A top US Special Forces commander visited the village of Khataba in eastern Afghanistan today to apologize for a night raid that went terribly wrong. It was here on Feb. 11 that a Special Forces team gunned down an Afghan police chief, a prosecutor, and three unarmed women, infuriating locals and drawing a sharp rebuke from politicians in Kabul.
Flanked by dozens of Afghan soldiers, Vice Adm. William McRaven, head of Joint Special Operations Command, spent an hour at the scene of the killings. “I am the commander of the men who accidentally killed your loved ones,” Admiral McRaven told Haji Sharabuddin, the family patriarch. “I came here today to send my condolences to you and to your family and to your friends. I also came today to ask your forgiveness for these terrible tragedies.”
It was a remarkable turnabout for the US military, which for two months after the killings declined to say what units had been involved or otherwise take responsibility for the deaths. Afghan investigators have claimed that Special Forces tried to cover up their involvement in the Afghanistan deaths, though that's a charge the US has denied.
But Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, is grappling with a counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine that calls for US troops, trained to be aggressive and assertive, to protect Afghans and win friends and allies that way. Since taking command last year, General McChrystal has issued tighter rules of engagement and kept a constant stream of communication about the need to keep civilian casualties as low as possible.
In a video conference taking questions from troops earlier this year, McChrystal said with some frustration "we've shot an amazing number of people" who were not, in fact, threats. In February, McChrystal apologized to the Afghan people after a NATO airstrike killed 27 civilians.
Admiral McRaven gave his apologies in the same room where 25 relatives had gathered the night of Feb. 11 to celebrate the birth of a newborn child, shortly before the Special Forces raid took place. NATO admitted responsibility for all five deaths for the first time on April 4, paving the way for Thursday’s visit.
Arriving in a cavalcade of trucks and armored vehicles, three Afghan soldiers pinned down a sheep and held a blade to its throat in a traditional Afghan gesture seeking clemency. Then an elder summoned them inside and McRaven offered his condolences.
“Sir, I know that you are a good man and that your family are good people,” he said. “We did not come here to any harm. The American soldiers came here to protect the Afghan people, not to hurt them. This was a terrible mistake.”
“Sir, you and I are very different,” he said. “You are a family man with many children and many friends. I am a soldier. I have spent most of my career overseas, away from my family. But I have children as well. And my heart grieves for you.”
Rising from among the dozens of soldiers and family members seated on the floor, Mr. Sharabuddin said he knew that “foreign troops came to Afghanistan to help us, to protect us, to bring security” and were “not here to kill the civilians.”
But, he said, justice would only be served when the Americans gave up the informant who sent the Special Forces squad to raid a house full of civilians and government officials. “We want that spy who gave the false information to the Americans,” Mr. Sharabuddin said. “I don’t want the spy for myself, I want him to face justice or be handed over to the commander of the [Afghan army] corps.”
Commander Abdullah, a member of the provincial council of elders, warned US forces not to “accept information too readily. Because the enemies of Afghanistan are always trying to trick them this way… During the 30 years of war in Afghanistan, everyone made some enemies, and everyone is trying to get their enemies killed like this.”
After McRaven left, the conversation followed the same theme. “I’m happy these people came here. High-ranking generals came here,” Sharabuddin said. “They used our tradition of bringing a sheep. I’m very happy… but I haven’t forgotten the spy.”