Afghan survivors describe NATO helicopter assault

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 3, 2010 

KABUL — The military helicopters swooped in from behind the three-vehicle convoy as it wound through a remote road in southern Afghanistan, and survivors of last week's deadly attack said they had no idea they were in danger until the lead four-wheel drive exploded.

After seeing the gruesome aftermath of that rocket strike, survivors of the NATO attack told McClatchy, women jumped from the second car and frantically waved their head scarves to try to stop the attack.

A two-star American general is in southern Afghanistan investigating the Feb. 21 strike, which killed 21 Afghans in Daykundi province and quickly prompted U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal to deliver a videotaped apology.

Survivors said they want more than that, however.

"What do we do with his apology?" said Hussain Dilbarian, a 20-year-old survivor of the strike. "It doesn't make any difference. The killers should be handed over to us. We don't want anything else."

The attack was a frustrating setback for McChrystal in his campaign to win Afghans' confidence by minimizing the number of innocent civilians who are killed by coalition forces fighting Taliban insurgents.

McChrystal has made the issue the cornerstone of the coalition's renewed efforts to regain the trust of many Afghans, by enacting tougher military directives meant to curtail civilian deaths and by owning up to military mistakes.

In an effort to figure out what went wrong that Sunday morning, McChrystal sent Army Maj. Gen. Timothy P. McHale to southern Afghanistan to lead the investigation.

" 'Do you have positive ID of the insurgents, and how did you determine that your forces were at risk?' " said Col. Wayne Shanks, the chief public affairs officer for coalition forces. " 'Were you being shot at?' Those are the hard questions you've got to ask your troops."

By the time the news became public last week, McChrystal already had apologized to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and launched a full investigation.

Two days after the attack, McChrystal released a videotaped apology, dubbed in the Dari and Pashto languages, in which he vowed to "prevent this from happening again."

"I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan people," McChrystal said in the video. "I pledge to strengthen our efforts to regain your trust to build a brighter future for all Afghans."

The day after the attack, the U.S.-led military coalition said that NATO forces had fired on a group of "suspected insurgents" who were thought to be on their way to attack Afghan and coalition soldiers a few miles away.

When troops arrived after the helicopter strike, they discovered women and children among the dead and wounded.

Survivors and local police said that 18 members of Afghanistan's Hazara minority, a group that traditionally opposed the Pashtun-dominated Taliban, were among the 21 people who were killed. Thirteen people were wounded.

In a series of telephone interviews with McClatchy, survivors of the attack described a frantic scene as they scrambled for safety and shouted at the helicopters to stop shooting.

Dilbarian said he was riding in a packed Toyota Land Cruiser in the back of the convoy when they heard helicopters behind them.

The SUVs, survivors said, were full of more than three dozen relatives heading to Kandahar for supplies and Kabul for medical treatment.

Though the convoy was driving through Taliban-controlled territory, the survivors said they didn't encounter Taliban checkpoints or fighters in the area.

It was only when the first rocket hit the lead vehicle, the survivors said, that they realized they were a target.

As passengers scrambled for safety, survivors said, women in the second car used their head scarves to try to wave off the attack.

"When they hit the first car, the women and the children came out of the second car so they could see women and children were in the car," said Ali Yar, 40, who was riding in the middle Land Cruiser. "But still they didn't stop the bombing."

Ali said the helicopters hit the last vehicle with a rocket and then used a mounted machine gun to target men as they ran for cover.

Local police have been videotaping interviews with the survivors as part of the investigation. Military investigators are reviewing tapes from the helicopters to figure out what the coalition forces could see on the ground.

"I just can't see our guys knowingly engaging somebody that they didn't think was an insurgent," Shanks said. "However, did they use the proper procedures to determine that? That's what they are looking into."

(Bakhshi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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