Marja Assault updates
CJ Chivers with the always excellent reporting from Helmand
reprinted from NY Times, Feb.17, 2010
Marines in Afghan Assault Grapple With Civilian Deaths
MARJA, Afghanistan — Twelve bodies — five children, five women and two men — were wrapped head to toe in woolen blankets, lying in a neat row on the floor of the only room remaining in a house that had been blasted to mud-brick rubble by at least one and possibly two 675-pound rockets.
A United States Marine Corps battalion commander, Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, stood in that room on Tuesday with a relative of the victims, a local elder named Hajji Mohammad Karim, and said what he could.
“I bring my deepest condolences and will provide all of my support,” the colonel told him. There was no recrimination, only sorrow.
Colonel Christmas, commander of the Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, had arrived near this place in northern Marja by helicopter just before dawn; his beleaguered Company K, after three days of heavy fighting, was finally getting resupplied. Bridges had been put over the canals nearby, so roads could reopen.
“The resistance has been a little thicker than I would have liked for the forces I have,” the colonel said, as he led a foot patrol over to the house later in the day.
On Sunday, Company K had been in its fighting positions a couple of hundred yards away from the family’s mud-walled compound when the rocket or rockets struck it. Since then, several versions of what happened have emerged.
Eager to demonstrate the coalition’s commitment to avoid civilian casualties, and to take responsibility for them when they do happen, the American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, immediately issued a statement saying that 12 civilians had been accidentally killed, that the rocket launcher had missed its target by 300 meters and would be suspended from service, and that apologies had been conveyed to President Hamid Karzai. An investigation was ordered.
The investigation found that the targeting system — the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System — had not been defective, a spokesman for the NATO-led coalition force, Lt. Col. Todd Vician of the United States Air Force, said Tuesday. He said the suspension was lifted, allowing the system to be returned to use as a defensive weapon. As to what did happen, however, he said, “We are still waiting for those results and hope to have an answer soon.”
To the Marines of Company K, and an embedded reporter accompanying them, one thing seemed clear: the company had not ordered a rocket strike on that house. At the time they were taking fire from many houses in the area.
“The original target of the two rockets was a compound where insurgents were delivering accurate, direct fire on an Afghan-ISAF joint team,” according to a Sunday news release by the NATO-led force, the International Security Assistance Force.
That team was Company K, with an Afghan Army unit attached to it. “The compound that was hit was not the one we were targeting,” the company commander said that day.
After the Marines saw children stream out of the ruined house, the company commander immediately ordered a cease-fire. With Taliban snipers still trying to pick them off, his men raced across the flat, open expanse between their positions and the house, where medics rendered what first aid they could.
They initially counted 11 dead, because one woman was still alive. Marine Corps medics worked to stabilize her condition, although she had lost three limbs. A helicopter came in to evacuate the wounded, but took so much Taliban ground fire that it had to lift off again before the wounded could be loaded on board. The woman died, making the death toll 12.
There may be a 13th, because one of the men in the family is still missing, and the Marines said Tuesday that his body might be under the mass of rubble. “You hope the individual was not in the building,” said Capt. Christopher M. Hoover, the battalion’s judge advocate. “It’s uncertain right now.”
While the American military methodically worked to figure out what happened, by the next day the Afghan authorities had announced their findings.
At a news conference on Monday, the Afghan interior minister, Muhammad Hanif Atmar, flanked by the Afghan minister of defense and the army commander for Helmand, said that only 9 of the 12 dead in the house were civilians, and that the other 3 were Taliban insurgents who had forced their way into the house and used it as a fighting position.
He said local tribal leaders were “deeply saddened,” but not angry. “I will quote one of them,” Mr. Atmar said, “ ‘We are very sad about the civilian casualties but if nine civilians have died, hundreds of thousands will get freedom.’ ” Marja has 80,000 residents.
The Afghan government’s account seemed at best debatable on Tuesday. For one thing, if there had been weapons in the house, the Marines would most likely have found them.
At this point, though, the Americans are not jumping to any conclusions.
Colonel Vician, the military spokesman, said that the tempo of the fighting had slowed in Marja by Tuesday, although two more ISAF service members, neither American, were killed on Tuesday, one by a homemade bomb, the other by small arms fire.
“There are pockets of resistance that continue to engage combined forces, but it’s sporadic, at times intensive, but sporadic,” he said.
In the mud-brick charnel house where the Afghans were killed, Hajji Karim, the local elder, took up Colonel Christmas’s offer of assistance on Tuesday.
The victims had already been dead for more than two days. Muslims believe in prompt burial, but the family had no way to carry the bodies through the battlefield to the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, 17 miles away. Would the Americans take them?
Within hours, a Marine Corps Osprey, a transport aircraft that can take off and land like a helicopter, put down nearby, taking enemy fire as it came in, and the Marines grimly loaded the bodies aboard for the trip to the cemetery.