Abdul Ghafar mourns at the grave of a family member killed in a NATO night raid on Feb. 12. Photo courtesty of The Times.
This article originally appeared on www.niemanwatchdog.org.
UPDATE 4/5/10: The New York Times has now confirmed the cover-up by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In fact, it turns out that not only did American Special Operations soldiers slaughter the three women in question — they actually dug bullets out of the women’s bodies as part of a cover-up.
“Tied up, gagged and killed” was how NATO described the “gruesome discovery” of three women’s bodies during a night raid in eastern Afghanistan in which several alleged militants were shot dead on Feb. 12.
Hours later they revised the number of women “bound and gagged” to two and announced an enquiry. For more than a month they said nothing more on the matter.
The implication was clear: The dead militants were probably also guilty of the cold-blooded slaughter of helpless women prisoners. NATO said their intelligence had “confirmed militant activity”. As if to reinforce the point, coalition spokesman Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, a Canadian, talked in that second press release of “criminals and terrorists who do not care about the life of civilians”.
Only that’s not what happened, at all.
The militants weren’t militants, they were loyal government officials. The women, according to dozens of interviews with witnesses at the scene, were killed by the raiders. Two of them were pregnant, one was engaged to be married.
The only way I found out NATO had lied — deliberately or otherwise — was because I went to the scene of the raid, in Paktia province, and spent three days interviewing the survivors. In Afghanistan that is quite unusual.
NATO is rarely called to account. Their version of events, usually originating from the soldiers involved, is rarely seriously challenged.
This particular raid, in the early hours of Feb 12, piqued my interest. I contacted some of the relatives by phone, established it was probably safe enough to visit, and I finally made it to the scene almost a month after unidentified gunmen stormed the remnants of an all-night family party.
It’s not the first time I’ve found NATO lying, but this is perhaps the most harrowing instance, and every time I go through the same gamut of emotions. I am shocked and appalled that brave men in uniform misrepresent events. Then I feel naïve.
There are a handful of truly fearless reporters in Afghanistan constantly trying to break the military’s monopoly on access to the front. But far too many of our colleagues accept the spin-laden press releases churned out of the Kabul headquarters. Suicide bombers are “cowards,” NATO attacks on civilians are “tragic accidents,” intelligence is foolproof and only militants get arrested.
Some journalists in Kabul are hamstrung by security rules set in Europe or America, which often reflect the least permissive times in Baghdad rather than any realistic threats in Afghanistan. These reporters can’t leave their compounds without convoys of armed guards. They couldn’t dream of driving around rural Paktia, dressed up in local clothes and squashed into the back of an old Toyota Corolla, to interview the survivors of a night raid.
Ultra risk-averse organizations go even further and rely almost entirely on video footage and still images gifted by the entirely partial combat-camera teams or the coalition’s dedicated NATO TV unit, staffed by civilian ex-journalists who churn out good news b-roll. Others lap up this material because it’s cheaper and easier than having their own correspondents in a war zone.
This self-censorship is compounded by the “embed culture,” which encourages journalists to visit the frontlines with NATO soldiers, who provide them food, shelter, security and ultimately with stories. British troops will only accept journalists who let military censors approve their stories before they are filed. Ostensibly, this is to stop sensitive information reaching the insurgents. In my three and a half years in Afghanistan, the British invariably use it as an opportunity to editorialize.
In Helmand, in August 2008, a British censor attached to the Parachute Regiment threatened to ban me from ever embedding again if I filed footage of a paratrooper firing his heavy machine gun without wearing body armor. This had nothing to do with operational security and everything to do with health and safety, domestic UK politics (reference kit shortages and soldiers’ well-being), and ultimately “arse-covering” within the military.
To my eternal shame, I backed down. Embeds were my livelihood. I swapped the clip for something a combat camera team provided. But I was blacklisted for more than a year all the same — for arguing.
The Americans are just as subtle. I was thrown off a trip with the Marines Special Operations Command troops (MarSOC) last year when they realized I had written a story many months earlier linking their colleagues to three of Afghanistan’s worst civilian casualty incidents.
The platoon commander boasted that his Special Forces were “a fusion of weapons and intelligence”. Two hours later he asked me what my name was. Then he booked me on the next flight out. At least we know the weapons work.
As a freelance reporter, as I was then, the NATO blacklist was a daunting prospect. Many journalists I know here still prefer access to truth. Looking back, for me, it was the best thing that could have happened.
I have traveled from the north east corner of Afghanistan to the capital of Helmand province, and every major city in between, independently. I plan hard and take local security advice, and I am lucky that my newspaper supports me.
NATO however, is continuing to fight back. Challenge them and they will challenge you. They have admitted that the dead women were not bound and gagged, but rather had been wrapped in ritual preparation for burial. But NATO still insits the women were killed before, not during, the firefight. They have also admitted the two dead men were not the intended target of the raid. But they have also tried hard to discredit me, personally, for bringing this to the world’s attention. In an unprecedented response to my original story about the Gardez night raid they named me individually, twice, in their denial of the cover up.
They claimed to have a recording of my conversation which contradicted my shorthand record. When I asked to hear it, they ignored me. When I pressed them, they said there had been a misunderstanding. When they said recording, they meant someone had taken notes. The tapes, they said, do not exist.
Since then the United Nations and the New York Times have both corroborated my findings. The New York Times repeated the accusation of a cover-up. I take solace from the more experienced and intrepid of my colleagues who have been through all this before. NATO lies and unless we check them, they get away with it. If we check them, they attack us. It’s unpleasant but important. There’s no doubt in my mind that we must continue to question what the soldiers want us to know.