To the villagers here, there is no doubt what happened in an American airstrike on Aug. 22: More than 90 civilians, the majority of them women and children, were killed.
The Afghan government, human rights and intelligence officials, independent witnesses and a U.N. investigation back up their account, pointing to dozens of freshly dug graves, lists of the dead, and cell-phone videos and other images showing bodies of women and children laid out in the village mosque.
Cell phone images seen by this reporter show at least 11 dead children, some with blast and concussion injuries, among some 30 to 40 bodies laid out in the village mosque. Ten days after the airstrikes, villagers dug up the last victim from the rubble, a baby just a few months old. Their shock and grief is still palpable.
For two weeks, the U.S. military has insisted that only five to seven civilians, and 30 to 35 militants, were killed in what it says was a successful operation against the Taliban: a Special Operations ground mission backed up by American air support. But on Sunday, Gen. David McKiernan, the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, requested that a general be sent from Central Command to review the U.S. military investigation in light of “emerging evidence.”
“The people of Afghanistan have our commitment to get to the truth,” McKiernan said in a statement.
The military investigation drew on what officials called convincing technical evidence documenting a far smaller number of graves than the villagers reported, as well as a thorough sweep of this small western hamlet, a building-by-building search a few hours after the airstrikes, and a return visit on Aug. 26.
The repercussions of the airstrikes have consumed both the Afghan government and the U.S. military, wearing the patience of Afghans at all levels after repeated cases of civilian casualties over the last six years and threatening to erode their tolerance for the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai visited Azizabad on Thursday to pay his respects to the mourners, and condemning the strikes.
President Bush expressed his regrets and sympathy in a call to Karzai on Wednesday. And McKiernan has issued several statements voicing sorrow for civilian casualties.