in that incident. However, it omitted key details which would have revealed the self-serving character of the U.S. command’s previous claims blaming the “Taliban” – the term used for all insurgents fighting U.S. forces – for the civilian deaths from the airstrikes.

The report reasserted the previous claim by the U.S. command that only about 26 civilians had been killed in the U.S. bombing on that day, despite well-documented reports by the government and by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission that between 97 and 147 people were killed.

The report gave no explanation for continuing to assert such a figure, and virtually admitted that it is not a serious claim by also suggesting that the actual number of civilian deaths in the incident “may never be known”.

The report also claimed that “at least 78 Taliban fighters” were killed. The independent human rights organisation had said in its May 26 report that at most 25 to 30 insurgents had been killed, though not necessarily in the airstrike.

A closer reading of the paragraph in the report on Taliban casualties reveals, however, that the number does not actually refer to deaths from the airstrike at all. The paragraph refers twice to “the engagement” as well as to “the fighting” and “the firefight”, indicating that the vast majority of the Taliban who died were all killed in ground fighting, not by the U.S. airstrike.

An analysis of the report’s detailed descriptions of the three separate airstrikes also shows that the details in question could not have been omitted except by a deliberate decision to cover up the most damaging facts about the incident.

The “executive summary” states that the decision to call in all three airstrikes in Balabolook district on May 4 was based on two pieces of “intelligence” available to the ground commander, an unidentified commander of a special operations forces unit from the U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MarSOC).

One piece of intelligence is said to have been an intercepted statement by a Taliban commander to his fighters to “mass to maneuver and re-attack” the Afghan and U.S. forces on the scene. The other was visual sighting of the movement of groups of adults moving at intervals in the dark away from the scene of the firefight with U.S. forces.

A number of insurgents were said by the report to have been killed in a mosque that was targeted in the first of the three strikes. The “absence of local efforts to attempt to recover bodies from the rubble in a timely manner”, the following morning, according to the report, indicates that the bodies were all insurgent fighters, not civilians.

But the report indicates that the airstrikes referred to as the “second B1-B strike” and the “third B-1B strike” caused virtually all of the civilian deaths. The report’s treatment of those two strikes is notable primarily for what it omits with regard to information on casualties rather than for what it includes.

It indicates that the ground force commander judged the movement of a “second large group” – again at night without clear identification of whether they were military or civilian – indicated that they were “enemy fighters massing and rearming to attack friendly forces” and directed the bombing of a target to which they had moved.

The report reveals that two 500-pound bombs and two 2,000-pound bombs were dropped on the target, not only destroying the building being targeted but three other nearby houses as well.

In contrast to the report’s claim regarding the earlier strike, the description of the second airstrike admits that the “destruction may have resulted in civilian casualties”. Even more important, however, it says nothing about any evidence that there were Taliban fighters killed in the strike – thus tacitly admitting that the casualties were in fact civilians.

The third strike is also described as having been prompted by another decision by the ground commander that a third group moving in the dark away from the firefight was “another Taliban element”. A single 2,000-pound bomb was dropped on a building to which the group had been tracked, again heavily damaging a second house nearby.

Again the report offers no evidence suggesting that there were any “Taliban” killed in the strike, in contrast to the first airstrike.

By these signal omissions, aimed at avoiding the most damaging facts in the incident, the report confirms that no insurgent fighters were killed in the airstrikes which killed very large numbers of civilians. The report thus belies a key propaganda line that the U.S. command had maintained from the beginning – that the Taliban had deliberately prevented people from moving from their houses so that civilian casualties would be maximised.

As recently as Jun. 3, the spokesperson for the U.S. command in Afghanistan, Lt. Commander Christine Sidenstricker, was still telling the website Danger Room that “civilians were killed because the Taliban deliberately caused it to happen” and that the “Taliban” had “forced civilians to remain in places they were attacking from”.

The central contradiction between the report and the U.S. military’s “human shields” argument was allowed to pass unnoticed in the extremely low-key news media coverage of the report.

News coverage of the report has focused either on the official estimate of only 26 civilian deaths and the much larger number of Taliban casualties or on the absence of blame on the part of U.S. military personnel found by the investigators.

The Associated Press reported that the United States had “accidentally killed an estimated 26 Afghan civilians last month when a warplane did not strictly adhere to rules for bombing”.

The New York Times led with the fact that the investigation had called for “additional training” of U.S. air crews and ground forces but did hold any personnel “culpable” for failing to follow the existing rules of engagement.

None of the news media reporting on the highly expurgated version of the investigation pointed out that it had confirmed, in effect, the version of the event that had been put forward by residents of the bombed villages.

As reported by the New York Times May 6, one of the residents interviewed by phone said six houses had been completely destroyed and that the victims of the bombing “were rushing to go to their relative’s houses where they believed they would be safe, but they were hit on the way.”

GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam“, was published in 2006.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Qaddafi
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017
Ron Jacobs
A Theory of Despair?
Gilbert Mercier
Globalist Clinton: Clear and Present Danger to World Peace
James A Haught
Many Struggles Won Religious Freedom
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Dear Fellow Gen Xers: Let’s Step Aside for the Millennials
Winslow Myers
Christopher Brauchli
Wonder Woman at the UN
James McEnteer
Art of the Feel
Lee Ballinger
Tupac: Holler If You Hear Him
Charles R. Larson
Review: Sjón’s “Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was”
October 20, 2016
Eric Draitser
Syria and the Left: Time to Break the Silence
Jeffrey St. Clair
Extreme Unction: Illusions of Democracy in Vegas
Binoy Kampmark
Digital Information Warfare: WikiLeaks, Assange and the US Presidential Elections
Jonathan Cook
Israel’s Bogus History Lesson
Bruce Mastron
Killing the Messenger, Again
Anthony DiMaggio
Lesser Evil Voting and Prospects for a Progressive Third Party
Ramzy Baroud
The Many ‘Truths’ on Syria: How Our Rivalry Has Destroyed a Country
David Rosen
Was Bill Clinton the Most Sexist President?
Laura Carlsen
Plan Colombia, Permanent War and the No Vote
Aidan O'Brien
Mao: Monster or Model?