Secret files raise questions over civilian casualties
Updated on 26 July 2010
As news emerges of 45 civilians killed in a rocket attack by Nato-led forces last week, Channel 4 News investigates Wikileaks US military "secret" reports which suggest a disparity between UN and US civilian casualty figures.
At least 45 civilians, many women and children, were killed in a rocket attack by the Nato-led force in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province last week, according to a spokesman for the Afghan government.
The incident happened in Helmand's Sangin district on Friday when civilians crammed into a mud-built house to flee fighting between Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops and Taliban insurgents, said the source.
A spokesman for ISAF said on Sunday they were aware of reports about the incident and were investigating. Further comment was not immediately available.
It comes amid controversy over leaked documents from US military field reports revealed by Wikileaks.
Amongst the classified information published by the Wikileaks whistleblowers website is one incident in which troops reported killing 30 Taliban fighters, but a UN investigation found 90 civilian deaths including 60 children.
The 90,000 US field reports within the 200,000 pages published by Wikileaks includes some key incidents which conflict with previous official statistics in what appears to be the biggest breach of military security in US history.
Civilian casualties - Azizabad
According to Wikileaks, on 21 August 2008 a field report was lodged by Task Force Bushmaster. The unit reported killing some 30 insurgents while a subsequent UN investigation said 90 civilians died.
The field report states:
At 21:46GMT Task Force Bushmaster reported receiving small arms fire from five anti-Afghan forces (insurgents), 13 kilometers south east of Shindand Airfield. This is the village of Azizabad.
Close air support (CAS) was then requested by allied troops on the ground. The aircraft used to engage with the insurgents was a Lockheed AC-130 H Spectre. The AC-130 gunship is nicknamed "The Angel of Death" and is only used by the United States Air Force.
The report goes on to say friendly forces (allied troops) recovered at the scene of the battle five chest riggs for ammunition, one hand machine gun kalashnikov (RPK), eight AK-47 guns, 1,000 rounds of 7.62 milimeter bullets, 3,000 rounds of 7.62 milimeter loose bullets, $3,000, one body-armour carrier with ceramic plates, two digital cameras and improvised explosive device making materials.
Task Force Bushmaster reported that 30 anti Afghan forces were killed in action and one US military personnel wounded in action.
The battle then ended at 04:50GMT.
However the information in this field report is at odds with official United Nations statistics from the contact in Herat's Shindand district. Just days after the incident, the UN sent an investigation team from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), who concluded that some 90 civilians were killed during the AC-130 engagement. This was not referred to in the US ground report.
Furthermore the team of human rights officers of the UNAMA found "convincing evidence, based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, and others", that from the 90 civilians killed, around 60 were children, 15 women and 15 men. It concluded that another 15 villagers were wounded.
Kai Eide, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan said in a statement issued in Kabul on 26 August 2008: “This is a matter of grave concern to the United Nations. I have repeatedly made clear that the safety and welfare of civilians must be considered above all else during the planning and conduct of all military operations.”
According to the people interviewed by the UNAMA, the military operations lasted several hours. This ties in with what the ground report says.
The mission said in its report: “The destruction from aerial bombardment was clearly evident with some 7-8 houses having been totally destroyed and serious damage to many others. Local residents were able to confirm the number of casualties, including names, age and gender of the victims.”
As a result of the Azizabad operation, Mr Eide called on international and Afghan military forces to "thoroughly review" the conduct of the operation to ensure it does not happen again.
He stated: “The impact of such operations undermines the trust and confidence of the Afghan people in efforts to build a just, peaceful, and law-abiding State.”
"They must respect their duties under international humanitarian and human rights law to protect the people we are here to serve” he added.
One incident revealed in detail concerns Operation Medusa and the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force. A NATO Report on the incident estimated 31 civilians deaths happened during this operation but the detailed chronology set out by the military report on Wikileaks makes no mention of any civilian casualties.
According to Wikileaks, on 9 September 2006 this field report was filed:
At 05:24GMT the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF) requested medical evacuation for two Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers, who were 10 kilometers south-west of Patrol Base Wilson in the Panjwaii district.
At 0624GMT, the unit reported having one enemy wounded in action, three Afghan soldiers wounded in action, four Afghan soldier killed in action and one US army engineering training team soldier killed in action.
The Special Operations Task Force then reports receiving small arms fire and rocket propelled grenade (RPG) fire from 10 to 20 Taliban fighters.
It says the Afghan National Army (ANA) were clearing the area of the village, but fell back when the Taliban engaged with them. The Task Force soldiers then engage in a firefight with the Taliban with indirect and small firearms and is said to be manoeuvering on the enemy.
It then states that at 15:14GMT, the AC-130 Spectre gunships called in by elements on the ground.
The report estimates that that the enemy battle damage assessment (BDA) from the close air support of the AC-130 gunship engagement is 62 enemies killed in action.
At 1810GMT, the unit is engaged again with the Taliban and more air support is called in. This engagement resulted in 15 enemies killed, according to the ground report.
At 1925GMT, a resupply mission is executed for the unit, on the mission, and a US soldier wounded in action is evacuated to Kandahar Air field (KAF).
At 0015GMT, the AC-130 engages yet again with an enemy position, killing five enemies in action.
At 0100GMT, the unit resumes indirect contact on known and suspected enemy positions. Later allied forces begin movement to what is called phase line green (Masam Ghar).
At 0120GMT, the Task Force opens fire on three Taliban, resulting in two enemies killed in action and one enemy wounded in action. It then concludes that the total Battlefield Damage Assessment is 181 enemies killed in action.
Up until now, it was not known that so many people had been killed during Operation Medusa on the 9 September 2006. But the Wikileaks document clearly states that 181 enemies were killed in action.
In the months that followed the operation NATO investigated the airstrike. It concluded that some 31 civilians were killed, including 20 people from the same extended family. These civilian casualties are not mentioned in the field report. The only deaths mentioned are the 181 enemy deaths.
On 3 January 2007, a NATO spokesman acknowledged that "The single thing that we have done wrong, and we are striving hard to improve on next year, is killing innocent civilians."
Editor of Wikileaks Julian Assange told Channel 4 News: "There are also the big events. So Operation Medusa, late 2006. 181 people killed at once, most by an AC-130 gunship. A big airplane with cannons fixed on the side, circling and shooting.
"What is the full story behind that event? This information gives you the time, the place, the number of killed, the different aircrafts involved. But precisely what happened? Well it still needs to be discovered by linking up this information with reports on the ground, witnesses if there are any left, by soldiers who were involved.
He continues: "So we can see a broad range of suspicious events. 181 people killed with no proper description of why. On one day, only one person wounded, no captives and only one US soldier killed.
"Many of these events have a disparity and they need to be investigated. We also see hundreds, and there's probably thousands of, 'a child killed here, a girl killed there', people taken to hospital, lots of corruption by the NDS - the Afghan Intelligence agency and of course Taliban abuses, IEDs and blowing up hotels and so on.
"We developed a severity metric - so the number of killed, wounded, detained - and from that we can see the most to the severe according to the internal reporting which is not always accurate. So on top of that we see 181 killed and then go down the list. So the top area of that list are serious and require further investigations."
Military acronyms and abbreviations: what they mean
AAF - Anti Afghanistan forces (Taliban)
AC-130 - Spectre gunship (heavily armed seek and destroy aircraft)
ANA - Afghan National Army
AWT - Advanced weapons team
CJSOTF – Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force
EKIA – Enemy killed in action
EOM - End of message
ETT - Engineer training team
EWIA – Enemy wounded in action
FF - Friendly forces
HIMARS - High mobility artillery rocket system
ISAF - International Security and Assistance Force
JEL - Joint Effects List (low priority capture/kill list)
JPEL - Joint Priority Effects List (Special Forces kill/capture list)
KAF – Kandahar Air Field
MEDEVAC – Medical evacuation
NC - Non combatants (Civilians)
NOFORM - Not for release to foreign nationals
OBJ - Objective or target
RPG – Rocket propelled grenade
RPK - Soviet made light machine gun
SAF - Small arms fire
TB - Taliban
TIC - Troops in contact
WIA - Wounded in action
Z – Zulu time. This refers to GMT which is standard for Nato military forces