WASHINGTON - The head of the Afghan Ministry of Interior investigation said publicly for the first time his investigators had accepted the testimony of family members of the victims of the Feb. 12 raid by U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) that the U.S. troops had dug bullets out of the bodies of their victims in an apparent effort to cover up the killings and that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal had agreed with the team's conclusions.
Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, head of the criminal investigation department in the ministry, told IPS in an interview Wednesday that the ministry's investigation had found "evidence of tampering at the scene by the patrol members", which had "confused" NATO investigators about the incident.
"We accepted the claim of the family members [of victims] that NATO soldiers had dug the bullets out of the bodies," said Yarmand, "but we could not confirm it, because we were not able to do an autopsy on the bodies." The family members, like most Afghans, had not allowed the autopsies on the victims, he explained.
Yarmand said, "In the end, NATO accepted our findings, and Gen. McChrystal agreed with the conclusions of our team."
Yarmand's comments represented the first accusation on the record by an Afghan official involved in the investigation that U.S. SOF personnel had tried to cover up the evidence of the killings of three women. An unnamed senior Afghan official had been quoted as making similar comments in a story by Jerome Starkey of The Times of London Apr. 4.
Gen. McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), has portrayed the Afghan investigation as having concluded that the joint force carrying out the raid was responsible for the deaths of all five civilians but not that it had sought to cover up the killings.
In a statement issued Apr. 4, ISAF said, "While investigators could not conclusively determine how or when the women died, due to lack of forensic evidence, they concluded that the women were accidentally killed as a result of the joint force firing at the men."
The statement makes no explicit mention of the issue of a cover-up, but it implicitly denies Starkey's report that same day quoting a "senior Afghan official" involved in the investigation as saying that U.S. Special Forces had dug bullets out of the wounds of the victims and then washed the wounds with alcohol.
McChrystal's spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale told IPS Monday, "I can tell you unequivocally that there was no evidence of a cover-up."
After appearing to be in agreement with the Afghan investigation's conclusions, however, McChrystal abruptly reversed course Tuesday to announce another investigation aimed at straightening out what were now described as conflicting accounts of what had happened.
Breasseale told IPS in an e-mail Tuesday that McChrystal had "ordered the subsequent investigation in order to reconcile certain aspects between the two investigations."
One indication that the decision to begin another investigation was made hastily is that McChrystal made the announcement before deciding who would carry it out. Breasseale acknowledged in the e-mail to IPS that "the investigating authority is yet to be appointed," adding, "We anticipate the appointment happening soon."
Whether McChrystal sees the new investigation as a way of accepting the conclusion that SOF personnel tried to hide the evidence of the killing of the three women or as a way of distancing ISAF from the Afghan investigation's conclusion remains unclear.
McChrystal has been a strong proponent of SOF night raids as a military tactic since taking over as ISAF commander in June 2009.
He now seems intent, however, on differentiating the conclusions reached by NATO from those of the Afghan investigation. What had been called a "thorough joint investigation" of the bloody killings in the Apr. 4 release is now being identified as two very separate and even conflicting investigations.
Breasseale told IPS in an e-mail Tuesday that ISAF and the Ministry of Interior "had conducted a joint fact finding assessment of the situation, but produced separate investigation reports".
There was nothing in the Apr. 4 statement suggesting any need for further investigation.
McChrystal had been briefed by Afghan officials on their investigation in "late March", according to spokesman Breasseale, as reported by CNN Tuesday. Despite the knowledge of that investigation's conclusion which contradicted the public posture of ISAF on the deaths of all five of the victims of the raid, however, McChrystal had made no move to reveal anything about the investigation until Sunday night.
Even as the new investigation was being announced, McChrystal's spokesman Breasseale was continuing to defend the official claim that no evidence of a cover-up has emerged.
In an e-mail response to a question from IPS about how it was possible that the U.S. SOF personnel had killed the women but believed they had been killed before the raid, Breasseale suggested that the joint force had not discovered the bodies for some extended period of time after beginning their search of the compound.
"Your question assumes that the ground force went directly into the room where the women were," he wrote. "I can tell you that there were other members of the extended friends and family of the owners of the compound present as well as various other rooms and buildings in the compound."
Family members have told reporters a very different story, however. A male relative of the victims of the raid who watched them bleed to death told CNN in an interview published Tuesday that the attacking force "did not allow him to take the wounded to the hospital".
A similar account was given by family members to a United Nations investigating team, as reported by Starkey in the Times Mar. 16. The family members said the police commissioner and the 18-year old girl who were killed, died hours later and might have survived had they been taken to a hospital immediately.
U.S. and Afghan forces had refused to get them to a hospital immediately, according to their account.
An earlier story by Starkey in The Times Mar. 13 reported the testimony of family members of the victims who had witnessed the raid, contradicting the original ISAF claim that the bodies of three women had been found "tied up, gagged and killed".
McChrystal's response to the earlier story had been to issue a denunciation of Starkey's charge of a "cover-up" as "categorically false". The Mar. 13 ISAF statement explained that the initial account of the women's deaths, which had come from the commander on the scene, had been "based on a lack of understanding of local burial practices".
The Apr. 4 statement repeated the explanation used in the Mar. 13 statement, signaling McChrystal's readiness to defend the raid against any cover-up charge.
**Ahmad Walid Fazly reported from Kabul.