Hadji Abdul Rashid walks through the village of Azizabad in Afghanistan's western Herat province. His brother died in U.S. airstrikes last summer that, according to the Afghan government, killed 30 to 90 civilians. A U.S. Special Forces team is now trying to win back the villagers' trust.
Hadji Abdul Rashid walks through the village of Azizabad in Afghanistan's western Herat province. His brother died in U.S. airstrikes last summer that, according to the Afghan government, killed 30 to 90 civilians. A U.S. Special Forces team is now trying to win back the villagers' trust. David Gilkey/NPR
A U.S. Special Forces captain walks through the remains of a home that was destroyed last summer in the village of Azizabad.
A U.S. Special Forces captain walks through the remains of a home that was destroyed last summer in the village of Azizabad. David Gilkey/NPR
A villager in Azizabad stands near the destroyed homes.
A villager in Azizabad stands near the destroyed homes. David Gilkey/NPR
In Azizabad, in Afghanistan's Herat province, the memories of a Friday night last August remain painful.
A villager, Hadji Abdul Rashid, walks among the rubble of a house, his voice cracking with emotion as he recalls the relatives he lost here. Rashid's brother and other family members were killed, along with dozens of other civilians, when American bombs struck on Aug. 22.
"My brother, sons and kids there were here in this compound. Sometimes we came here. We had tea. We were sitting together. We were talking with each other," Rashid tells a group of U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers visiting him. "I can never forget these moments we had together."
Civilian casualties from bombings by U.S. warplanes have generated public outrage in Afghanistan and strained U.S. relations with the government in Kabul.
U.S. Reviewing Rules Of Engagement
President Obama's choice to lead U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, told a congressional panel last week that he plans to review the military's rules of engagement in Afghanistan to ensure that everything was being done to avoid civilian casualties. Failure to reduce civilian deaths "would be strategically decisive against" the war on insurgents, he said.
"The perception ... caused by civilian casualties is one of the most dangerous things we face in Afghanistan, particularly with the Afghan people," he said.
On Monday, the Pentagon released the results of an internal investigation that said U.S. forces failed to follow procedures, leading to an aerial bombardment that resulted in civilian casualties last month in a different part of Afghanistan.
The Afghan government says 140 people were killed in the strikes in early May, when a U.S. B-1 bomber targeted a village in western Farah province while a fight with Taliban militants was under way. U.S. commanders have said they believe no more than 30 civilians were killed.
"There were some problems with tactics, techniques and procedures, the way in which close air support was supposed to have been executed in this case," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told a news conference in Washington.
In an attempt to repair relations in Azizabad, site of the airstrikes last August, a Special Forces team has been tasked with rebuilding homes and restoring the trust of the locals.
'A Very, Very Difficult Job'
"One split second, tactical, on-the-ground call has strategic implications," says a Special Forces captain, 28, whose Green Beret team has been working in Azizabad for five months. For security reasons, he asks that his name not be used. "You have long-lasting effects from whatever happens. That's why it is a very, very difficult job."
The airstrikes last August were called in as Special Forces troops and Afghan commandos conducted a raid to seize a suspected insurgent leader from a house in Azizabad. The Afghan government and human-rights groups said the aerial assault killed as many as 90 civilians, including 60 children. The American military estimates that far fewer civilians were killed and injured.
The home of Rashid's brother is still a wreck. The roof is caved in. Steel girders angle into the earth amid piles of brick.
After the attacks, U.S. officials expressed regret and Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Azizabad to apologize. The village received payments for the people who had been killed and injured.
The incident in Azizabad prompted the military to tighten its rules on when and how airstrikes are carried out.
Karzai's protests over civilian casualties halted all U.S. military operations in the area for a time, say the American soldiers. That decision allowed the Taliban to regroup and move into the void.
Sipping Tea, Listening To Complaints
Meanwhile, the Special Forces in this part of Herat province meet with tribal elders over cups of tea, listening to their complaints and their needs.
Fighting among civilians and winning a counterinsurgency takes a particular patience, these soldiers say — and a willingness to make sure your weapons are precise, helping the people and killing only the enemy.
The American soldiers say Taliban extremists and other militants — what coalition forces call anti-Afghan forces, or AAF — are flourishing in these parts without a strong presence of Afghan and U.S. troops.
"A normal elder can't repel an AAF person because they don't have guns, they don't want to start a war, they don't want their families killed," says the Special Forces captain. "So, if there is no legitimate presence in an area, they [militants] can move in and do whatever they want."
Among those moving in, according to the Green Berets, was a man named Mullah Kareem, a top Taliban operative and an experienced bomb maker. The Special Forces say he was responsible for a recent nighttime bombing that injured seven policemen, two of them seriously.
To be able to defeat an enemy like the Taliban bomb maker, the Special Forces troops say they must first win back the confidence of the villagers, especially after what happened here last summer. Part of the effort by the American soldiers includes rebuilding a mosque, a school and a clinic.
"You don't watch action movies that have Green Berets doing civil affairs, humanitarian assistance, shuras [community councils]," says the Special Forces captain. "But this is what works and this is the long term and this is what Afghanistan needs."