U.S. Airstrikes In Afghanistan Ignite Controversy

Afghanistan's president has said a recent U.S. bombing and airstrikes may have killed as many as 130 civilians. And he says the attacks have brought suspicion over U.S. military actions there.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

To Afghanistan now, where controversy and uncertainty still surround the attacks, last week, in a pair of remote villages. The villages are in a rugged mountainous area in the west, that's become a haven for the Taliban. At the heart of the controversy, are allegations that an American air strike may have killed as many as 150 civilians. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has made her way to Farah Province and she joined us from there, earlier.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Good morning Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now there are several investigations going on, the Afghan government, the U.S. military, Human Rights groups have looked into this. What are they finding between them?

NELSON: Well, there are very widely diverging accounts about what happened. You have the U.S. military saying that the Taliban, in fact, may have caused these casualties. You have the Human Rights Commission saying these were caused by bombs although they are basing this on second hand accounts as they haven't been able to get to the scene. You have the Governor fielding lots of complaints from villagers, that in fact the attack did come from the Americans.

But what seems to clear is that the Taliban instigated these attacks. That, basically they had gone into these two remote villages and tried to either collect taxes, behead people or just takeover the villages, depending on who you talk to. And that drew the Afghan forces in and then an American back up which led to this tragedy.

MONTAGNE: And so, in midst of all those various scenarios, you've been able to talk to some people there. So far, who have you talked to and what are they telling you?

NELSON: Well, we've talked to some of the victims who are still recuperating in hospitals at this stage. The five victims, one of them was a woman, four were children very badly burned. Basically what has been told to us by them is that there was fighting all day long, in around their villages. And that there was a lull, suddenly, at about six o' clock, that apparently Taliban fighters had left.

And then two hours later they heard the sounds of a drone flying overhead, and 20 minutes after that, bombs fell on to the homes. Apparently, after hearing the first plane, people started to panic and run to a particular house in one of the villages, Granai, which is where they remained and then shortly after that a bomb fell and all but seven were killed.

MONTAGNE: You just mentioned some burns that villagers were telling you about, and there have been reports that the U.S. has used white phosphorous incendiary bombs. What are people saying about that?

NELSON: Well, the U.S. military says white phosphorus was not used in any way shape or form in this mission, whether to illuminate, whether as part of the bomb. The villagers didn't say anything of this sort to us either. In fact, the person who was quoted as saying that he saw fire coming from a bomb that came from the sky, told us that he wasn't even - he didn't see the bomb, he heard about his wife and children being killed.

So, I spoke with the doctors and the nurses who've been treating the patients, and they say that by the time they got these patients - it was two or three days after the event - and they've been washed several times. But they also said that the wounds were very deep and it was unusual in the sense that they all suffered these very bad wounds, or the very bad burns, I should say, but they had no shrapnel wounds which they would expect to see with some bombings.

But again, they stressed very heavily, that they have no evidence, that it's just a possibility. And it's something that the Human Rights commission here in Afghanistan is certainly looking into. But again, they also stressed that they have no evidence, at this stage, of that.

MONTAGNE: And Soraya, in terms of helping these villagers, what would it take for helping organizations to get to them?

NELSON: Well, it's been very difficult, because these villages that have been struck are very close to areas that are completely under the control of the Taliban. Two hundred, 300, 400 fighters were sighted. The ICRC, I know, is trying to plan a trip out there to give some goods or hand out some supplies to these families. And a delegation has arrived from Kabul, to make condolence payments, on the part of the government of Afghanistan, to these families. But again, getting out there is impossible. I mean, even the Human Rights Commission, which is normally the first on the scene, has not been out there to investigate yet.

MONTAGNE: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, speaking to us from the provincial capital of Farah in Afghanistan. Thanks, very much.

NELSON: You're welcome.

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