KABUL, Afghanistan – It was the kind of dossier that the Taliban often publish, purporting to show the carnage inflicted during a raid by U.S. forces: photographs of shattered houses and bloodied, broken bodies and video images of anguish at a village funeral, all with gut-churning impact and no proof of authenticity.
But this time, it was the government of President Hamid Karzai that was handing out the inflammatory dossier, the product of a commission’s investigation into airstrikes on Jan. 15 on a remote village and the supposed U.S. cover-up that followed.
In an apparent effort to demonize their U.S. backers, a coterie of Afghan officials appears to have crossed a line that deeply troubles Western officials here: They falsely represented at least some of the evidence in the dossier and distributed other material whose provenance, at best, could not be determined.
An examination of the dossier by the New York Times also revealed that much of the same material was posted on a Taliban website last week, a rare instance of the militant group’s political speech matching that of the government it is fighting to topple.
Karzai’s growing antipathy toward the United States is no secret, and civilian casualties have proved to be one of the most corrosive issues between the countries. Yet the photographs and the video, handed out by Karzai’s office last week, have injected a new level of vitriol into the relationship and shown how the Karzai government’s political speech has been increasingly mirroring that of the Taliban – including the insurgents’ habit of twisting facts, or simply making them up when necessary.
The purpose of the dossier, according to other Afghan officials, was to justify Karzai’s stalling on signing a long-term security agreement with the United States and to improve the chances for peace talks with the Taliban by showing that he is no U.S. stooge, as the insurgents have often derided him.
For U.S. and European officials, the episode has reinforced a growing sense that for all the talk of securing an enduring partnership, Karzai may have no intention of ever signing the security agreement. Without an agreement, the Obama administration has said, it will pull U.S. forces from Afghanistan when the NATO combat mission here ends this year.
Western officials and some Afghan have begun to push back. On Jan. 17, after the lead Afghan investigator looking into the airstrikes said at least 14 civilians had been killed, Abdul Basir Salangi, the governor of Parwan province, where the strikes took place, offered a blunt retort. He said that the death toll was in the single digits and that those claiming higher death tolls were “supporters of the Taliban.”
It is not disputed that civilians died in the airstrikes, which hit Wazghar, a remote village in a valley thick with Taliban fighters. But more than a week after the raid, the death tolls offered by the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan government differ starkly, as do their accounts of how the civilians died.
The operation was planned and led by the Afghan army, U.S. officials have repeatedly emphasized.
They said the airstrikes were necessary to save dozens of Afghan commandos and a handful of U.S. advisers who were pinned down by heavy Taliban fire; an American and an Afghan had already been killed in the action. The airstrikes destroyed the two compounds producing the heaviest Taliban fire, and two children were killed in one of the houses, they said.
By contrast, the Afghan commission appointed by Karzai to investigate the raid described the action as primarily American, with roughly eight hours of indiscriminate and unprovoked bombing followed by a house-to-house rampage by U.S. soldiers. The commission has said that it can prove that 12 civilians were killed and that there were indications of two to five additional civilian deaths.