Afghan Deaths Reignite Controversy Over Night Raids The U.S. says a recent midnight raid in the eastern Afghanistan city of Jalalabad killed a Taliban operative. Afghans say the botched attack killed only civilians. It's the latest incident to highlight the dispute over casualties and contribute to Afghan distrust of U.S. forces.

Afghan Deaths Reignite Controversy Over Night Raids

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

To Afghanistan now. On Friday, May 14th, U.S. and Afghan forces staged a midnight raid on a farmhouse near the eastern city of Jalalabad. Nine people were killed.

U.S. officials say they killed a Taliban operative after days of surveillance and shot only armed men. But Afghan eyewitnesses claim it was a botched raid that killed only civilians, one more reason, they say, the U.S. is losing its counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan.

NPR's Quil Lawrence traveled to the scene and sent this report.

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QUIL LAWRENCE: The birds are singing in fruit trees around Raifudin Kushkaki's farmhouse, just south of Jalalabad. Acres of fields with mountains in the distance surround the complex of mud-brick houses where about 40 people live and work the land. The serenity is deceptive.

Kushkaki climbs up a shaky bamboo ladder to show visitors the spent rifle shells on his roof, left there when U.S. soldiers surrounded his house, climbed up the thick courtyard walls and, Kushkaki says, shot nine people.

Mr. RAIFUDIN KUSHKAKI: (Foreign language spoken).

LAWRENCE: It happened at 1 a.m., and Kushkaki was asleep until the shooting started. But he reconstructs what he thinks happened: The Americans on the roof attracted attention from two drivers sleeping outside the courtyard. Fearing thieves, the drivers may have fired their guns and were shot by the Americans.

Then Kushkaki's brother woke and stepped out into the courtyard, where bullets felled him as well. And then Kushkaki's 16-year-old son, Habibudin, his eldest, went out toward the front gate.

Kushkaki points out the broken door where Habibudin fell as American soldiers blasted open the lock. There is blood on the wooden threshold and more in the courtyard where Kushkaki says he heard his son shouting. And inside the bedroom, there's a dark stain on the carpet where Habibudin bled out as the shooting continued outside.

Mr. KUSHKAKI: (Foreign language spoken).

LAWRENCE: This is my son's room, says Kushkaki, and pointing at a computer and an English textbook, he asks: Does this look like a Talib's room?

Mr. KUSHKAKI: (Foreign language spoken).

LAWRENCE: Kushkaki goes on to tell a familiar tale. He says the Americans were looking for a Taliban commander from a nearby province named Shamsudin. Instead, they came here and killed a farmer's son named Shamsurahman.

Kushkaki says he called the police, but the Americans didn't let them enter as the Special Forces went room by room, confiscating several pistols and rifles, normal household items here. It was dawn when the helicopters came, and the American soldiers left, taking one of Kushkaki's surviving brothers along to be interrogated.

Mr. KUSHKAKI: (Foreign language spoken).

LAWRENCE: Kushkaki cries in frustration that his family is modern, with many living abroad, and have no ties to the insurgency. He says foreign forces got it wrong and killed nine innocents. The American officials describe a completely different event.

Colonel WAYNE SHANKS (Spokesman, International Forces): Our forces, with the Afghan forces there, called into the compound and said hey, you know, come out, you know, we know you're in there. Come out. And they chose to fight their way out.

LAWRENCE: Colonel Wayne Shanks is a spokesman for international forces. He says that Americans, with Afghan soldiers and interpreters, surrounded the house. He says they used bullhorns to let everyone know who they were and the man they wanted to arrest.

Col. SHANKS: Our reporting says they made multiple call-outs without success and that the insurgents inside the buildings fired on our forces, who fired back.

LAWRENCE: Everyone who died in the raid was attacking the coalition soldiers, says Shanks, and there was no mistaken identity, no misleading tips. Using high-tech surveillance, the Americans had monitored Shamsudin for three days, and they say he was planning rocket attacks on coalition forces.

Americans photographed weapons they say came from the farmhouse, including a sophisticated sighting tool for launching mortars, as well as ammunition vests.

But that information wasn't enough to convince local Afghans. The next day, residents protested and clashed with Afghan police. Tribal elders denounced the American practice of raiding homes at night. After nearly nine years, Afghans don't trust the official story, says Jonathan Horowitz, a human rights researcher in Kabul.

Mr. JONATHAN HOROWITZ (Human Rights Researcher): With the history of civilian casualties and wrongful detention linked up to night raids, international forces really don't have the benefit of the doubt anymore to distribute facts and for them to be received as sort of the gospel.

LAWRENCE: American and NATO forces are acutely aware of their public relations challenge. The civilian casualty issue is seen as pivotal in the contest for public support between the Taliban and the American-backed government.

Horowitz says the coalition needs to offer more than the explanation of raiding Afghan homes at night and then killing the residents in self-defense. He points to another raid in February, when women and children died, and coalition forces initially denied any wrongdoing.

Mr. HOROWITZ: The investigations that take place usually aren't transparent. It's unclear as to how robust they are. The latest incident of a seriously botched night raid that happened in Gardez in February, it really appears as if the more serious investigation only occurred after the media and human rights groups brought attention into the public.

LAWRENCE: The U.S. military later accepted that mistakes had led to the civilian deaths in February. But equally, the Americans are eager to correct what they think is a misperception about their work and methods.

Two senior officials with the special operations task force that directed the raid on Kushkaki's house briefed NPR extensively.

They said between April 2009 and April 2010, the task force carried out 946 raids. They said targets are tracked by technical means in addition to human sources. Four out of five times, when they surround a house and call out on the bull horn, the suspect comes out without a shot fired. Afghan authorities are briefed on every raid, they said.

In a recent seven-week period, nine members of the special operations task force have died in the line of fire, the officials said. But they say they are confident that the night raids have effectively stopped insurgents from killing Afghans and coalition forces. In less than two percent of the raids, civilians died, the senior officials said, and that was sometimes in the crossfire with insurgents.

As for the raid on Kushkaki's house, they said the target, Shamsudin, was positively identified at the site and that the radios and mortar sighting equipment found at the house had no civilian use. The officials said they were fired upon first and returned fire.

As for the 16-year-old Habibudin, who bled to death, the officials say they believe he had a weapon in his hand, but they could not say for certain.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

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