First-hand re­port from a for­got­ten war

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

ATal­iban sen­try fired the first shots shortly af­ter 2:30 a.m. as Afghan Com­man­dos and U.S. Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand troops sur­rounded the com­pound at Aziz Abad. Though the Marine Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Team had em­ployed a dar­ing de­cep­tion to achieve sur­prise, they were heav­ily en­gaged by AK-47 and ma­chine-gun fire al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter de­ploy­ing at the ob­jec­tive.

For the next two-and-a-half hours, the 207th Afghan Com­man­dos and their U.S. Army and Marine coun­ter­parts were in a run­ning gun­fight with heav­ily armed Tal­iban fight­ers in­side the walled com­pound. When en­emy com­bat­ants on rooftops and in nar­row al­ley­ways could not be dis­lodged by fire from U.S. and Afghan troops on the ground, they were hit by sup­port­ing fire from manned and un­manned air­craft over­head.

By dawn of Aug. 22, it ap­peared the Com­man­dos and their Amer­i­can ad­vis­ers had achieved a stun­ning suc­cess. Cred­i­ble in­for­ma­tion re­ceived af­ter a Shurra — a “town meet­ing” with lo­cal tribal leaders — re­vealed the tim­ing and lo­ca­tion of a Tal­iban gath­er­ing.

The in­tel­li­gence was painstak- in­gly con­firmed and U.S. Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand of­fi­cers sat down with their Afghan Com­mando coun­ter­parts to care­fully plan a “cap­ture-kill mis­sion” with the goal of tak­ing sev­eral key Tal­iban leaders into cus­tody. FOX News cam­era­man Chris Jack­son and I ac­com­pa­nied the raid force.

To us — and the U.S. and Afghan troops we were cov­er­ing — it ap­peared as if they were vic­to­ri­ous. Though one U.S. Marine had been wounded in the fray, a se­nior Tal­iban leader and 25 of his fight­ers were dead. A ma­jor Tal­iban arms cache was lo­cated and de­stroyed. Weapons, am­mu­ni­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment, ma­te­ri­als for mak­ing im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices (IEDs), and thou­sands of dol­lars in cash had been con­fis­cated.

As the Com­man­dos with­drew from the ob­jec­tive shortly af­ter sun­rise, they gen­tly treated and evac­u­ated a woman and her child who had been wounded in the cross­fire. Our Fox News cam­eras had cap­tured the bat­tle on video­tape — in­clud­ing the care­ful treat­ment of non­com­bat­ants. Un­for­tu­nately, the good news quickly turned bad.

While we were en route back to the base from which the raid had been launched, the U.S. ground force com­man­der re­ceived a re­port over the ra­dio that pro-Tal­iban ag­i­ta­tors were al­ready as­sert­ing, “The Amer­i­cans have killed 30 civil­ians.” The claims and al­leged num­ber of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties quickly es­ca­lated.

Shortly af­ter noon on the 22nd, Ira­nian tele­vi­sion re­ported that, “A U.S. air-strike south of Herat in West­ern Afghanistan has killed more than 50 in­no­cent civil­ians, in­clud­ing women and chil­dren.” To counter th­ese re­ports, U.S. air­craft trans­ported Afghan and for­eign re­porters to the Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions base so that they could see the con­fis­cated weapons and other ev­i­dence for them­selves. It didn’t help.

That evening, as we filed our full story with video­tape of the raid and an in­ter­view with a U.S. Spe­cial Forces of­fi­cer, un­named “sources” at the In­te­rior Min­istry in Kabul were telling re­porters that 76 civil­ians had been killed. Lit­tle or no at­ten­tion was paid to the Tal­iban arms or equip­ment that had been de­stroyed at the ob­jec­tive or of the care pro­vided to the wounded woman and her child.

By the morn­ing of Aug. 23, lit­tle more than 24 hours af­ter the op­er­a­tion, the in­ter­na­tional press wires and main­stream news out­lets were car­ry­ing pho­tos of dam­aged build­ings and an Afghan hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tion was charg­ing that 88 civil­ians — among them 20 women and 50 chil­dren — had been killed by U.S. forces. Later in the day, Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai first called for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion — and then de­nounced the op­er­a­tion.

Though fewer than 18 new graves were ev­i­dent in nearby ceme­ter­ies — and no lo­cal civil­ians had sought med­i­cal treat­ment for wounds — the num­ber of non­com­bat­ant ca­su­al­ties al­legedly in­flicted in the raid con­tin­ued to rise.

On Aug. 24, with sev­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tions un­der way but not yet com­plete, the Com­mando Bat­tal­ion com­man­der was “sus­pended.” That evening in a re­port on Fox News I noted that nei­ther cam­era­man Chris Jack­son nor I had seen any non­com­bat­ants killed and that, “the Tal­iban and their sup­port­ers are run­ning a very ef­fec­tive pro­pa­ganda cam­paign to dis­credit coali­tion ef­forts. Ex­ag­ger­ated claims of dam­age of­ten re­sult in de­mands for more money in com­pen­sa­tion.”

The next day the United Na­tions As­sis­tance Mis­sion in Afghanistan con­cluded that 90 civil­ians had been killed dur­ing the raid at Aziz Abad. Then, as we were de­part­ing for Herat, we were in­formed that the gov­ern­ment in Kabul was of­fer­ing $200,000 to set­tle the claims and plan­ning new re­stric­tions on Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand mis­sions.

Hope­fully, that won’t be the end of this story. U.S. com­man­ders here are ap­peal­ing to the Karzai gov­ern­ment to look at the ev­i­dence — in­clud­ing our video­tape — and con­tinue to sup­port in­tel­li­gence-driven op­er­a­tions against the Tal­iban. Brig. Gen. Khair Mo­ham­mad, chief of staff of the 207th Corps, West­ern Mil­i­tary Re­gion, told me: “We need to have Amer­ica’s help to win this fight. Your en­emy is our en­emy.”

He’s right. The sooner of­fi­cials in Kabul re­al­ize it, the sooner this war will be won.

Oliver North, host of “War Sto­ries” on Fox News Chan­nel, the au­thor of “Amer­i­can He­roes,” and the founder of Free­dom Al­liance, a foun­da­tion that pro­vides sup­port to the troops and col­lege schol­ar­ships to the sons and daugh­ters of U.S. mil­i­tary per­son­nel killed in action. He is on as­sign­ment in Afghanistan.

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