KABUL — The Afghan government insisted Monday that American forces killed at least a dozen civilians during a military operation in eastern Afghanistan, despite a news report that cast doubt on some of the evidence.
American officials have admitted that during a joint operation by U.S. and Afghan special forces on Jan. 15, at least two civilians died when ground troops called in airstrikes on buildings being used as firing positions by militants. One American soldier, one Afghan soldier and at least 14 militants were also killed during the fighting, according to the International Security Assistance Force.
But investigators with the Afghan government released a report last week accusing the United States of unilaterally carrying out the attack and of covering up additional civilian casualties caused by both an airstrike and alleged house-to-house shooting by U.S. troops.
Civilian casualties caused by international forces remain one of the most contentious issues in Afghanistan, with President Hamid Karzai often criticizing NATO and citing such incidents as a reason why future foreign military operations should be curtailed.
James Cunningham, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, acknowledged in a press briefing Monday that relations between Washington and Kabul have been strained by the dispute over the Jan. 15 operation in Parwan province, as well as by a planned release by Afghan authorities of prisoners the U.S. regards as security threats.
“I would hope that we would get back to a relationship that’s based on, first of all that’s based on fact, which is always a good place to start and the facts have been distorted in the case of detainees and the civilian casualty incident in Parwan,” he said.
ISAF would not respond specifically to the allegations other than to point to a Jan. 19 news release that acknowledged civilian deaths. The release underlined that the operation was requested by local Afghan leaders, approved by the Afghan Defense Ministry and led by Afghan troops.
The Afghan government report, however, was called into question by a story in The New York Times Saturday, which found nothing conclusive about a video of the alleged victims and which reported that at least two of the photos offered as evidence have been around for years.
One photo, of a funeral in the aftermath of a 2009 NATO bombing that killed as many as 70 civilians, had been distributed by international news agencies. The other photo has been used for at least three years by groups, including the Taliban, to criticize the U.S. over civilian casualties, the Times said.
The Times also reported that Afghan officials tasked with investigating the incident had not visited the area and had instead sent a driver and a bodyguard.
On Sunday, the Afghan government organized a news conference with men who said they were from the area north of Kabul where the clash took place.
One man, Alif Shah Ahmadzai, said that he did not witness the fighting itself but that his cousins had been killed. He accused the Times of “spreading lies.”
When confronted with the photo that was demonstrably published in 2009 , the men heatedly insisted that they knew the people at the funeral depicted in the picture.
“I can take the dead bodies out of their graves, and if I was wrong I should be hanged,” Ahmadzai told reporters assembled at a government press center.
The Afghan government, meanwhile, declined to answer specific questions about the dossier but released a response by Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Karzai.
Faizi said that the government is trying to determine how the photos came to be included in the report but asserted that there is ample evidence to support the claims. He called the Times’ story “politically motivated” and was designed to “undermine general opinion about this incident.”
“The truth is there — that there were civilian casualties, houses were destroyed and that this was a unilateral operation and not in cooperation with local authorities,” he said in the statement.
Stars and Stripes reporter Heath Druzin contributed to this report.