Monday, February 21, 2011

Petraeus's comments on coalition attack reportedly offend Karzai government

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 21, 2011; 3:10 PM

KABUL - To the shock of President Hamid Karzai's aides, Gen. David Petraeus on Sunday suggested that Afghans caught up in a coalition attack in northeastern Afghanistan might have burned their own children to exaggerate claims of civilian casualties, according to two participants at the meeting.

Petraeus's exact language in the closed-door session at the presidential palace is not known, nor the precise message he meant to convey. But his remarks about the deadly U.S. military operation in Konar province were interpreted as deeply offensive by some in the room. They spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.

They said he dismissed allegations by Karzai's office and the provincial governor that civilians were killed, and said residents invented stories, or even injured their children, to blame U.S. forces for targeting civilians and to stop the operation.

"I was dizzy. My head was spinning," said one participant about listening to Petraeus. "This was shocking. Would any father do this to his children? This is really absurd."

Petraeus, through a spokesman, declined to comment.

U.S. and Afghan officials have started to investigate what happened during a three- to four-day operation in the mountains of Ghaziabad district, one of the most dangerous and inhospitable parts of Afghanistan. U.S. military officials said there is no evidence innocent civilians died. The governor of Konar, Fazlullah Wahidi, disagreed, citing reports from villagers that dozens of women and children perished. Karzai's office placed the civilian death toll at 50.

The key period involves five hours from Thursday night into Friday morning, when Apache helicopters fired on suspected insurgents who had gathered to attack U.S. and Afghan troops, said Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, the top U.S. military spokesman in Kabul.

Surveillance aircraft spotted them, he said, followed by Apache helicopters. The insurgents fled down a hillside in several small groups away from any houses. U.S. and Afghan ground troops remained far to the south.

During the next five hours, Smith said, surveillance drones tracked the fighters while Apaches fired 30 mm Gatling guns, rockets and hellfire missiles. "I have reviewed the footage and found no evidence women and children were among the fighters," Smith said. "Again, no civilian structures were anywhere near where these engagements took place. It was at night and in very rugged terrain."

According to intercepted conversations, Smith said, insurgents discussed contacting government officials to tell them civilians were being killed in order to stop coalition helicopters from firing. They also discussed their casualties, "stating they lost 50 and needed help in getting out the wounded and quickly burying the dead," he said.

On Saturday, Wahidi, the provincial governor, sent a three-person fact-finding team up the valley to the village of Helgal. They came back with seven injured people, including a woman and a man, both 22 years old, and five boys and girls 16 or younger. They had burns and shrapnel wounds, none life-threatening, Smith said.

The U.S. military "did have initial reports that the feet and hands of the children appeared to have been burned," Smith said. "We have observed increased reporting of children being disciplined by having their hands and feet dipped into boiling water. No one is claiming this is the case in this instance, but it may well be."

Petraeus apparently suggested something along these lines at Sunday's national security council meeting, remarks that "really bothered everyone," including Karzai, said one participant.

"He claimed that in the midst of the [operation] some pro-Taliban parents in contact with a government official decided to create a civilian casualty claim to pressure international forces to cease the [operation]. They burned hands and legs of some of their children and sent them to the hospital," said a second participant.

The anger greeting this message showed the political challenges inherent in dealing with allegations of civilian casualties, particularly in remote and dangerous areas where they are difficult to investigate. The Karzai government has repeatedly taken the coalition to task for killing non-combatants over the years.

"Killing 60 people, and then blaming the killing on those same people, rather than apologizing for any deaths? This is inhuman," one Afghan official said. "This is a really terrible situation."

The U.S. military is reviewing all operations, including other airstrikes, in Ghaziabad during these three to four days. "The review of these engagements is still underway, so there's always the possibility one of them may have resulted in civilian casualties, but regardless, reports from elders in the region appear unrealistically high and unsupported by anything we know to date," Smith said. The investigation "is still ongoing, so no final judgements are being made at this time."

Another senior U.S. military official responsible for Konar province agreed that "we haven't seen much evidence of many civilian casualties."

Also Monday, in northern Afghanistan's Kunduz province, a suicide bomber detonated at an Afghan government office while people were waiting to pick up government identification cards. The explosion in the Imam Sahib district killed at least 29 people and wounded more than 30 others, said Abdul Rahman Haqtash, the deputy provincial police chief. The Taliban took responsibility for the attack.

partlowj@washpost.com Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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