Anatomy of a US airstrike: Are Afghan strongmen calling the shots?
Jessica Purkis and Jack Serle report for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:
Afghan police commander Sadiqullah Sadaqat was taking a brief break from duty to buy lunch for his men. They were defending a security post on the outskirts of Tarin Kot, the capital city in the southern province of Uruzgan. The Taliban had launched a fierce battle for the city ten days earlier.
Sadaqat had been asked by local strongman Rahimullah Khan – the commander of a highway linking Tarin Kot to the major city of Kandahar – to defend a post located on this strategic stretch of road.
Tarin Kot was at risk of falling into Taliban hands, leading the Kabul government to call in General Abdul Raziq – the police commander of Kandahar province – to help defend it. Sadaqat was one of hundreds of men of diverse affiliations, some in uniform, some not, who were holding the line against a bold enemy.
Sadaqat had raised a group of sixteen men to man the post. But when he got back from lunch that day on September 18, he found nearly half of them dead.
It was not the Taliban that had killed them, but an airstrike ordered by General Raziq, the strongman called in from Kandahar (pictured in main image). One man died in an initial strike on a small post located above the main checkpoint and then a second attack, known as a “double tap” strike, took out a further six who rushed to help. Sadaqat heard the Taliban crowing over the attack on the radio as he prepared to head back.
The men were “torn into pieces by the Americans”, said Sadaqat, whose brother and cousin died in the strike. “God knows what happened, I do not have any information on what really happened or why it happened.”
The story of the friendly fire incident at Tarin Kot underscores the chaos on the ground in Afghanistan. Afghan security forces who are now leading the fight against the Taliban, with US support, are leaning on local warlords and irregular forces. Keeping the Taliban at bay depends to a large part on all these actors’ ability to work together. If Tarin Kot is anything to go by, the signs are not promising.
The battle for Tarin Kot
The Taliban made a push for Tarin Kot in early September. As they advanced closer to the city, government officials began to warn of its potential fall. The Afghan troops defending it were overstretched and complained of shortages in supplies from ammunition to food as they struggled to hold the insurgents back.
Rahimullah was in charge of the highway at the time of the strike. He had previously been deputy police chief of the province, a title given to him following the assassination of his brother, provincial police chief Matiullah Khan. . .
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The U.S. seems to be fighting in a war intimately entwined with cultural conflicts we do not understand. In wars in which the enemy wears uniforms and has a command structure that directs operations and can, for example, surrender, the U.S. has had some success (though not always: the Korean War, for example). But in wars driven by cultural issues, with the general population (civilians) being made up of both enemies and non-enemies, the US has not had much luck because traditional military attacks don’t lead to an involvement with and understanding of the local cultural constraints, demands, and norms, so we end up fighting somewhat blindfolded.