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The Bombing at Bala Baluk


ISSUE:  Spring 2010

Are errant air strikes and night raids jeopardizing American efforts in Afghanistan?

A young boy, wearing a brown galabiyya, stands in front of a pile of rock rubble, behind which are the badly-damaged remains of a simple mosque.
A boy stands outside a bombed-out mosque in Granai. (Guy Smallman)

The burn ward at Herat regional hospital is the best public facility of its kind in Afghanistan. It was opened with American aid money to handle the influx of women setting themselves on fire to escape domestic abuse, a countrywide phenomenon most acute in the hardscrabble villages of the western plains. The first time I visited the hospital, in the spring of 2007, a dozen teenage girls were crowded into a dank hallway of the former building. Some were covered with third-degree burns, wrapped mummylike in gauze dressings, still breathing but condemned to die. Two years later, their desperate stories were overshadowed by the grim reason for my return visit. On May 4, 2009, the American bombardment of two villages in a Taliban-controlled area of Farah Province, about 170 miles to the south of Herat, had yielded heavy civilian casualties. Word soon reached me back in Kabul that several victims had been transported by the International Committee of the Red Cross to Herat for emergency treatment.

Details of the incident were vague and conflicting, the clash of narratives disturbingly familiar. Fighting in Bala Baluk District apparently broke out in the morning when hundreds of Taliban militants ambushed police, taking over a fortress near the hamlet of Granai and high ground in an adjoining village. Even with the arrival of reinforcements from a neighboring district, police said they were taking casualties. They called for Afghan army troops, who were quickly pinned down. US Marines based in Farah were summoned and they too required backup, this time from Special Forces operatives. Unlike most encounters in Afghanistan, in which insurgents attack and withdraw, the Taliban were pushing the engagement and, as fierce gun battles and RPG exchanges surged into the night, maintained the initiative.

At some point, air support was requested. Afghan officials later claimed that 140 people, mostly children, died in the ensuing attack, with some residents adamant the Taliban was long gone by the time the bombs struck. If confirmed, this amounted to the deadliest single incident against civilians in nearly eight years of war, at a critical juncture for the US-led mission. The US military countered that the Afghans’ claims were exaggerated, that most of those killed in the operation were Taliban militants attempting to take the area by force. Surgical air strikes hit only the houses that militants were firing from, it added; any civilian casualties must have been caused by Taliban grenades exploded among the locals in a cynical bid to frame coalition forces. No alternative death count was issued.

A sad-eyed little girl lies on a bed, her face and head bandaged. Her eyebrows have been singed off.
Seven-year-old Nuria Barakat, injured in the bombing and whose two siblings and mother were killed. (Jason Motlagh)

A nurse at the spotless new ward instructed me to put plastic coverings over my boots and wait in an anteroom. Mohammad Aref Jalali, the head doctor, was still dressed in scrubs as he finished a half day’s worth of interviews with Afghan journalists. When my turn finally came, he greeted me with a weak grip, and wearily asked if we could pause for a few moments. He sat his lean frame down and lit a cigarette, not seeming to care that we were in a sterilized area. “My patients are my first priority,” he exhaled, “and I’m not getting enough time with them now because of this [media attention].”

I offered to come back later, when the patients were rested, but Dr. Jalali shook his head. He stepped out to check with the victims’ parents and then motioned me inside. A laminated sign on the door read Infected Acute: Men. Inside, the room reeked of antiseptic. Haji Sayed Barakat and Sayed Malham held vigil over what remained of their families. Barakat had lost two children and his wife in the attack; Malham, a daughter.

A bearded man stands in the corner of a room, the sleeping form of a child on a bed in front of him.
Sayed Barakat stands watch over his wounded five-year-old daughter Fereshta. (Jason Motlagh)

Barakat, a sturdily built farmer in his midfifties with deep creases in his forehead, said he had been staying with relatives while his wife and daughters visited his mother-in-law in Granai, where the brunt of the bombing took place. Although he recalled hearing sporadic gunfire earlier in the day, he said no Taliban had passed through the area for at least two hours before the air strikes. At around 8 P.M., warplanes screeched overhead, followed by a series of concussions that made the ground tremble. The planes passed a second time, then a third. He ran toward the village in the pitch-darkness and found a crowd of people picking through blood-flecked rubble where a seven-room compound had stood. Some torn limbs were spotted in a tree. “It was total destruction,” he said.

Hand over fist, he dug by the flickering light of a hurricane lamp. Moans from below drove him on. It took more than two hours until he found his family, his wife identifiable by the torn shreds of a yellow scarf and his children’s bodies huddled around her. “How could the Americans, with all their technology, kill so many of the wrong people?” he asked in a voice more confused than angry. There is a common belief among rural Afghans that air strikes are precise to within four inches of their target. Barakat gestured toward his three wounded daughters: Tillah, twelve; Nuria, seven; and Fereshta, five. “My girls, do they look like Taliban?”

Malham stood to the side, cupping his daughter Nozou’s hand. Like thousands of Afghans seeking a better livelihood, he worked in Iran for months at a time, driving a truck to make a living, and did not learn of the attack until two days later; the news made him faint. He said the Taliban imposed a kind of shadow government in Bala Baluk, demanding money in exchange for “protection” he’d never asked for. His area had been trouble-free until a couple of years before, when the militants started coming from neighboring provinces where they faced greater pressure. Police in Farah were outnumbered by as much as three to one. The shift had attracted Afghan army units with American trainers to hunt them down. Militants would reappear as soon as security forces moved on. Malham blames the Taliban for the bombs dropped on his village. “If they didn’t bother us, there would be no bombs, no deaths,” he said, lowering his voice. “My daughter would still be outside.”

Her bangs and eyebrows singed away by the explosions, nine-year-old Nozou now could pass for a boy. The other children, faded from morphine, were numbed to my presence and to the flies that landed on them. Nozou kept her large brown eyes fixed on me. “There was war all around,” she said. It was nighttime and Taliban were outside in the streets firing their guns and shouting. “After some time the airplanes came and they bombed us two times. My mother said we should go to another place because they are bombing here. We went to another house. I was very tired and tried to sleep. Then I heard a very loud noise that went draaam and the house crashed down on us.”

She pointed to the raw skin on her face.

“I was hurt,” she said.

As news of the incident in Bala Baluk spread, the US military swiftly announced that a joint investigation was underway, but no amount of evidence to support its version of what happened was likely to make a difference. A spate of operations resulting in noncombatant deaths over the past year had eroded support for international forces and the weak central government they upheld. Foot-dragging in past investigations had added insult to injury, outraging the Afghan public. In this volatile climate, even rumors and half-truths were accepted as fact once they hit the street.

The day after the attack, villagers pulled up to the governor’s house in Farah city, the provincial capital, in Toyota pickup trucks stacked with bodies to demand answers. In Kabul, outraged lawmakers renewed calls for categorical restrictions on foreign forces and an end to air strikes. President Hamid Karzai denounced the civilian deaths as “unjustifiable and unacceptable,” which, in turn, prompted reflexive denunciations from political rivals that he was a pawn of the Americans, unable to confront them with anything more than words. Two days later, back in Farah, police fired on angry mobs that threw stones at the governor’s house and shouted “Death to America.”

There were echoes of Azizabad.

On August 22, 2008, while American news was dominated by Barack Obama’s announcement of Joe Biden as his running mate, the United Nations and Afghan government announced that up to ninety-two civilians had been killed in a US air strike on Azizabad, a desert village an hour south of Herat. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), the country’s leading homegrown rights organization, sent a team to Azizabad two days later. Extensive interviews, photo evidence, and fresh graves around the village indicated that ninety-one people—mostly women and children—were killed, a near match to the initial UN figure. (Thirteen of the dead were said to be armed militants.) The US military, for its part, rejected all the findings, saying the operation was a legitimate strike on a Taliban target and that it had foiled a planned attack on a nearby American base. An inquiry by the Combined Joint Task Force 101 concluded that no more than five to seven civilians had died, alongside thirty to thirty-five insurgents, including a local commander named Mullah Siddiq. In interviews with the media, officials suggested that villagers were spreading Taliban propaganda.

Locals were irate. The denial exacerbated resentments stemming from a July 17 anti-Taliban operation in nearby Zerkoh village, in which more civilians allegedly had been killed. Now Afghan troops deployed to Azizabad to distribute food were met with protests that lapsed into scuffles. Anti-American demonstrations erupted in major cities as the government announced it wanted to renegotiate the terms of the international presence. Then, on September 8, grainy footage recorded on a mobile phone in Azizabad surfaced. The videos showed bodies laid out on the floor of a mosque, wrapped in blankets and checkered shawls. At least ten of the dead were children. “One young boy lay curled in a fetal position; others looked as though they were asleep,” the Associated Press reported. “One child had half its head blown off.”

The new evidence compelled the US military to order a second investigation. On October 1, some five weeks after the fact, the Department of Defense released a report acknowledging that thirty-three civilians had been killed. No blame was ascribed for the attack, which was judged to be “necessary” and “proportional.” The summary also did not concede the flaws in the previous US assessment. The only substantive changes were a pair of “tactical directives” from General David McKiernan, the senior American officer in Afghanistan and the commander of the NATO-led mission, instructing commanders in the field to err on the side of caution when fighting near population centers.

Days after the Bala Baluk bombardment repeated the tragedy of Azizabad, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired General McKiernan. His replacement, Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, a former Green Beret who had recently commanded Special Forces in Iraq, was tapped to bring “fresh thinking” to the counter-insurgency campaign. The latest air strike gone wrong was never officially mentioned as the deciding factor; there was no need. Under General McKiernan’s stewardship, insurgent violence and civilian casualties had both steadily increased. According to UN figures, more than 2,100 civilians were killed in conflict-related violence in 2008, a jump of almost 40 percent from the year before and the highest number since the US-led invasion that removed the Taliban from power. Of those deaths, pro-government forces were held responsible for over 800. Errant air strikes were cited as the primary cause, followed by heavy-handed “night raids” on suspected militant hideouts.

General McKiernan’s critics had argued that the conventional “big army” approach he espoused was ill-equipped to deal with a scrappy guerilla movement that could easily blend with the population. The Taliban was entrenched across much of the south and east, the ethnic-Pashtun heartland. They were also making inroads in the north and west, areas where security had long been taken for granted. Obama, now three months into his presidency, was expected to double troop levels to reduce some of the strain. But it would still be a far cry from the massive buildup McKiernan had wanted in order to wage his brand of war. Airpower would endure as a means of bailing out limited US forces in Afghanistan. This dependency, and the spike in hostile contact as incoming forces pushed into fallow areas, would continue to jeopardize civilians—to the enemy’s gain.

The vast majority of innocent blood in Afghanistan is still on Taliban hands: in their bid to project an outsize threat in the cities, Taliban suicide bombers and IEDs routinely, if arbitrarily, kill ordinary people; and in the backcountry, militants deliberately attack coalition forces in and around settled villages and then use residents as human shields when American troops open fire or summon an air strike. But thanks to a sophisticated propaganda system that capitalizes on rural isolation and illiteracy, civilian deaths ensure that each battlefield loss is translated into a Taliban PR victory. Night letters, radio broadcasts, and mass-produced DVDs of purported foreign crimes paint American forces as infidel occupiers in the footsteps of the Soviet army.

A 2008 survey commissioned by ABC News and the BBC found that 36 percent of Afghans blamed the violence in their country on coalition forces; 27 percent, the Taliban. Yet opinion polls and death counts do not pinpoint the wrongs that have turned people away, and they don’t suggest what could possibly bring them back into the fold—or whether it’s too late. The Bala Baluk bombing offered a crack at that kind of insight, but a very slim one.

I began my investigation into civilian casualties in Afghanistan in November 2008. While most Americans were marking the historic election of Barack Obama to the American presidency, I was in the tactical-operations center at Forward Operating Base Sharana in Paktika Province. I had spent the previous month as an embedded reporter with the Army’s First Battalion 506th Infantry Regiment–Currahee, riding along on aggressive operations that spanned Paktika, Ghazni, and Wardak Provinces. Officers took pride in a boots-on-the-ground approach with as much time “in the red” as possible, but the vastness of Currahee’s battle space left a lot of ground uncovered. Lethal surveillance technology covered the gaps—and the regiment’s officers wanted to show me how.

A balloon camera had caught an insurgent IED-emplacement team in the act, squatting in the middle of a distant road, and the outlines of three ghost-white figures were now framed in the crosshairs on a crackling gray monitor. The major on duty had just finished describing the scenario over the phone to commanders at Bagram. “We need to be sure the bosses know what’s going on from the get-go,” he explained to me. “Once they’re in the loop, we’ve gotta get the lawyer’s approval.” Next, he was patched through to a military lawyer to whom he offered a more detailed backgrounder, including past bomb attacks on this same stretch of highway, to establish a precedent. “We’re convinced these are the bad guys we’ve been tracking for a while,” the major added. “It’d be really nice to take them out before they hit us again.”

“Ahhh, you know how I feel about these things,” the lawyer hesitated, stalling for time. “Let’s wait and see if they stay at it.”

The major relayed attack coordinates rapid-fire to the drone operator holed up in a bunker somewhere in the Nevada desert, his point of view visible on-screen. Officers crowded into the plywood room and leaned forward as the drone zeroed in. The screen flashed white. Impact was a silent dust cloud—poof.

This was standard operating procedure.

Delay too long and the insurgents walk away, but make a mistake that kills innocent people and the outcome could be worse. Take the time when a suspected IED team was spotted by a camera in similar circumstances, past dark on a route where US patrol convoys had been hit on multiple occasions. The usual procedure was initiated and approved, the major recalled. Right before the Predator launched its Hellfire missile, the camera zoomed out further, revealing a brick-making factory. “It was the Ramadan fasting holiday. These guys were working late to avoid the sun!” the major exclaimed. “We were seconds away.”

When the lawyer called back, the three men were still at work, so he gave the green light. The major relayed attack coordinates rapid-fire to the drone operator holed up in a bunker somewhere in the Nevada desert, his point of view concurrently visible on a separate screen. Officers crowded into the plywood room and leaned forward as the Hellfire-equipped drone zeroed in. The screen flashed white. Impact was a silent dust cloud—poof—punctuated by a round of cheers, and then a pause; one of the three was somehow still alive. Limping at first, the featureless man stumbled to his feet and started away. The Predator’s lone missile was spent. The major had to radio for an Apache attack helicopter to clean up.

Frantically, the target zigzagged over the hard-baked furrows. His steps seemed to quicken as if he could hear the distant thump of rotor blades. Coming to a qalat, he leaned against a wall to catch his breath. Had he gone inside he might have lived. But he sprinted for it again and, seconds later, 30 mm rounds cut him down. The contours of his body were erased.

There were two ways to get to Bala Baluk, and neither looked promising. Driving was the practical option but the paved road ran straight past Azizabad, where I was told that roving bands of Taliban or even hostile locals were known to waylay any unfamiliar vehicles. Flying was safer, but I could only go as far as Farah and there was only one flight a week, which I’d just missed. So I decided to pay a visit to the AIHRC regional office on the outskirts of Herat to get travel advice and fresh information.

Qader Rahimi, the regional director, proposed that we sit outside in the driveway of the walled compound as the sun mercifully receded. An aid brought out some plastic chairs and a table, and soon returned with a tray of green tea and sweets. I surveyed the skyline beyond the razor wire, lit by the twenty-four-hour electricity that was an exception in Afghanistan. A raft of steel and glass structures had gone up since my last visit, with more under construction. Rahimi said Iranian investment was fueling the boom: a highway from the border had recently been completed and a transnational railroad spur was set to open next year that would connect Herat to European markets. Such robust growth was hard to reconcile with the deteriorating security in the city’s suburbs.

I asked Rahimi if he knew of a young girl who was accidentally killed earlier in the month while riding in a car on the edge of town. His staff had investigated the incident, he said, but the girl’s name escaped him. The day before the Bala Baluk bombing, I was at my desk in Kabul scanning an English-language daily for any briefs relating to civilian deaths. Some incidents make headlines, and then there are smaller ones that are barely noticed. A two-paragraph article about a twelve-year-old girl shot dead by a daylight NATO patrol caught my eye. For all the wholesale damage caused by air strikes, these obscure tragedies were adding up. Rahimi pulled the open-case file from a stack on his desk. “Benafsha,” he said. “Her name was Benafsha Shaheem.”

Benafsha was traveling with family members from her village in western Farah Province to a wedding party in Herat. As they neared the city limits, their white Toyota Corolla wagon was fired on by a passing Italian convoy. Benaf-sha was seated in the middle of the backseat wearing a red dress. She was shot in the face and died instantly. (It was not the first time a wedding celebration devolved into mourning. The July 2008 bombing of an event mistaken for an insurgent gathering in eastern Nangarhar Province left forty-seven people dead—a month ahead of the Azizabad episode. In media shorthand it became known as “the wedding party incident.”) Benafsha’s uncle, Ahmad Wali, who was driving, said traffic was moving in both directions but rain made visibility poor. As armored vehicles abruptly came into view, he recalled, sparks flew in front of him and glass was sprayed into his eyes.

Italian forces based in Herat maintain the vehicle was repeatedly warned to stop prior to the “escalation of force.” These incidents are not uncommon. Vehicle-borne IEDs are a popular insurgent tactic. Frayed nerves, split-second decision making, misunderstood cues: any or all of these could have been a factor. Compared to other troops in Afghanistan, the Italians have been virtually untested in combat due to restrictions imposed by their government. The investigators’ report found the family vehicle was struck by a hail of bullets without apparent warning shots, suggesting that a jumpy soldier may have fired out of panic. An Italian spokesperson refused to comment when contacted.

Benafsha’s body was wrapped in a blanket inside a particle-board coffin and loaded into the back of the same vehicle in which she was killed; her brother sat in the seat next to her remains for the long drive back. Afterwards, Rahimi said, the presiding Italian commander contacted him to inquire how compensation could be made. In a rare gesture, the commander went in person by helicopter to the girl’s village and offered the Shaheems several thousand dollars in cash. The family refused to accept the money up front, but when it was agreed the funds would go toward building a school in Benafsha’s honor, they relented. 

Reached by phone, Benahfsha’s father, Aref, was unforgiving. “They are only killing people,” he said of coalition forces. “They can’t be trusted.” With Rahimi translating into the phone, I wondered if the official apology and settlement had softened any of the anger he felt. The tremors in his voice were audible. Benafsha is gone, he said, and so was any vestige of faith he had left in the Afghan government.

My attempts to get to Bala Baluk were shut down on all sides. A Herat field officer for the Red Cross (the only independent outside group to reach Granai) said his organization was forbidden to take foreign journalists to the attack site. Trying to sneak a journalist through could jeopardize his Afghan staff in a region where they were liable to encounter militants en route. Sure enough, when Rahimi eventually reached his Afghan field team by phone, they said they’d been stopped and harassed by armed men in Shindand for dressing in Western-style clothing. The farthest I could feasibly go was Farah city.

In the meantime, the US military had slightly changed its story. Public Affairs officers were now saying that a “number” of villagers had died after militants forcibly took them hostage. Initial military reports positing that some of the civilian casualties were caused by Taliban grenades were determined to be “thinly sourced,” according to an unnamed Pentagon official. On a snap visit to Kabul, Secretary Gates told baying reporters: “We regret any—even one—innocent Afghan civilian casualty. And we will make whatever amends are necessary.” But, he added, there was no confirmation. It was, at best, an oblique admission of partial responsibility.

Canadian Brigadier General Richard Blanchette, the top coalition spokesman and one of the more candid officers I met in Afghanistan, was more direct. At the outdoor canteen inside the ISAF headquarters known as Destille Gardens, General Blanchette assured me that he’d been personally involved in reviewing the decision-making process for air strikes—from mid-level officers down to commanders on base, to joint terminal attack controllers communicating with the pilot awaiting confirmation. “We are now double- and triple-checking,” he said.

As an example, the tall Quebecois described recently watching a live video feed, captured by an unmanned Predator, of a group of armed militants in southern Afghanistan entering a compound. For four hours, he said, the drone operator requested approval to strike. The area was a known Taliban redoubt, and no one else came or went. In the end, though, the attack was aborted by cautious officers who could not rule out that civilians may have been inside the compound too. “This is happening all the time. But,” he pointed out, “you never hear news reports that an air strike did not take place.”

Still, the lion’s share of air strikes and drone attacks that have killed noncombatants in Afghanistan are connected to US forces. Although the NATO policy dictates collective responsibility for a member’s mistakes, the blowback from these deaths has tested the alliance’s mettle in its first mission outside of Europe. American officers privately complain that some European counterparts, saddled with their own governments’ combat restrictions, are not doing enough. The Europeans’ contend that US forces fight too fast and loose, undoing months of good works with a single error.

Had errant attacks like Azizabad and Bala Baluk undermined the unity of the mission?

“Look, we know the insurgents will continue to use human shields, so we have to find a way of getting them without jeopardizing the security of the people of Afghanistan. In reality what this amounts to is for the leadership of the troops on the ground to consider,” he paused, “taking more time to get them.” I sensed a subtext in his measured words. “In an international environment, it’s even more important to have that discussion as to how we can improve, because there are challenges in that kind of environment.”

Clad in a sky-blue hijab, a young woman is flanked by four armed men.
Malalai Joya with her bodyguards at a safe house in Kabul. (Jason Motlagh)

One person who would have plenty to say was Malalai Joya, an activist politician from Farah Province. She is either a fearless crusader or a brazen fool, depending on whom you ask. Joya made a name for herself in December 2003, when, at age twenty-four, she stepped up to a microphone as the youngest elected delegate to the Loya Jirga, called to ratify a constitution. In a four-minute diatribe broadcast around the world, the pint-size Joya denounced assembled mujahideen leaders for crimes committed during the civil war, above shouts of “whore” and “infidel.” Death threats have since forced her underground with a detail of armed guards, but she remains an outspoken critic of the warlords and the foreign forces she says are no better for their callous treatment of Afghans.

Aggrieved supporters in Farah had been barraging her with phone calls, asking her to do something in Kabul. Three women went a step further and made the journey overland to have an audience with her. With their permission, Joya invited me to come to a safe house in the west of Kabul to meet them that afternoon. I knew the drill. A cab driver took me roundabout to be picked up by an assistant. From there I was driven through a maze of unpaved backstreets to a metal gate at the end of a trash-strewn alley. Her bodyguards, familiar from previous visits, apologized in the courtyard as they frisked me as thoroughly as the first time. 

When I was finally taken to the safe house, Joya greeted me with no veil and extended her hand with a warm smile. She was never one to hold back. But her conservative guests were ill at ease showing their faces and resisted sharing their stories until reassured it was safe. I’d wrongly assumed the women were Bala Baluk survivors when I’d been told they were from Farah. Their husbands, I came to learn, had gone missing well before the bombing. Two of them had no idea who was responsible. The third, Farzana, had some idea: she alleged that Afghan soldiers “with foreigners” had crashed through the door late at night and taken her husband, Faheem, at gunpoint. That was ten months ago. 

Night raids documented by rights groups typically involve unidentified soldiers storming a household, separating men from women, and taking one or more of the men for detention. Doors might be blasted open, shots fired, women exposed and embarrassed—a serious affront in this deeply conservative society. Traumas of this nature also have the predictable effect of scaring witnesses into staying quiet, especially when people are shot on sight, as is sometimes the case. Because the raids are often conducted by elite units hunting special targets outside the chain of command, rights groups say figures are harder to come by and reliable information is scarce. The overall lack of accountability is a grinding source of friction in affected communities.

Take the March 22 predawn raid on a village guesthouse in Imam Sahib, a dusty village near the Tajikistan border, that left five men dead. Probes launched by the AIHRC and Afghan media suggest the victims had no connection with the insurgency: the guesthouse was owned by the local mayor, reputed by locals to be a strong opponent of the Taliban; the only one possessing a gun was said to be the mayor’s bodyguard; and the other victims included his driver and cousin. The US military insisted it was a militant stronghold but would not disclose more. Further details on four detainees said to be incarcerated at Bagram prison were declared classified.

Farzana choked up recounting her fruitless attempts to track down her husband. A trip to the US base in Shindand, to name one, ended with her shouting outside the gate, barred from entering: “Who is going to help raise my children now?” Faheem was a simple laborer and dutiful father, she said, raising an emerald wool scarf to hide her tears. “Now,” she looked down at her daughter Maryam, asleep in her lap, “we are alone.”

Joya took Farzana’s hand and whispered soft assurances. “You see,” she turned to me, “today in Afghanistan we are trapped between two enemies—an internal one and an external one. The US has pushed us from the frying pan into the fire.” It was a stock line of hers that I’d heard before; they spilled out pell-mell when she was feeling impassioned. “You know the people of my country will reject outsiders who don’t show respect. The British, the Russians … this is our history. When one Afghan is killed his whole family becomes your enemy,” she went on, her eyes swelling with their usual urgency. “Eight years ago we welcomed the Americans. Now they must go.”

It was getting late and Joya had to change locations. Another assassination attempt against her was staged just weeks before from a house next door. The women each kissed her three times on both cheeks and adjusted their burqas as they exited. Joya shimmied into hers. The fact that she always had to wear one to travel outside was proof, in her view, that Afghanistan was really no better off than it had been under the Taliban. On her way out she promised to get in touch if she heard anything new from Bala Baluk.

A woman sits crosslegged on the floor of a sparsely-decorated room. Across from her are four women and a child, facing her.
Malalai Joya meets with women from Farah Province whose husbands have gone missing. (Jason Motlagh)

The independent team from the AIHRC came back from Bala Baluk with the findings of their weeklong investigation. Ahead of their report’s release, Nader Nadery, a prominent rights activist who heads the organization, told me that ninety to a hundred people had died as a result of the operation. Several militants were among the dead, their bodies found within destroyed compounds, he said, but it was not possible to distinguish whether they died in the firefight or as a result of the bombing. Video footage gathered by one of his staff showed the village reduced to rubble, ringed by hastily made graves outlined with strands of white tape. On the floor of a building, at least twenty bodies were wrapped in blankets and burlap rice sacks in preparation for burial. The head and arm of a child, perhaps five years old, lay uncovered. 

Within hours, the US military announced that twenty-five to thirty civilians had perished in Granai; they had their own video as evidence. The majority, they still insisted, were militants trying to hide among the villagers. Colonel Greg Julian, the chief spokesman for US troops in Afghanistan, said the latest findings were based primarily on footage taken from cameras on board the B-1 bomber that was flying overhead; it showed two groups of about thirty people entering village homes before they were hit with 2,000- and 500-pound bombs. While they could not be clearly identified from the footage, he said, “other information, which I wish I could release,” proved they were Taliban fighters.

Another public-affairs officer, Lieutenant Commander Christine Sidenstricker, told me that burial sites seen by US investigators were insufficient to corroborate Afghan-government claims. Of three sites that were examined, one had four graves, another had twenty-two graves, and a third mass grave contained the remains of an estimated nineteen to sixty-nine people. Investigators found that several hundred people fled the area as fighting intensified, she said, leaving open the possibility that many of those declared dead are still alive. In several instances, she pointed out, some of the locals interviewed claimed to have lost relatives who were later found standing in a crowd. As a final piece of evidence, the mass grave in question did not face Mecca, an unusual lack of respect that she interpreted might suggest the bodies were Taliban. (Villagers told Guy Smallman that the grave did not face Mecca because the tractor-dug hole contained body parts, not complete bodies.)

Commander Sidenstricker granted that some of these findings were subjective. The video footage was therefore the most vital piece of evidence bearing out the military’s version of events, she said. It was to be made public once it was fully reviewed. (It was not.) Even then, due to the destructive power of the bombs used and the fact that nearly all the victims were buried by the time investigators reached the scene, she conceded that “we’re never going to know just how many people died.”

Malalai Joya called me later in the week. “Come to my guard’s house right away,” she said. “There is someone here I’d like you to meet. He is from Bala Baluk and nineteen of his relatives died in the bombing. He has a list.”

Homayoun Farahi, a lanky twenty-two-year-old with a faint moustache, sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor while describing his ordeal of recent days. The morning after the air strike, he was contacted by his father and told that two of his uncles in Granai had been killed along with an uncertain number of family members. Homayoun had moved just two and a half months before to study agriculture at Kabul University. He traveled back to see for himself. It was an early, bitter homecoming. By the time he arrived in the village, he said, most of the bodies were already underground in accord with Islamic tradition. The mass grave stood out. After three days of interviews and observations, he figured it held about fifty bodies. An additional sixty-four bodies were found more or less intact, he said, while as many as fifty more could not be accounted for.

A young man holds up several hand-written pages.
Homayoun Farahi with his list of names of the dead and missing from Granai. (Jason Motlagh)

Among them were his uncles: Rahullah, a retired schoolteacher, and Muhammad Amir, a farmer, who vanished along with ten of his cousins. Homayoun had carefully written their names and ages and professions in columns on a sheet of paper—and didn’t stop with his relatives. The list was compiled into a five-page packet that he had photocopied. But how could he be sure? American investigators claimed that some people thought to be dead were later discovered to be living. And the video evidence they were slated to produce showed that large groups of Taliban had entered civilian compounds, accounting for most of the dead. “I know. I know,” he said calmly. “I grew up with these people, and they were not there.”

As soon as he returned to Kabul, Homayoun went to the National Assembly building on Darulaman Road to hand deliver his list to Afghan lawmakers. When no one would talk to him, he tracked down Joya through Belquis Roshan, an outspoken provincial councilwoman from Farah; he wanted advice on how he could approach the US military with his information. Joya praised his initiative but was at a loss to recommend his next move. If Homayoun was at a dead end he refused to accept it. “Please,” he said, “share my story with the American people.” He gave me a copy of his list.

Six weeks after the bombs fell on Bala Baluk, a military investigation admitted that American forces had made significant errors during the attack. The fundamental use of airpower was “appropriate,” according to the report. The two F-18 fighter jets involved had acted in line with rules of engagement, but ultimately a failure by B-1 bomber pilots to observe specific guidelines during the operation “likely” resulted in civilian deaths. In one instance, an unnamed senior official told the New York Times, the bomber was cleared to attack, but when he had to circle back he did not reconfirm the target before dropping his payload, leaving a chance that civilians could have entered. Had the rules of engagement been strictly followed, some of the strikes would have been aborted.

In the end, the report found that twenty-six civilians and seventy-eight Taliban fighters were killed—a figure that almost paralleled the findings of the final Azizabad investigation. The military would not discount the possibility that more civilians may have died.

General McChrystal was approved in June by the US Senate to become the new US military commander in Afghanistan. American success, he told lawmakers, should be gauged by “the number of Afghans shielded from violence,” rather than enemy fighters killed. He stressed that Afghanistan was not Iraq, and that troops needed to stay close to the people and rebuild confidence—at greater risk to themselves—if the war was going to be turned around. But the general hedged: strikes by warplanes and Special Operations forces would remain an integral part of America’s arsenal, he said, but attacks would have to be based on rock-solid intelligence and executed with precision. Irresponsible use, he warned, “contains the seeds of our own destruction.”

In his first initiative as commander, General McChrystal issued his own tactical directive forbidding coalition forces from hot pursuit of militants in population centers. Air strikes were likewise banned in populated areas unless forces on the ground were in danger of being overrun, a move hailed as the most specific measure of its kind to date. In practice, however, the general’s new directive wasn’t all that different from what his predecessor, General McKiernan, had put forward. After all, Marine Special Forces in Bala Baluk called in air support because, after hours of intense fighting, they were in danger of being overrun. Air strikes for US-led forces remain a tactical trump card, an assured way to win any engagement, and they continue to use it.

On September 4, barely three months after McChrystal took over, an air strike in Kunduz Province killed scores of locals who had gathered to collect fuel from two tankers stuck in the mud after being hijacked by the Taliban. It later emerged that the order, authorized by a German commander fearing an attack on the NATO base there, had been based on information provided by a sole informant. The fallout reverberated from Afghan cities all the way back to Germany, where protesters demanded a full troop withdrawal and the defense minister and head of armed forces resigned. The following day, General McChrystal, without body armor or a helmet, visited the scene of the bombing. He pledged an investigation.

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