KABUL, Afghanistan — The international Special Forces military team that targeted a Kabul office complex on Christmas Eve day thought they were thwarting a holiday season plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy.
But the pre-dawn raid that left two security guards dead found no explosives, no plot and no evidence that the building’s occupants — an Afghan armored car firm that has been working with the U.S. military for nearly a decade — were scheming to attack American diplomats.
Instead, the operation brought the issue of night raids directly into the Afghan capital as the country’s Interior Ministry Sunday accused U.S-led forces of flouting the law and company officials challenged NATO’s version of events.
“I asked them ‘What do we tell the families?’” Nawid Shah Sakhizada, vice president of Tiger International, the Afghan company at the center of the questionable raid, told McClatchy Newspapers on Sunday.
“I told them ‘you did not kill two cows. You killed two human beings,’” said Sakhizada, who was in the office during the confrontation. “We have to answer to the families.”
The U.S.-led military has dramatically expanded night raids such as this one to target Taliban insurgents across Afghanistan.
While NATO commanders say the raids are an essential — and largely successful — tactic, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has consistently questioned the wisdom of the operations.
Since mid-September, Special Forces with the U.S.-led military coalition have conducted at least 1,780 such operations that have ended with the death or arrest of 880 insurgent leaders and capture of more than 2,300 fighters, according to NATO figures.
But it is rare for such raids to take place in Kabul, where Afghan security forces have taken the lead in protecting the city.
On Sunday, Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry accused NATO of flouting an international agreement that requires Afghan security forces to be at the forefront of any such operations in the capital.
The Afghan government immediately disciplined two high-ranking Afghan security officials who helped the U.S.-led coalition carry out the raid without properly advising local police forces.
“The Afghan Interior Ministry is deeply concerned, and this incident should not have happened,” said Zemarai Bashary, the ministry spokesman who announced that a colonel had been fired and a general was suspended for their roles in the raid.
In the pre-dawn hours of Christmas Eve day, a specialized NATO team, joined by 18 Afghan colleagues, converged on the Kabul office complex where they suspected that two vehicles parked outside were packed with explosives in preparation for a Christmastime attack on the U.S. Embassy.
As the military force closed in on the parking lot filled with Tiger International vehicles, the U.S.-led military said that gunmen in the building opened fire. The short firefight ended with two Afghan security guards bleeding to death on the asphalt.
After seeing the NATO version of events, Sakhizada and his company Sunday accused the special forces of firing first when its Afghan guards came out of the building to find out what was going on.
While heading downstairs past a glass window overlooking the parking lot, Sakhizada said the soldiers opened fire and seriously wounded one of his security guards.
After forcing the surviving guards to surrender, the NATO-led team scoured the area and came up with no explosives, no car bombs and no evidence that the company was involved in a plan to attack on the U.S. Embassy.
Sakhizada said the soldiers apologized after finding nothing and cautioned the company not to speak to reporters. But company officials refused to remain quiet.
“Saying sorry is not so easy,” said Mohammed Faird Wafah, a friend of Sakhizada family who came to visit the office on Sunday. “Afghan blood is not so cheap. When something like this happens in the center of Kabul, what do you think happens in the more remote provinces?”
On Sunday, NATO officials were unwilling to discuss details of the incident, but said no U.S. forces were involved and categorically rejected the accusation that their soldiers fired first.
“The individuals on the ISAF team who fired their weapons fired after being fired upon,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition. “At that point it’s a self-defense issue.”
Dorrian said Tiger International, which has worked with the U.S. military since it pushed the Taliban government out in 2001, was not the target of the operation. But Tiger International officials said the forces suspected two of the company vehicles were packed with explosives.
Sakhizada called on the U.S. military to pay compensation to the families of the dead and wounded security guards.
Tiger International is part of a larger Afghan company that has more than $10 million in contracts with the U.S. military, said company president Shah Agha Sakhizada.
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent)
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