The Anatomy of an American Airstrike

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The bodies of men said to have been killed in the strike in Khost, Afghanistan, await burial. Gul Marjan Farooqzoi and Meer Zaman

This story was produced in collaboration with The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

There were too many bodies to bury by hand. As mourners made their way to the hardscrabble corner of southeastern Afghanistan where the attack occurred, the charred corpses lay bundled in burial cloth. Villagers had to bring a tractor to break up the cemetery’s dry soil before they could dig the graves.

On June 5, 2015, an American aircraft targeted two pickup trucks as they drove on a rock-strewn track near the village of Bati Tana, close to the border with Pakistan. The blast flung metal and scorched scraps of rubber meters from the wreckage. Photos taken shortly afterward show the vehicles burnt to their mangled frames. Fourteen people died. No one survived.

Khost province, where Bati Tana lies, has seen many U.S. airstrikes over the years. It sits next to Pakistan’s Waziristan region, and it’s home to various militants, as well as pastoral nomads. It was in Khost that the Taliban handed over captured U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl in 2014. The most recent strike here occurred in November 2015, when the media reported at least 10 militants were killed.

But there was something different about the June 5 incident. Within hours of the attack, the Afghan media reported conflicting versions of who was killed. And the nomads who lived in the area made an alarming claim: The dead were not militants; they were civilian mourners attending a local funeral.

Both the United Nations and NATO launched inquiries to find out the truth. Neither has published detailed findings, but NATO says all 14 were insurgents. The U.N. has come to another conclusion, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism discovered during a four-month investigation into the strike: It has classified all the dead as civilians—a view echoed by the Afghan government’s lead investigator.

Which of these organizations is correct matters, and not just to the relatives of the dead. If the U.N.’s findings are accurate, the 14 deaths were part of a dramatic escalation in the rate of civilian casualties caused by international airstrikes. Both the Khost incident and the more high-profile killing of 42 civilians in a Doctors Without Borders hospital in October contributed to an overall civilian death toll that reached 103 in 2015, according to the U.N.’s latest data. These 103 civilian deaths came from 411 U.S. airstrikes, an average rate of one civilian killed for every four strikes. In 2014, before the bulk of U.S. troops withdrew from the country, the rate was roughly one civilian death for every 11 strikes.

This rise comes amid growing pressure on the U.S. to start offering air support to Afghanistan’s security forces—a move that could further increase the number of civilian deaths.

The U.N. and NATO will say only how they classify the dead. But we dug further, conducting telephone interviews in Pashto with nomad elders and Afghan officials, and gathering photos of the wreckage, bodies and graves, as well as what were said to be the ID cards of the victims.

Along the way, we discovered three distinct narratives about what happened on June 5. One version is that the strike targeted a Taliban commander’s funeral. Another is that it killed innocent villagers as they returned for lunch after digging a local man’s grave. In the third version, the strike hit insurgents who had attacked a border police checkpoint. Much remains murky about that day. But even if the U.S. did kill insurgents at Khost, the lack of persuasive, transparent evidence has made the strike a perfect piece of propaganda for the Taliban.

02_16_vehicle_01 Villagers pick through the remains of one of the trucks. Gul Marjan Farooqzoi and Meer Zaman

Documenting the Dead

One of the few details about the June 5 strike that hasn’t been contested is that it largely affected the Kochis, a Pashto-speaking group of nomads with good political connections. The attack hit one of the places where the Kochi graze their animals during the winter. In the summer, they move to cooler provinces such as Logar and Paktia, but they also leave a few people behind in places such as Bati Tana to guard the houses.

Gul Marjan Farooqzoi is one of the Kochis’ local leaders. He was in Logar on June 5. He says he was performing Friday prayers when the strike happened. When he came out of the mosque, he saw he had a number of missed calls on his phone. Then it started ringing. On the other end of the line was a Kochi villager from the Bati Tana area.

Farooqzoi recalls the villager being furious, shouting, “Shame on you!” and complaining that he had taken so long to answer his phone when there were so many dead to deal with. The villager asked him to arrange coffins and to bring other people to help. Farooqzoi then spoke to Meer Zaman, a Kochi from a town near Bati Tana, and told him to head to the site immediately. Farooqzoi says he himself arrived two to three hours later.

Zaman obeyed. He says the bodies were still in the cars when he arrived. None of the villagers had a camera-equipped phone, according to Farooqzoi, but Zaman says he was initially reluctant to take pictures because it seemed disrespectful while people were crying around him. Later, he spoke to Farooqzoi again, who stressed it was critical to document the attack. Zaman then sent Farooqzoi photos via Viber and WhatsApp showing the bodies bound up in cloth—photos we later obtained.

When Farooqzoi arrived at Bati Tana, he went to inspect the corpses. As he puts it: “Most bodies were badly burned. Two or three people could not be recognized at all.”

A Living Man’s Funeral

As Farooqzoi surveyed the scene, the media began reporting one version of what was supposed to have happened. This narrative first cropped up in an interview given to Voice of America by Khost’s deputy governor, Abdul Wahid Patan, on the day of the attack. In that interview, Patan said the pickup trucks were part of a funeral procession for Taliban commander Ameen Kochai, who was allegedly killed on June 4. On June 6, Pajhwok, an Afghan news agency, reported that another Taliban commander, Bahram Kochai, was in the funeral procession when the Americans attacked.

But when we spoke to Deputy Governor Patan several months later, he seemed less sure about what had happened. “They [the villagers] said someone had died in Pakistan, and they brought him here for burial,” Patan says. “On the other hand, the government sources said it was a Taliban’s funeral, but we could not prove either of these claims.” When he spoke to the media on June 5, he had been drawing on information given to him by the local branch of the National Directorate of Security, which coordinates with the American military base in Bagram.

There is one significant problem with this version of events: Ameen Kochai, the Taliban commander who supposedly was killed on June 4, is still alive—and currently in Afghan custody.

02_16_Ameen_Kochai Taliban commander Ameen Kochai is shown here in Afghan custody, despite the fact that he was supposedly killed. NDS

‘I Swear What I Tell You Is the Truth’

We spoke to locals about what happened that day, and many say there was a funeral on June 5.  But they are talking about a different funeral entirely. The locals say it was for an ordinary man from the village, who lived on the other side of the Pakistan border. His real name was Meer, but everyone knew him as Jaakha. This narrative was volubly put forward in the Afghan media by Haidar Jan Naeemzoy, a Kochi member of the Afghan parliament. We heard the same story from several people from the Bati Tana area, all members of the tight-knit Kochi community. None were there when the strike hit.

02_16_Jakhaa_01 Meer, or Jaakha, the man whose funeral villagers say they were attending. Gul Marjan Farooqzoi and Meer Zaman

Ramazan Kochai, a 47-year-old community leader who acts as a mediator in some of the Kochis’ land disputes, arrived the day after the strike. He says it hit people as they gathered for the funeral ceremony, killing 14 men. The dead, he explains, came mainly from two families—a middle-aged man called Gulab Shah and his descendants, and two branches of the Khan family. “In the house of Haji Gulab Shah, there are only six people left—most of them children under 7 years old,” he tells us. The Khan families, he adds, were left with only one breadwinner. “In these families, there is not even a person left who would go to the market and buy tea,” he says. “I swear what I tell you is the truth, and if you could prove it wrong, slit my throat.”

Gul Marjan Farooqzoi, the community leader who arrived on the scene a few hours after the strike, says he knew Jaakha personally and provided a photo of him. We also spoke to Farooqzoi on a number of occasions to clarify and substantiate his account. He says the day’s events began when Jaakha’s relatives called people in the Bati Tana area to say they were bringing his body over for burial. The villagers started digging the grave in a cemetery a short drive away, Farooqzoi says, and finished by noon. Because the body had still not arrived by then, they decided to go home for lunch and Friday prayers. The Shah and Khan families drove back to their village, while the others walked. Shortly after they set off, Farooqzoi says, the aircraft struck the vehicles, hitting them near a checkpoint.  

We spoke to a relative of Jaakha’s, who was in neighboring Paktia province at the time of the strike. He confirmed that Jaakha’s brothers were driving the body over to Bati Tana when the attack occurred.

Though Farooqzoi could not make out the faces of some of the victims because they were so badly burned, he says he went to the families afterward and photographed the victims’ IDs, which he sent to us. Another villager gave us the names of all 14 victims. He says one of them was a Pakistani citizen called Fazil, whose body was sent back across the border. The 13 Afghan names he provided matched the ID cards provided by Farooqzoi.

There is nothing about the ID cards themselves that suggests or rules out that the men were insurgents. And there is an inconsistency in the villagers’ version of events: One says that Jaakha was already buried when the strike happened, while others insists his body had not arrived at the graveyard at the time. Deputy Governor Patan says that when he investigated the strike, he too was puzzled about where Jaakha’s body had been.

Farooqzoi tells us Jaakha was buried in a different part of the cemetery after the strike. He provided a photo of what he says is the grave. He also provided photos of bodies covered in blood-stained linen cloth, which he says were taken shortly after the missile strike. Other pictures show angry mourners digging, then burying the men. Today, each of the 13 simple graves is marked by four large stones.

The Drone Footage

The story, however, is not easily laid to rest. A well-connected, independent source in Khost province (who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject matter) says the strike followed an attack on the border police checkpoint. A Taliban commander named Bahram Kochai was killed in the strike, the source says, and three of the 14 killed were from Waziristan.

This was not the only report of a clash between militants and border forces. Mohammad Yaqub Mandozai, the provincial police security director, told the Turkish news agency Anadolu on June 5 that the strike occurred as the Taliban ran away “after fighting between frontier police forces and the insurgents who had crossed the border.” When we contacted Mandozai several months later to ask what he knew about the checkpoint attack, he said he didn’t want to comment because he had been transferred to a new role. We were unable to confirm that Bahram Kochai died in the strike.

There may have been one witness to the border checkpoint attack—a U.S. drone. NATO says it was able to disprove the civilian casualty claim by “pre-strike and strike footage.” But if footage showing the checkpoint attack exists, it has never been made public.

02_16_coffins_01 Coffins are laid out for the burial. Gul Marjan Farooqzoi and Meer Zaman

0216_coffins-2 Ramazan Kochai, a 47-year-old community leader, says the strike killed 14 men. Gul Marjan Farooqzoi and Meer Zaman

An Irresolvable Dispute

In their own ways, all three stories are problematic. There is little evidence to support the two that cast the dead as militants. And the version in which they were civilians rests largely on the testimony of a handful of people from the Bati Tana area, all of them from the Kochis. We were unable to travel to the scene of the strike because the area is so dangerous (a problem shared by Afghan investigators). So it is possible that Kochi elders leaned on people to support a version of events in which the dead had nothing to do with the Taliban.

There is also a noticeable gap in the villagers’ documentation of June 5—photographs of the immediate aftermath of the strike. This may be because the only person with a camera-equipped phone felt too awkward to take pictures so soon after an attack. But it is also possible that someone cleared the scene of potentially incriminating material before he began taking pictures. Nonetheless, the Bati Tana residents’ version of events was remarkably detailed and consistent, and Kochi elders do not claim civilian deaths every time there is a drone strike in eastern Khost.

The mystery of the different conclusions by NATO and the U.N. may even come down to different definitions of what it means to be a civilian. The U.S. will not disclose how it defines this, but the U.N. sticks closely to definitions set out in international humanitarian law. According to the interpretation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, only those “whose continuous function it is to take a direct part in hostilities” constitute members of an armed group during non-international conflict. This could theoretically mean that villagers who had links to the Taliban, or even those who had fought for them on occasion, would still be entitled to civilian status at the time of the attack.

Whatever the truth, what no one disputes is that the U.S. killed 14 people, and it has failed to persuade either the Afghan government or the U.N. they were militants. In the first half of 2015, NATO investigated 21 incidents in which civilian casualties were alleged to have occurred. A U.S. official says NATO disproved or discounted 17 of these claims, while three were passed on for national investigation by U.S. authorities.

The Khost strike, meanwhile, involved a joint investigation between NATO, which thought the dead were insurgents, and the Afghan government, which didn’t, and was simply designated “disputed.”

02_16_Khost composite01 Gul Marjan Farooqzoi, one of the Kochis’ local leaders, says he photographed the victims' IDs. Gul Marjan Farooqzoi and Meer Zaman

02_16_shrouds_01 People took photos of the dead in the hours after the attack. Gul Marjan Farooqzoi and Meer Zaman

It is hard to obtain more details from NATO about why it reached such a conclusion because of operational security. A spokesman for NATO says it considered “all available evidence, including…interviews” when investigating the claim there were civilian casualties at Khost. NATO has not even said what kind of aircraft carried out the June 5 attack, though U.N. data from the time suggests it was likely a drone.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which requires three different types of sources to declare a civilian casualty, did not specify how it had decided that the 14 dead were civilians. However, the Afghan government’s lead investigator Dilbar Jan Arman offered a reason: Bahram Kochai is not dead, he says, undermining the initial claim that the Taliban commander was in the funeral procession. The victims, he adds, came mainly from two families, and it would be unusual for so many members of the same family to be fighters, presumably because it would leave dependents vulnerable in the event of their deaths. He also says there were no weapons on the scene. But he would not offer detailed comment on the Americans’ assessment. “We sat together. We spoke about it,” he says, “but they insisted on their position, and we on ours.”

Either way, last year was not a good one for the U.S. in Afghanistan, at least from a public relations perspective: More civilians were killed by each airstrike on average than at any time since 2008. And the U.S. may wind up dramatically expanding its air war in the country in 2016. Since the bulk of U.S. troops departed, Afghan security forces have struggled to contain the resurgent Taliban, and there has been pressure on the Pentagon to offer air support. In January, retired U.S. General David Petraeus wrote an article in The Washington Post for America to “unleash” its airpower without expanding the troop presence. But as the 2015 casualty numbers suggest, "light footprint" air wars can be messy.

In Bati Tana, the mess has yet to be cleared up. Eight months after the strike, the burnt-out trucks are still there. They sprawl like carrion on the side of the dirt track, a mute reminder of death from above.