What Really Happened in Takhar?

Who you trust for news on Afghanistan depends on your politics

There was an air strike this week in Takhar, a province wedged between Badakhshan and Baghlan in northeastern Afghanistan. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) claims they managed to kill off a major leader in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a terrorist group operating in some parts of Afghanistan, describing him as the “shadow governor” of the province. Afghans, however, have something else to say. It’s still unclear exactly what happened, but it is interesting to track how different groups talk about it.

The Long War Journal, in its inimitable style, blasts the headline, “Uzbek terror commander serving as Taliban shadow governor killed by US special forces,” surely a great victory in the Global War on Terror. LWJ tells us ISAF attacked a convoy of cars after “intelligence assets” indicated this IMU commander—identified by a “senior U.S. intelligence official” as Mohammed Amin—was traveling in Rustaq district. LWJ uses this news as a lead-in for discussing the interconnectedness between the Taliban and al Qaeda, because another IMU leader was also involved in al Qaeda. Or something.

The Long War Journal is literally the only outlet to name this shadow governor—not even the DOD does so in its press releases.

Reading The New York Times, we get a slightly less exultant account of the bombing.

Airstrikes by NATO forces that killed 12 people on Thursday in northern Afghanistan have produced sharply conflicting accounts as to whether the attacks hit a team of election campaign workers, including the parliamentary candidate himself, or a group connected with an Uzbek terrorist network.

Afghan officials in Kabul and in Takhar Province, where the deaths occurred, said two NATO jets fired twice on a convoy of campaign workers. The candidate, Abdul Wahid Khurasani, was among three wounded…

Mohammad Hussein, the district chief of Rustaq, where the airstrike happened, said Mr. Khurasani’s entourage included a man named Amanullah, a former jihadist commander who had recently returned from an extended trip to Pakistan.

Mr. Khurasani said Mr. Amanullah was a relative and a strong supporter of his candidacy, and not a terrorist.

So the plot thickens a bit. Knowing how intel people in the government handle Afghan names, Amanullah could easily become “Amin,” especially if they decide it’s a nickname. What’s interesting about the NYT account, too, is how it quotes Secretary Gates saying the air strike definitely killed an IMU leader and he hadn’t heard of any civilians nearby, while at the same time General Petraeus is quoted as complaining that U.S. forces lack “granular detail” of what’s going on in individual areas of the country. The NYT is also honest enough in its account to admit that there are two very different stories of what happened, without sufficient evidence yet to move beyond a he-said-she-said type accounting.

All the way on the other side of things is the BBC, which flat out declares the U.S. bombed and killed a bunch of election workers.

The Isaf statement said “initial reflections” indicated that up to 12 insurgents had been killed or wounded, including a Taliban commander.

“Multiple passengers of the vehicle were positively identified carrying weapons,” it added…

[Governor Abduljabar] Taqwa told the BBC that the Rostaq district was peaceful and that there had been “not a single anti-government member in the area”.

“Without any co-ordination, without informing provisional authorities, they attacked, on their own, civilian people who were in a campaign convoy.”

This at least lets us get a better idea of what happened. When Taqwa says Rostaq is peaceful, he’s lying—for years, the Rostaq area has been home to violent clashes between various armed factions, warlords, and even a few criminal groups. It is most decidedly not peaceful. That could be why those election workers were carrying weapons: it would be silly to travel that kind of area without armed protection.

So it could have lead to a misidentification on the part of NATO—much like the Kunduz air strike last year—of normal people doing normal things as insurgents doing bad things. But because of the politics of Rostaq, it could just as easily have been a deliberate misdirection on the part of a rival of Khurasani. It’s not uncommon, still, for U.S. forces to be misled by local opponents accusing their nemeses of belonging to one insurgent group or another. It happened in Shindand, Herat. Given ISAF’s choice of words—a “precision air strike,” targeting a specific person they know is a terrorist—it’s likely they just had bad information from a source they thought could be trusted.

But even more interesting than the particulars of this incident, whose details will emerge over time and provide an opportunity for informed reflection and analysis, is how these media outlets covered the event. The LWJ and BBC picked sides early—LWJ never questions the U.S. military, and the BBC almost never questions locals claiming knowledge of an event—and presented skewed, cherry-picked pieces of evidence to support their work. Only The New York Times came right out and said there is a sharp dispute between the West and Afghanistan over what happened, and that there just wasn’t enough information to say definitively what happened.

The evidence so far supports the BBC account, in that ISAF was misled into bombing the wrong convoy. But we really don’t know, still. ISAF, however, isn’t doing itself any favors by digging in its heels (as it has an unfortunate tendency to do).

To summarize. ISAF claims it bombed a convoy of terrorists in Takhar, killing a major IMU leader in the process. A candidate for Parliament in Takhar, along with the local district sub-governor and provincial governor, claim the bombed convoy had only election workers among its members, including a man with a name similar to an IMU leader who had recently returned from Pakistan. This leaves us few comfortable conclusions: either ISAF is still dropping bombs on bad intel, or a candidate for parliament was knowingly (or unknowingly) harboring a known terrorist and insurgent leader. Neither exactly inspires confidence in the viability of the war.

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Joshua Foust is a military consultant. He is a contributor to PBS Need to Know, a contributing editor at Current Intelligence, and blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus at Registan.net.