U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan are committing atrocities, lying, and getting
away with it
March 22, 2010
recently reported for The Times of London about a night raid on Feb. 12
in which U.S. and Afghan gunmen opened fire on two pregnant women, a teenage
girl and two local officials -- an atrocity which NATO’s Afghanistan
headquarters then tried to cover up. Now, in a blistering indictment of both
NATO and his own profession, Starkey writes for Nieman Watchdog that the
international forces led by U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal are rarely called
to account because most reporters are too dependent on access, security and
the 'embed culture' to venture out and see what's happening for themselves.
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.
By Jerome Starkey
"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.
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
Only that’s not what happened, at
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
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.
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 insists 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.