Noah Shachtman, Wired.com
June 23, 2009
Last month, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus and other American military officials strongly suggested that they were ready to show the public a classified video which they said would largely vindicate a series of deadly American air strikes in western Afghanistan. Now, a CENTCOM report on the incident has been released. But the video is nowhere to be seen. And the report fails to address why massively destructive one-ton bombs and airbursting munitions were used during the fight, when civilians were in the vicinity.
Secretary of State Clinton, President Obama, and other American leaders apologized after American F/A-18 jets and a B-1 bomber dropped munitions on suspected Taliban positions during a firefight in the village of Garani. As many as 97 civilians may have lost their lives, according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. But the U.S. military remained steadfast that the attacks on a set of Garani compounds were justified – and said that footage taken from the B-1’s weapon sight would “prove [t]hat the targets of these different strikes were the Taliban,” as Petraeus told NPR. The video allegedly shows that two groups of fully-grown adults going inside the compounds targeted by the B-1. Additional footage shows women and children streaming into other buildings that were not bombed.
“Are you going to release the video itself?” NPR’s Steve Inskeep asked the general.
Petraeus answered, “We won’t give it to you, but I believe that we will show it as part of the press briefing.”
U.S. military spokespersons also said that the armed forces were weighing the release of radio intercepts and other intelligence during that briefing, showing the “Taliban’s deliberate planning to create a civilian casualty disaster for us.”
For weeks, the military worked to schedule that briefing, while reporters wondered what had become of the Garani evidence. Originally, the press conference was planned for the Pentagon. Then, in Kabul, in order to “address the results in the environment in which the incident took place – amongst the people who were affected,” a military official tells Danger Room. “Several weeks ago, however, senior Afghani and U.S. officials indicated there wasn’t a desire for a press briefing in Afghanistan. The issue had run its course, and further public discussion only served to keep alive a painful issue and a difference of opinions in terms of the numbers of civilian casualties.”
So the press roll-out never happened. Instead, CENTCOM issued an unclassified summary of its report on Friday evening. Neither the video nor the intercepts were included.
The “video showed elements of our operation that if the enemy were able to view it, it could be easily be used to understand our TTPs [tactics, techniques, procedures], and then to adjust their TTPs, placing ground forces and civilians in jeopardy,” CENTCOM spokesman Capt. Jack Hanzlik e-mails Danger Room.
But Marc Garlasco, a senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch, questions whether security concerns were the only barriers to releasing the footage. “It makes you wonder if the video is as strong as was indicated,” he writes Danger Room. According to McClatchy’s Nancy Yousef, “two U.S. military officials [said] the video shows that no one checked to see whether any women or children were in the building before it was bombed.”
The report summary also left unanswered key questions about the Garani incident, Garlasco notes. “While this is a huge positive step for the U.S. … there is a lot we just do not know.”
For example, the report doesn’t explain why certain weapons were employed over Garani – and whether such use was appropriate. The B-1 dropped three GBU-38 500-pound bombs in an “airburst configuration.” That means the munitions detonated in the sky, instead of on the ground. Which would have put any nearby civilian in extreme jeopardy. “You air burst a weapon and it spreads the blast and frag damage significantly. It is the best way to cause collateral damage,” Garlasco notes. CENTCOM, for it’s part, claims that “evidence collected by the investigation strongly suggests no civilians were killed in this particular air strike.”
However, CENTCOM admitted in its report that later strikes – particularly a pair of 2,000-pound bombs, dropped late in the conflict – “may have resulted in civilian casualties” in Garani. “Neither the ground force commander nor the B-1B crew could confirm the presence of absence of civilians.” Garlasco wants to know why U.S. forces were “dropping 2,000 bombs on mud huts when it looks like the battle was done? Why not observe and then capture the guys later?”
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is taking a hard look at how air power is being employed. As he hinted in his recent Senate testimony, McChrystal is looking to severely restrict bombing runs when there is even the possibility of civilians in the area. “When we shoot into a compound, that should only be for the protection of our forces,” he recently told a group of senior officers. “I want everyone to understand that.”
“We don’t want another Garani,” a senior military official tells the Wall Street Journal. “The tactical gains simply don’t outweigh the costs.”
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