Published on Saturday, February 2, 2002 in the New York Times
Villagers Add to Reports of Raids Gone Astray
by John F. Burns
ANI KHEL, Afghanistan — When allied soldiers arrived by helicopter in the dead
of night last week to seize him and three other family members for questioning,
a villager named Serajuddin may well have thought he was the most blighted man
His violent detention came weeks after an American airstrike hit his home, killing 20 people, including his wife and 9 young grandchildren.
Mr. Serajuddin's story appears to offer an example of the harm to noncombatants that has been caused by the American-led military campaign, much of which has been concentrated in this remote, arid region 150 miles south of Kabul.
An American commander in this region confirmed Mr. Serajuddin's arrest on Jan. 21 to a local Afghan leader, and said he continues to be held by the American military, although his release is under review.
Because of several reported incidents like these, Afghan villagers accuse American bombers and Special Operations troops of being careless in their choice of targets. Afghans claim that more than 150 civilians have been killed in recent weeks in this region, which includes the Zhawara caves south of Khost, a primary focus of American bombing and other operations.
There is no way to achieve an accurate reckoning of the number of civilian casualties from the American operation. The country remains a swirling pool of rumors. In addition, it is difficult to assess the effects of the American operation accurately because of the way that it has been conducted, mostly by high- altitude bombing and lightning raids by Special Operations troops.
But accounts of errors have become increasingly insistent. This week, Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander of operations in Afghanistan, ordered an inquiry into an American Special Forces assault this month on what was believed to be a compound used by Taliban forces in the southern town of Oruzgan. Residents there have said several people were killed in error and the United States may have been misled by false information from one of two rival factions in the town.
Afghan authorities in Kandahar said on Tuesday that they were pressing the United States military about 27 people detained in that raid, and they hoped that some would be released in the next few days.
A common theme in the reports is that the American airstrikes and ground raids sometimes produce unwanted outcomes because they are often based on information that relies at least partly on local Afghan factions with scores to settle among each other.
"Obviously, it is war and it isn't going to be risk-free," said Col. Rick Thomas, a spokesman for the United States Central Command in Tampa, Fla. "We try to mitigate collateral damage, but it is going to occur."
He added that American commanders require multiple sources of intelligence on a particular target before it is attacked. "We've been very deliberate to use various sources of intelligence to confirm what we believe to be ground truth," Colonel Thomas said.
As for Mr. Serajuddin's fate, Colonel Thomas said he was not familiar with specific details about the raid on the Afghan man's compound last week. But another senior military official said that although the raid was based on intelligence gathered by American sources, the commando operation was carried out by forces from another unidentified country. He also suggested that Mr. Serajuddin may already have been released.
The origin of Mr. Serajuddin's problems appears to go back to Nov. 16. It was then, relatives say, that he and his family gave shelter to Jalaluddin Haqqani, the commander of Taliban forces in the southern provinces of Afghanistan who was fleeing from Kabul. Mr. Serajuddin's family and neighbors insist he did not know the commander, who was high on the list of America's most wanted men in Afghanistan, and his act was merely hospitality.
Just hours after the commander arrived at his family compound, two bombs destroyed Mr. Serajuddin's home and an adjacent guesthouse. Among the 20 people killed were his wife, Fatima, 3 grandsons and 6 granddaughters, relatives said.
Civilians have died in six different American-led attacks near here since Nov. 15, the villagers say. They include the bombing of a mosque in Khost on Nov. 16, just hours before the airstrike on Mr. Serajuddin's home. American military officials have confirmed that the mosque was hit by an errant bomb intended to hit a building belonging to Mr. Haqqani. On Dec. 21, a convoy of travellers on a country road was hit by an American airstrike.
Villagers and relatives of Mr. Serajuddin said that the only survivors of the American bomb that hit his compound in November were Mr. Serajuddin himself and Mr. Haqqani, the Taliban commander. After the attack, Mr. Haqqani fled with an injured shoulder, and remains at large today.
Last week misfortune struck Mr. Serajuddin again, when six helicopters arrived with commandos who smashed their way through steel gates into his battered compound.
"I don't know what is our sin," said Hajji Ajab Gul, Mr. Serajuddin's 75-year-old cousin.
The commandos burst into an undamaged building and seized seven men and boys asleep there, including Mr. Gul. He said the commandos bound their hands with plastic ties before searching the house, breaking open storage cupboards, then leaving again with Mr. Serajuddin, who is about 50, and three male relatives.
He said the commandos were accompanied by an Afghan interpreter who spoke Dari, the language of the Tajik people who predominate in northeastern Afghanistan. While one commando pointed his rifle at each of the men and boys, Mr. Gul said, another tied their hands.
"I'm angry," Mr. Gul said, as he recounted the events. "We are very poor people. Our expectation of the U.S.A. is that they will not bother us, in the way that the Soviets did when they were here. We need help from America, not banditry like this."
In November, after the bombing, Mr. Serajuddin told relatives and neighbors that he knew Mr. Haqqani by reputation only. He never had any association with the Taliban or Al Qaeda, he said, and agreed to take Mr. Haqqani into his compound only because of a Pashtun tribal tradition.
In Mr. Serajuddin's case, Wazir Khan Zadran, the brother of a local warlord, said he believed that a rival warlord with close ties to the Americans, Zakim Khan, may have deliberately misled the soldiers so as to make trouble for the Zadran clan, to which Mr. Serajuddin belongs.
"I told them they made a big mistake, thinking that Serajuddin was a big friend of Jalaluddin Haqqani," Mr. Zadran said of his conversation with American officers at the airport in Khost, where about 100 American commandos are camped. "I told them, `You have chosen the wrong friends in Khost, and they have been giving you the wrong information. Serajuddin is no more a friend of the Taliban or Al Qaeda than you are.' "
There may be relief for Mr. Serajuddin, however. Mr. Zadran said he has been told by American officers that Mr. Serajuddin and his three relatives had been flown 250 miles to Kandahar International Airport, where suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda men are being detained before some are flown on to the Guantánamo base in Cuba.
The officers in Khost said they would raise the case of Mr. Serajuddin and his family members with the American commanders based at the Kandahar airport. The American officer in charge at Khost, known locally as "General John," told Mr. Zadran that he thought that Mr. Serajuddin might be released and flown back to his village this week, like a number of other local men who have been seized in similar helicopter raids have been in the past month.
Attempts to reach the American commanders at the airport in Khost for their version of the raid were blocked by soldiers loyal to Pacha Khan Zadran, Wazir Khan Zadran's older brother, who said the Americans had given instructions that no reporters were allowed near the airport.
Mr. Zadran's heavily armed troops compete with Zakim Khan's followers for control of every street in Khost and also for the favor the American forces, a crucial factor in the scramble for power that is under way in every region of Afghanistan after the Taliban's collapse.
The Americans have distributed money, uniforms and in some cases weapons and ammunition to local militia commanders thought likely to help in hunting members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. That has raised fears among Afghans of a new civil war if the tensions among the warlords get out of hand.
Copyright 2002 New York Times Company