An internal Defense Department investigation into one of the most notorious night raids conducted by special operations forces in Afghanistan — in which seven civilians were killed, including two pregnant women — determined that all the U.S. soldiers involved had followed the rules of engagement. As a result, the soldiers faced no disciplinary measures, according to hundreds of pages of Defense Department documents obtained by The Intercept through the Freedom of Information Act. In the aftermath of the raid, Adm. William McRaven, at the time the commander of the elite Joint Special Operations Command, took responsibility for the operation. The documents made no unredacted mention of JSOC.
Although two children were shot during the raid and multiple witnesses and Afghan investigators alleged that U.S. soldiers dug bullets out of the body of at least one of the dead pregnant women, Defense Department investigators concluded that “the amount of force utilized was necessary, proportional and applied at appropriate time.” The investigation did acknowledge that “tactical mistakes” were made.
The Defense Department’s conclusions bear a resemblance to U.S. Central Command’s findings in the aftermath of the horrifying attack on a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, last October in which 42 patients and medical workers were killed in a sustained barrage of strikes by an AC-130. The Pentagon has announced that no criminal charges will be brought against any members of the military for the Kunduz strike. CENTCOM’s Kunduz investigation concluded that “the incident resulted from a combination of unintentional human errors, process errors, and equipment failures.” CENTCOM denied the attack constituted a war crime, a claim challenged by international law experts and MSF.
The February 2010 night raid, which took place in a village near Gardez in Paktia province, was described by the U.S. military at the time as a heroic attack against Taliban militants. A press release published by NATO in Afghanistan soon after the raid asserted that a joint Afghan-international operation had made a “gruesome discovery.” According to NATO, the force entered a compound near the village of Khataba after intelligence had “confirmed” it to be the site of “militant activity.” As the team approached, they were “engaged” in a “fire fight” by “several insurgents.” The Americans killed the insurgents and were securing the area when they made their discovery: three women who had been “bound and gagged” and then executed inside the compound. The U.S. force, the press release alleged, found the women “hidden in an adjacent room.” The story was picked up and spread throughout the media. A “senior U.S. military official” told CNN that the bodies had “the earmarks of a traditional honor killing.”
Witnesses and survivors described an unprovoked assault on the family compound of Mohammed Daoud Sharabuddin, a police officer who had just received an important promotion. Daoud and his family had gathered to celebrate the naming of a newborn son, a ritual that takes place on the sixth day of a child’s life. Unlike the predominantly Pashtun Taliban, the Sharabuddin family were ethnic Tajiks, and their main language was Dari. Many of the men in the family were clean-shaven or wore only mustaches, and they had long opposed the Taliban. Daoud, the police commander, had gone through dozens of U.S. training programs, and his home was filled with photos of himself with American soldiers. Another family member was a prosecutor for the U.S.-backed local government, and a third was the vice chancellor at the local university.
At about 3:30 a.m., when the family heard noises outside their compound, Daoud and his 15-year-old son Sediqullah, fearing a Taliban attack, went outside to investigate. Both were immediately hit with sniper fire.
“All the children were shouting, ‘Daoud is shot! Daoud is shot!’” Daoud’s brother-in-law Tahir recalled when I visited the family compound in 2010. Daoud’s eldest son was behind his father and younger brother when they were hit. “When my father went down, I screamed,” he told me. “Everybody — my uncles, the women, everybody came out of the home and ran to the corridors of the house. I sprinted to them and warned them not to come out as there were Americans attacking and they would kill them.”
Within a matter of minutes, a family celebration had become a massacre. Seven people died, including three women and two people who later succumbed to their injuries. Two of the women had been pregnant. Sixteen children lost their mothers.
The Americans were still present when survivors prepared burial shrouds for those who had died. The Afghan custom involves binding the feet and head. A scarf secured around the bottom of the chin is meant to keep the mouth of the deceased from hanging open. They managed to do this before the Americans began handcuffing them and dividing the surviving men and women into separate areas. Several of the male family members told me that it was around this time that they witnessed a horrifying scene: U.S. soldiers digging the bullets out of the women’s bodies. “They were putting knives into their injuries to take out the bullets,” Sabir told me. I asked him bluntly, “You saw the Americans digging the bullets out of the women’s bodies?” Without hesitation, he said, “Yes.” Tahir told me he saw the Americans with knives standing over the bodies. “They were taking out the bullets from their bodies to remove the proof of their crime.”
The U.S. military’s internal investigation into the raid, which was described in detail in the documents obtained by The Intercept, was ordered by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, who at the time of the raid was the commander of all international forces in Afghanistan. The lead investigator, whose identity was redacted, noted at the beginning of the report that he did not visit the scene of the raid, saying that the risks of “re-awakening emotional and political turmoil” would not have been “worth the cost.” Instead, family members of the victims were asked to travel to a U.S. base to be interviewed.
The documents’ redactions and omissions are perhaps more interesting than the conclusions of the investigation. U.S. Central Command released 535 pages, including more than 100 photographs taken at the scene, but withheld nearly 400 additional pages, stating that they are exempt from FOIA for national security reasons. Photographs of bodies and wounds were redacted. The documents include NATO press releases and talking points claiming that the victims of the U.S. attack were Taliban militants and offering the standard assurances that “Coalition Forces take every precaution to ensure non-combatant civilians are protected from possible hostilities during the course of every operation.” An error-laden “questions and answers” document stated that during the operation, “two militants [were] killed and one wounded,” and “one women and two children were protected.” A list of talking points titled “Post Operation IO and Mitigation” characterized the “Area Tribe” in the following terms: “One Ph.D described them as ‘great robbers’ and ‘utter savages’ and that their country was formerly a refuge for bad characters.”
While the investigation asserted that the soldiers did not dig any bullets out of the bodies of the dead, the sections of the investigation addressing this allegation were almost entirely redacted. The investigation found that the survivors interviewed in the raid’s aftermath, referred to as “detainees,” provided credible testimony. The report also noted “consistency in all eight detainees’ statements that would be impossible to pre-plan without prior knowledge of specifics of the operation,” adding that “the detainee reports corroborate that the women died when they tried to stop Zahir [one of the men killed] from exiting the building.”
Despite this assessment of the credibility of the survivors’ testimony, the Pentagon investigation dismissed outright the statements from multiple witnesses, including the husband of one of the dead women, that the Americans dug bullets from the women’s bodies. “This investigation found no attempt to hide or cover up the circumstances of the local national women’s deaths,” the executive summary of the investigation concluded. The investigators were instructed by the main U.S. command at Bagram to determine: “Did anyone alter, clean or otherwise tamper with the scene in any way following the operation, and if so, why?” The answer to that question was completely redacted.
The investigation did note, however, that the Afghan investigation conducted immediately after the raid “reports that an American bullet was found in the body of one of the dead women, but it does not say how that bullet was found or who removed it from the woman.” Citing statements from the members of the strike force that conducted the raid, the investigators asserted, “There is no evidence to support that bullets were removed from the bodies by anyone associated with U.S. forces.”
The initial press release on the raid contained erroneous information about the women being bound and gagged, according to the investigation, because “the ground force was confused by the unfamiliar sight of the women prepared so quickly for burial and firmly believed that they did not kill the three women.” The investigation concluded that the “assumption” that the women “had been killed by Afghans and placed on the scene” was an “honest assessment” and the result of a “lack of cultural awareness,” not “an attempt to mislead higher headquarters.”
According to the instructions provided to investigators, the U.S. forces claimed the women had been killed as many as two days before the raid occurred, but the report observed that their “remains were collocated with EKIA,” enemies killed in action, and photos taken in the immediate aftermath showed the women with wounds indicating they had been killed during the raid. “Was this an attempt to deceive?” That question was not answered in the documents provided by the Pentagon, at least not in an unredacted format.
The report also noted a curious contradiction. One of the men killed by American forces had been prepared for burial just as the dead women were — with a cloth wrap tied around his head so his jaw would remain closed. Yet when the U.S. forces first reported on the raid, they described only the women as having their heads bound and suggested their deaths were the result of a “cultural custom.”
The cause of death listed for the men was gunshot wounds to the chest. For the three women, the cause of death was “wounds.” The most credible theory, according to the final report, was that the women were killed in a “shoot through” once the raid had begun, and that their deaths were unintentional — and unknown to the shooters.
“It is undeniable that five innocent people were killed and two innocent men were wounded in the conduct of this operation,” the report stated. “To simply call this ‘regrettable’ would be callous; it is much more than that. However, the unique chain of events that led to their deaths is explicable.”
According to the report, the university official who was at the party inside the compound called the police headquarters in Paktia as the raid was beginning because he believed the house was coming under attack from the Taliban. All the witnesses interviewed stated that Mohammed Daoud, the Afghan police commander, left the party and entered the courtyard, believing he was confronting a Taliban attack. Still, the investigation concluded that the U.S. forces were justified in shooting him, as well as his cousin Mohammed Saranwal Zahir, the local prosecutor. The investigators found that the men had showed “hostile intent” because they were armed with rifles.
In the end, the investigation determined that American forces had followed the rules of engagement and standard operating procedures during the raid, concluding only that there were “tactical mistakes made.” The investigation recommended that the coalition forces “make an appropriate condolence payment to the family as a sign of good faith in our sincerity at the seriousness of the incident.”
Because of excessive redactions, these documents fail to answer many questions. While the report referenced “Special Forces,” the specific unit was redacted. The report also seemed to indicate that the strike force came from a base in another province, rather than the local base in Paktia, yet offered no explanation. The letter accompanying the documents provided to The Intercept stated that some documents could not be released because they would expose “inter-agency and intra-agency memorandum.” What other agencies were involved in this raid and subsequent management of the fallout and investigation? Who provided the Americans with the intelligence that led to the raid, which claimed that a Taliban facilitator was present? No explanation was given for why the documents, which were requested from SOCOM, the parent command of JSOC, under the Freedom of Information Act in March 2011, were only now released, after being reviewed by another — unnamed — agency.
The report noted that “there are considerable questions about the cause of the females’ deaths and males’ injuries” as well as “multiple inconsistencies between what was observed and what has since been reported by local nationals.” If the women were killed by U.S. forces, even in a “shoot through,” what happened to the bullets? The report stated that the throat of one of the women had been slit with a knife and that another dead body contained knife marks on the chest. Where did these lacerations come from? One investigator observed a blood splatter pattern that “appeared to be more consistent with blunt force trauma” and suggested “someone had possibly slipped on the ice and split open his or her head on the hard concrete.” If that is truly what the splatter indicated, then which person received those injuries? If the investigators determined the surviving witnesses of the raid were convincing and credible, why then was their testimony about Americans digging bullets out of the women’s dead bodies discarded?
Mohammed Sabir was one of the men singled out for further interrogation after the raid. With his clothes still caked with the blood of his loved ones, Sabir and seven other men were hooded and shackled. “They tied our hands and blindfolded us,” he recalled. “Two people grabbed us and pushed us, one by one, into the helicopter.” They were flown to a different Afghan province, Paktika, where the Americans held them for days. “My senses weren’t working at all,” he recalled. “I couldn’t cry, I was numb. I didn’t eat for three days and nights. They didn’t give us water to wash the blood away.” The Americans ran biometric tests on the men, photographed their irises, and took their fingerprints. Sabir described to me how teams of interrogators, including both Americans and Afghans, questioned him about his family’s connections to the Taliban. Sabir told them that his family was against the Taliban, had fought the Taliban, and that some relatives had been kidnapped by the Taliban.
“The interrogators had short beards and didn’t wear uniforms. They had big muscles and would fly into sudden rages,” Sabir recalled, adding that they shook him violently at times. “We told them truthfully that there were not Taliban in our home.” One of the Americans, he said, told him they “had intelligence that a suicide bomber had hidden in your house and that he was planning an operation.” Sabir told them, “If we would have had a suicide bomber at home, then would we be playing music in our house? Almost all guests were government employees.” By the time Mohammed Sabir returned home after being held in American custody, he had missed the burial of his wife and other family members.
In the end, the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, Vice Adm. William McRaven, visited the compound in Gardez accompanied by a phalanx of Afghan and U.S. soldiers. He made an offer to the family to sacrifice a sheep, which his force had brought with them on a truck, to ask forgiveness.
“We call them the American Taliban,” added Mohammed Tahir, the father of Gulalai, one of the slain women.
The internal investigation ordered by Gen. McChrystal into the Gardez raid is an incomplete accounting of this horrifying incident. It is also based on the word of the force that carried out the killings, whose personnel could have faced serious charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice if investigators had taken seriously the survivors’ allegations.
Portions of this article were adapted from Scahill’s 2014 book, Dirty Wars.