KABUL, Afghanistan — A NATO airstrike in Kunar province that may have caused as many as 67 civilian casualties has led to renewed tensions between the Afghan government and the U.S. forces. The dispute has been further aggravated by what many saw as offensive remarks by military officials suggesting that Afghan parents may have harmed their own children to inflate the figures.
NATO has denied that civilians were injured in the Ghazi Abad district of Kunar, and insists that their operational footage indicates that only insurgents were in the area.
But GlobalPost has learned that U.S. military officials detained two Al Jazeera journalists who were covering the incident, temporarily confiscated their equipment and, according to the journalists, subjected them to humiliating treatment and lengthy interrogations.
“When I was coming back from Ghazi Abad ISAF stopped me,” said Abdullah Nizami, a stringer for Al Jazeera Arabic service. “They made me stay with them, they took my warm clothing, and then transported me in a helicopter to their base. After several hours of interrogation they let me sleep. They released me after 28 hours.”
None of the material on his camera was damaged, said Nizami, and the equipment was eventually returned.
Samer Alawi, the Al Jazeera bureau chief in Kabul, confirmed the incident, and added that Nizami had been detained along with Saeedullah Sahel, who works for Al Jazeera English service.
“They were interrogated, and asked why only Al Jazeera got into these places,” said Alawi. “The U.S. forces saw their pictures and then confiscated their equipment. They took their warm clothes and made them stand outside in the snow. It was midnight. Then they took them by helicopter to their base.”
This version conflicts radically with what the U.S. forces say happened. The military does not deny that they stopped the journalists, but they absolutely refute the details. They also say that the journalists were in custody for less than 24 hours.
“They had no credentials,” said Lt. Col. Patrick Seiber, of Public Affairs Director of Regional Command East. “We were not sure they were journalists. They could have been insurgents. And they were not detained. They were held.”
Seiber acknowledges that the journalists had television cameras with them, but, he added, “They could have been insurgents with cameras.”
He confirmed that the journalists were transported to the base camp, but denies Nizami’s claim that helicopters played a role. “There were vehicles,” he said. “The camp was not that far away.”
Alawi maintains that the journalists were properly accredited, had identification with them, and furthermore had coordinated their movements with both the local government and the foreign forces.
“They had received permission from the governor to go into the villages where these airstrikes occurred,” he said. “They had footage.”
Seiber insists that the journalists were provided with proper food and shelter; the journalists earlier told two Afghan media outlets — Benawa and Pajhwok, that they had not been mistreated.
“[The foreign forces] did not misbehave with us,” Nizami told Pajhwok.
But Alawi says that their accounts of being stripped of their outer clothing amounts are true.
“They may not have been mistreated,” he said. “They were not beaten, but they were humiliated.”
In Alwai’s estimation, the aim of the detention was to keep the journalists from reporting on what actually happened in Ghazi Abad on the night of Feb. 19.
According to Provincial Governor Fazlullah Wahidi, more than 64 civilians were killed, including 29 children and 23 women. An Afghan delegation sent by President Hamid Karzai largely confirmed the figures on Monday, but more detailed studies by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the United Nations will take some time.
According to a report by The Washington Post, Gen. David Petraeus, in a high-level meeting that included President Hamid Karzai, suggested that, if children were burned or injured, in Kunar, it could have been done by their own parents.
Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, attempting to explain Petraeus’ remarks, may have inadvertently made things worse.
“Gen. Petraeus never said that children’s hands and feet were purposely burned by their families in order to create a CIVCAS [civilian casualty] event,” Smith told the Associated Press. “Rather, he said that the injuries to the children appeared inconsistent with the types of munitions used and that the burns to their hands and feet may have been the result of discipline sometimes handed out to Afghan children. Regrettably this is customary among some Afghan fathers as a way of dealing with children who misbehave.”
These remarks were deemed “outrageous, insulting and racist,” by presidential spokesman Waheed Omar, who is demanding an explanation.
The fracas has added fuel to an already raging fire. Civilian casualties are an extremely sensitive issue in the strained relations between the international forces and the Afghan government. While U.N. figures show that the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties are caused by insurgents, it is the incidents where U.S. or other foreign forces kill or injure non-combatants that seem to inflame local passions.
The Ghazi Abad attacks come in a particularly difficult week in Afghanistan, with up to 40 civilians killed in an insurgent attack in Jalalabad city, and another 31 dead in a similar hit in Kunduz province.
But it is Ghazi Abad and the row that followed that have claimed the angriest headlines.
If substantiated, the Ghazi Abad strike could be one of the largest single incidents of civilian deaths since an airstrike in Herat province killed more than 90, in 2008.
It also closely follows a sharp rise in air strikes by U.S. forces. In January, the Air Force flew close to 300 sorties — double the number registered in the same month last year.
It was an over-reliance on airstrikes and the concomitant civilian deaths that prompted Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, to drastically curtail air operations in 2009.
But with McChrystal’s replacement by Petraeus in June 2010, the brakes came off.
NATO officials have not backed down on Ghazi Abad. While they say they will launch an investigation into possible casualties, they dismiss reports of large numbers of non-combatant deaths.
But Nizami insists that he has proof. In an interview with a journalist from Mahaal, an Afghan radio news service, he told of his investigations:
“The local people said more than 60 people were killed and most of them were women and children, I saw and have video footage of the incident which shows women, children, dead bodies and injured people. I saw mass graves as well where seven or eight women and children were buried together.
“Later on when I listed those killed it reached to 67; there were 29 children, most of whom were between 6 and 18 years old. There were 23 women. The rest were men of various ages.”
It was this footage, says Alawi, that caused the journalists’ detention.
Seiber rejects this out of hand. He does not deny that the U.S. forces took the journalists’ cameras, but says that this was done in the interests of security.
“They could have been trying to film our operations,” he said. “They had pictures of our interpreters, which could have put the interpreters in danger if they got into the wrong hands.
“But I can tell you, there were no pictures of civilian casualties on those cameras.”
Nizami told Mahaal that he had been invited to the Presidential Palace, called the Arg, to share his materials with Karzai.
“Today I am going to meet President Karzai and share all that I saw and heard and all the materials I have,” he said on Monday. “I will tell him what the reality is.”