The Fog of War – Investigating a U.S. Airstrike on an Afghan Wedding Party
On July 1, 2002, a U.S. airstrike in the town of Deh Rawood, Afghanistan killed dozens of civilians at a wedding party. Conflicting accounts from American officials, the Afghan government, and local civilians led to tensions between the two countries. Shortly after the incident, a joint team of Americans and Afghans conducted an investigation of the site of the bombing. The U.S. military investigation reported 34 dead and 50 wounded.
Military officials had been investigating suspected Taliban strongholds in the area and placed blame on members of the wedding party who fired on U.S. aircraft. The Afghan government gave a conflicting assessment of 48 dead and 117 injured. Afghan officials also claimed that gunfire included only celebratory rifle shots. The U.S. military report ultimately concluded, “While the coalition regrets the loss of innocent lives, the responsibility for that loss rests with those that knowingly directed hostile fire at coalition forces.” The Afghan minister who led the joint investigation, Mohammed Arif Noorzai, later claimed that the Americans had admitted responsibility privately and promised monetary aid to the victims.
Michael Metrinko served as Chief Political Officer in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2002. He represented the embassy on an investigative team of U.S. military and Afghan officials who traveled to Deh Rawood shortly after the airstrike. As the conflicting reports from the U.S. and Afghan teams reflect, Metrinko himself left the investigation unsure of the facts of the incident, particularly the number of dead and wounded. Metrinko was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in August 1999. He discussed his impressions of the site of the strike, interactions with local civilians, his lack of certainty regarding the events, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s angry criticism of his efforts. You can also read about the rise of the Taliban and about Metrinko’s experience as an Iran hostage.
“A dearth of information”
METRINKO: The incident was the bombing in early July by the United States of a wedding party in the village of Deh Rawood… There was reason to believe that former Taliban officials were going to be gathering or at least present at a wedding in of Deh Rawood. There was a military operation going on in the area. The military believed that one of their planes was being shot at by the people who had collected for the wedding so they called in an air strike. The wedding party or the wedding area was bombed. This happened I think probably on July 1st or so.
It happened and we found out about it by late that day because the whole [place] was bombed and the wedding party happened to be good friends and supporters of President [Karzai] in fact. It was his staunchest supporter in the area, the person who had helped him had supported him, who had stayed with him actually when he was fighting against the Taliban. This thing… was a dearth of information.
It was decided to send a team up immediately to investigate what had happened. A team to go up on the ground. The team was going to consist of Special Forces, a team of Ministry of Interior and other Afghan officials including the Minister of Tribal Affairs because [he was] familiar with the area, and myself as sort of a liaison or bridge between the military team and the Afghan officials. We found out about this… late one evening and we were supposed to stage at the airport the next morning at 7:00.
The Afghans were there early. I was there early. Special Forces showed up several hours late because they couldn’t get their helicopters in the air to come from about a 15-minute ride to the VIP section of the airport. They arrived very late with apologies… and we flew from Kabul Airport to the town of Tarin Kowt. We were supposed to stage in Tarin Kowt and go up over land….
A decision was made by the Special Forces person that he needed more support and so… he called in support for more Special Forces to come up. They had to drive up….
“None of us were trained investigators”
[The U.S.] paramilitary team… at Tarin Kowt did not support us in this. They did not want to go to of Deh Rawood at all and so they had no vehicles or any other way to help us get up there, I believe because they had been part of the actual military operation two days before and did not want to return. The military team arrived very late. It took them far longer to get… to Tarin Kowt than they’d thought and they arrived the next morning. Our departure was delayed and delayed and delayed. We finally departed and because we took the wrong road since no one had brought any guides, we ended up going up streambeds, riverbeds, etc. It took about six hours or so to get to our destination as opposed to the two-hour drive it was supposed to be over what turned out to be a good road….
We arrived, did the investigation which because of our very nature had to be cursory. None of us were trained investigators; we could look for things logically. I could look around at the sight and try and determine… what it looked like compared to a normal Afghan house, whether this indeed was the way a wedding would have taken place, things like that. We stayed overnight in of Deh Rawood and the next day….
In the village of course people were extremely angry, very emotional. They were extremely quiet, silent, but we had enough high-ranking Afghans with us, ministers and generals, etc. and we also had a lot of firepower with us. We had about 25 Special Forces guys with big weapons. They showed us the site, took us around and showed us where people had died. The bombs had hit the side of the… wedding party where the women and children were, not the men. I might add that no weapons were ever found that might have been shooting at the airplane….
I stayed one night sleeping in the guest house which was a large compound with the military and the next night I went and stayed with the minister and the other Afghans at the home of a local official which was far more comfortable. We were received emotionally, but not with overt hostility. People were very angry. A great many women and children had died they believed and said.
I did one of the strangest things I’ve ever had to do in my Foreign Service career at least. The second day we were there [with] the governor, the general who was with him, the Afghan general who was a deputy Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Tribal Affairs.
The local clergy decided to call… all the men of the town and area together to have a large prayer service in the mosque. None of my military companions would come to this. I represented the United States government at this ceremony, which had about 1,000 armed men sitting. I sat against the wall of the mosque in the front under where the preachers stand with a couple of the other officials. The commander of the Special Forces unit did come. He sat in a different place out of the crowd really. I was the one who sat up front and I was the one pointed to as the representative of the American government. It was not easy because every one of them was heavily armed. Normally they don’t carry weapons to the mosque, but they did this time….
“’You sound like you believe the Afghans that this actually happened’”
To this day I do not know what happened there. What I saw was a total absence of blood. There was no blood at all anywhere. A couple of specks, a couple of drops here and there. We walked through a large double compound. We walked up on the roads. There were lots of holes from probably bullets, but no indication of how long the holes had been there. This, of course, is a big… adobe mud compound.
When I asked about blood I was told… they had destroyed all the bedding, all the quilts, all of the mats, the carpets that the blood had seeped into. They finally brought one sort of quilt out to us to show us that was all slashed up, but there was no blood on it. The problem I have with it is that I did not see any indication myself that blood had actually been spilled there. That having been said the clinic insisted that a large number of people had been brought in wounded, hurt and others had died. People who had been wounded were actually seen in Kandahar by military representatives who went down to the hospital in Kandahar. We were shown places where people were buried, but we did not exhume any of the graves to see how long the bodies had been there.
I guess what’s important is that the people there believed this had happened. They came in one after the other to report to the minister and his staff the names of the people who were killed, wounded, their identifications, etc., daughter of so-and-so, sister of so-and-so. When we left they had a whole long list of names of the killed and the dead and the wounded with full identifications. I don’t think Afghans would lie about that, but I’m not sure. I don’t think so many people would lie about it.
I guess I came away from there feeling that, yes, indeed something had happened, a lot of people had died, been injured, but a slight hesitation in my mind — Did it really happen in the place that we were looking at?
itary] guys who went in there as part of the investigation team… weren’t trained police; they were just guys in uniform. None of them had been part of the operation so we all went in pretty open-minded…. The Afghans were adamant that this had happened and when we came back two days later, we went straight from the airport to give a briefing. It was quite clear then that the Afghan team believed that this had happened. These were the people who had died, these names, this number of people. The Americans were more hesitant. Something had happened, but we could not describe it in detail….
Some time after this [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz came in on one of his quick little jaunts. I gave the regular political briefing during the country team presentation to him, but then the Ambassador said that I had also been the officer who had gone with the military team to Deh Rawood and I gave a description of what we had done up there.
He got angry, quite angry and his comment was, “You sound like you believe the Afghans that this actually happened.”
I said, “Well, I’m just giving you the evidence. We did an investigation. Our conclusion was that something had happened, but we weren’t trained police investigators.”
He wanted to dismiss the whole thing as though it was a figment of the Afghan imagination. In fact I understand that when he came back to Washington he complained that the political officer there was touting the Afghan line.