The Strange Case of Bala Murghab

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Conflicting reports of dead and injured following US supply drop incident. By Mustafa Saber in Herat (ARR No. 345, 10-Nov-09)Contradictory accounts of dead and injured from Afghan and western forces and eyewitnesses have left a confused picture of an American military supply drop that appears to have gone disastrously wrong.

Up to 25 United States and Afghan military personnel, and perhaps as many as 14 civilians, were reportedly killed or injured in the incident in Bala Murghab district, an insurgent-riddled area in the northwestern corner of Badghis province, on the border with Turkmenistan, earlier this month.

A supply drop by the US military on November 4 intended for troops in the field landed in the Murghab river, a fast-moving and treacherous body of water, and the soldiers tried to retrieve it. According to the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, two paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division were missing after the airdrop and a search was launched for them.

Local eyewitnesses said that five men went into the water and only one came out alive. They said the bodies of two were retrieved, but two went missing.

“I don’t have confirmation of others involved,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Todd Vician of the ISAF Joint Command media office.

Initially, the Taleban claimed to be holding two bodies, but later reports quoted the insurgents’ spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed as denying that this was the case.

According to locals, things went badly wrong in the course of the search for the bodies.

Residents of Takht-e-Bazaar in Bala Murghab district say a helicopter containing US commandos along with Afghan soldiers landed in their area on November 6. According to eyewitnesses, the commandos began shooting indiscriminately as soon as they left the aircraft.

“They did not stop to see who is civilian, who is Taleb, who is armed, who is a government employee,” said Haji Mohammad Ismail, a tribal elder in Takht-e-Bazaar. “They were so angry, so wild that they even shot at Afghan military forces.”

The civilians caught in the crossfire included an old man and his son, said to Abdul Satar, 42, a shopkeeper who said the two men were his uncle and cousin.

“My uncle was a sick man, he could hardly move,” said Abdul Satar, shaking with anger. “Those tyrant Americans shot him and his son. I am not going to forget this crime as long as I live. They were just shopkeepers, they were not Taleban. They had no connections with any group.”

According to General Jalandarshah Behnam, commander of the 207th Zafar Corps in western Afghanistan, the search operation was conducted jointly by US special forces and one of his commando battalions, who subsequently fell victim to friendly fire.

“A number of Afghan and foreign troops were looking for the missing soldiers that were drowned some days ago in the Murghab river,” he said. “They mistakenly came under air attack by US forces.”

According to General Behnam, seven US soldiers died in the air strike, along with two Afghan National Army soldiers and three Afghan National Police. An Afghan translator was also killed, he added. In addition, 12 ANA soldiers and one policeman were injured, and the condition of several of them was critical.

Residents of Takht-e-Bazaar say the air strike also killed up to 14 civilians while destroying eight residential compounds.

“I can tell you the exact neighbourhoods where the bombs landed,” said Haji Ismail. “Post-e-Dahana, Khasa, Rood-e-Poyin, and Taraaz. At least 10 civilians died, and more may still die of their injuries. I have attended funerals.”

The general did not give any information on civilian casualties.

Major Abdul Jabar, the deputy chief of police in Badghis, confirmed Behnam’s figures for US and Afghan personnel killed.

But ISAF gives different numbers.

“No US service members were killed in the operation,” said Vician. “Five were wounded, as our press release states.”

The ISAF statement also listed seven Afghan security forces killed – four soldiers and three police. ISAF said that 15 soldiers and two police were wounded, while one Afghan civilian working with the Afghan army was killed and another wounded.

According to Vician, ISAF was investigating the possibility that the military personnel were killed by friendly fire.

“We are still looking into reports of civilian casualties,” Vician said. “Unfortunately, this operation is ongoing and we are limited to information we can provide to the public.”

The issue of civilian casualties is an explosive one in Afghanistan, where numerous incidents over the past eight years have inflamed public opinion against the foreign military presence, provoked demonstrations, and made the recruiting task of the Taleban easier.

General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan and the head of ISAF troops, has called for a revamped strategy that will emphasise the protection of civilians.

“The greatest risk we can accept is to lose the support of the people here,” McChrystal told CBS’s 60 Minutes programme in September. “If the people view us as occupiers and the enemy, we can’t be successful.”

But even in the few months since this new strategy was articulated, several incidents have provoked Afghan anger against the foreign military. An air strike called in by German forces in Kunduz in September killed up to 70 civilians; residents in Helmand say that nine insurgents targeted by an ISAF rocket on November 4 were, in fact, a family of farmers. British forces say they were planting a bomb.

Bala Murghab is about 50 per cent insurgent-controlled, residents say, and clashes are not infrequent. In July of this year, the central government signed a ceasefire agreement with the Taleban in Badghis, but it has not held completely.

Much remains unclear about the Bala Murghab incident – the exact numbers of casualties, whether insurgents were involved and what provoked the air strike.

But for the residents who have lost family members and homes, the reality is stark enough.

“Many people have been displaced,” said Abdul Shukur, the mayor of Bala Murghab. “Their homes have been destroyed and they are camping out up in the mountains.”

Mustafa Saber is an IWPR-trained journalist based in Herat.

IWPR builds democracy at the frontlines of conflict and change through the power of professional journalism. IWPR programs provide intensive hands-on training, extensive reporting and publishing, and ambitious initiatives to build the capacity of local media. Supporting peace-building, development and the rule of law, IWPR gives responsible local media a voice. IWPR works in Afghanistan, Caucasus, Central Asia, The Netherlands, Iran, Iraq, The Philippines, Southeastern Europe, Syria, Uganda, Southern Africa and Zimbabwe. for more information about IWPR please visit

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