U.S. Tries to Right Wrong After Raid Kills Afghans

In Afghanistan, the killing of innocent people in U.S. and NATO military airstrikes and raids has badly damaged Western relations with the Afghan people.

The United States is trying to make amends by sending military teams to meet with affected villagers and make condolence payments.

'A Very Great Loss'

One such team visits tribal elders from Nadar Shahkot in eastern Khost province to try to smooth relations and undo the damage caused by Americans during a late-night raid in March. The raid left six people dead, including a mother and two children. Two villagers were arrested.

One by one, the elders file into the governor's office and walk past the U.S. military team, whose members rise up from their chairs. It's a noisy procession, but the Americans and Afghans don't speak to each other at first.

"The best thing we can do is let people like the governor lead us through it," says Army Maj. David Baumgardner, who, along with the other Americans, appears uncomfortable.

Their interactions with the tribal elders will determine whether residents of this village will ever let them return to finish building a school.

The governor is not happy about the raid because Americans usually consult him before going in. But at the meeting, he's determined to help the military right the wrong, lest the insurgents gain from the tragedy.

After the villagers are seated, he nods in the special operations team's direction.

"This is a very great loss, but we are here to try and help you get through this situation," says Navy Cdr. Erika Sauer, who heads the U.S. provincial reconstruction team that aims to mend relations.

U.S. State Department representative Kael Weston is more direct.

"Our goal today is not to try and explain away what happened, but to try, as Cmdr. Sauer says, to help you through your loss, but to also try and make sure it doesn't happen again," he says.

Under international law, the meeting is not required to take place. Nor do the Americans have to make payments to the relatives of those killed — which, in this case, amount to $2,000 for each of the six dead.

But the U.S. military says such meetings and payments help keep Afghanistan from ending up back in the hands of the Taliban.

"If you don't offer some sort of recognition of suffering and some sort of assistance, whether it's monetary or in-kind assistance for civilian harm, you are going to see a tremendous amount of anger," says Sarah Holewinski, the executive director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, a nongovernmental organization in Washington, D.C.

Collaboration vs. Independence

The meeting, however, gets off to a bumpy start.

Tribal leader Amir Mohammed demands the soldiers who conducted the raid be brought to justice, as well as the informant who told the Americans his village harbored terrorists. He also insists that two villagers who were arrested in the raid be released. Otherwise, he says, the apology is meaningless.

The Americans agree to relay the message. Then, they hand over the money. Three stacks of crisp, orange Afghani bills are removed from a gray metal box and placed on a conference table in front of the survivors.

The youngest, Ghader Gol, with adolescent fuzz on his chin, looks at the money and glares at the Americans. He is one of the children who are supposed to attend the school they are building in his village.

Though he says little during the meeting, he has lost more than any of the Afghans present — his father, his mother and his 10-year-old brother.

"That the Americans build schools and roads does mean something," he says. "But this shouldn't have happened."

He and his uncles want to know why they weren't told the coalition believed insurgents were in their midst. They say there weren't any, but if there were, they would have turned them over.

But it's not that simple.

Col. Martin Schweitzer, who heads the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, says most of the raids are conducted with Afghan cooperation. But sometimes coalition forces need to act independently. He says in this case, some of the dead, as well as the two arrested men, were insurgents linked to hundreds of Afghan deaths.

"And so we go in there to try and constantly refine the procedures and techniques we're using to reduce the chances that any casualty — let alone civilian casualties — are going to be incurred," Schweitzer says.

Ghader Gol says he doesn't care. What he does care about is that the Americans have left him an orphan with eight younger brothers and sisters to raise.

Correction April 3, 2008

Due to an editing error, two of the Pashto language parts in this report do not match the translated voice-overs — they were reversed. This mistake is being corrected.

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