- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A note from the series editor:
Bad reporting is not usually intended to cover up bad deeds. Rather, units report carelessly because they are overworked. However, sometimes a bad report has bothered me enough to follow up. The report on the incident described below was one of them. It occurred in 2007 in eastern Afghanistan. I learned that Andrya Silberman, one of our public affairs soldiers, participated in the mission, so I asked her to describe what had happened. Keenly perceptive and a gifted writer, Andrya’s account explained why the unit report was muddled. In war, confusing events occur daily. Often they are exacerbated by emotion and unnecessary internal rivalry. Names, units, and locations have been removed. Our intent is not to shame anybody. This kind of stuff happened to most of us. Instead, our intent is to demonstrate another reason why it is hard to remember war well. This story is longer than many posts, but reads quickly and well worth the time. — Paul Edgar
By Andrya Silberman
Best Defense guest columnist
I went on a mission with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) out of the main U.S. base in a province in eastern Afghanistan. We were supposed to head to two villages to conduct QA/QC on a local school, a dam, a medical clinic, and conduct several key leader engagements (KLE).
I had been out with that PRT previously and had full confidence in them. However they were in the process of a transition with a new Security Force (SECFOR) from the National Guard, so this was the first time I had met most of the new group. A new LT was running the SECFOR convoy, and I went in his MRAP. He gave a thorough patrol brief and discussed various contingencies. (The brief actually seemed extensive compared to those that I had attended previously.) The LT was clearly new, and pretty soft-spoken, but seemed to have a good grasp on expectations for the mission.
On the way, we came across a civilian SUV that had hit an IED. The Afghan army had rounded up some suspects that we put in the biometrics system, then we moved on. (This was completely unrelated, unless the event tipped off the village that we were coming.)
We arrived in one of the villages to meet with the assistant police chief. (One of the SECFOR soldiers later said that he ‘just knows’ that the assistant police chief is corrupt, and was sure that he had something to do with our incident.) The SECFOR LT told me it would likely be a routine KLE, and if I preferred, he would walk me through the bazaar with a security detachment while the PRT went to the meeting. I chose that option so I could get some photos of the locals. He left the drivers and gunners with the MRAPs and brought the dismounts to pull security in the bazaar. It was pretty standard: all males, some curious smiles, some apprehension, some disdain… but normal. We spent almost an hour walking down the street greeting locals, buying some cookies, and taking photos. As we began to head back toward the vehicles, we noticed several of the shops closing down. Most of the children had disappeared.
We loaded back into the vehicles and headed toward the school for the QA/QC. The guys were bantering over the radio, and everyone was in pretty good spirits. The qalats grew closer and the convoy funneled into a very narrow alleyway. A couple of rounds bounced off of the back door of our MRAP before one of the gunners spotted a man on the rooftop firing at us. Our gunner wheeled around and began to return fire on the LTs command. I watched out the windows as the fire increased on our MRAP, which was in the lead, and on the one behind us. I saw a couple of Afghans popping up here and there along the rooftops of the qalats. We took consistent fire for a couple of minutes, and our gunners returned fire with the .50s the entire time. The LT was trying to maneuver the convoy through the alleys. He was giving commands to try to get around the back of some of the qalats to flank those firing at us, and as we pulled into a more open area, the firefight paused.
There was a qalat with a large tree in front of it, and a man crouched at the corner of the qalat with an RPG. We heard the thunk as it came out of the tube, and the RPG hit about 15 meters behind our MRAP. The LT called to shoot him, and our gunner laid rounds along the bottom of the qalat in a path to the corner where the man was. I don’t think he hit him, as the man disappeared around the side. We heard a couple of other RPGs hit, but I am not sure where. At that point, the guys in the truck behind us called over the radio that they had a casualty. The LT checked in with the third truck (which was no longer visible to us in the front of the convoy) and found that their gunner had been knocked out.
The PL (who now seemed to be on the verge of tears and panic) called for everyone to ‘just get out.’ We pulled around the qalat to head back the way we came, and someone mentioned that they thought they spotted a body. Cheers went through the radio channels as the soldiers thought they had at least hit one of the targets. The LT (now excited) told the driver to pull close so we could check it out. When we were several meters away, the gunner said he thought it was a kid. The MRAP pulled up and the LT told us not to get out.
Looking out of the window, we could see that the body was a young boy, probably 6 or 7 years old, sprawled face down on the ground. His sandals were strewn above his head, and his arms were tucked under his chest. From where he was, the LT couldn’t see him clearly, so he asked us if we could see any entry or exit wounds. There were none visible and no blood at all. The sand he was laying on did not look disturbed other than right where he was. In fact, other than the slightly awkward angles of his legs, he could have passed for napping. We prepared to get out of the vehicle, but after a few bouts of deliberation, the LT decided to leave. He said he wasn’t comfortable having dismounts with the enemy shooters still possibly on the roof. On the way out of the village, there was a lot of discussion about what should be done. The LT was clearly torn on whether to go back and conduct a battle damage assessment, or to wait for the active duty infantry platoon that served as the quick reaction force (QRF).
We drove to one of the newly built Afghan combat outposts (AFCOP). They had a little post on top of a hill, and we reorganized inside the concertina wire at the base of the hill while we waited for the QRF. The guys naturally were excited as they came off their adrenaline high. The LT finally broke down and cried, which seemed to be pretty discouraging for most of the guys. The gunner who had been knocked out appeared to have recuperated, and the soldier in truck two had taken a round in the forearm. The PA that was with us took care of him, and I’m not sure when he was evacuated.
My memory gets a little hazy here… I’m not sure why, but we wound up convoying out to an Afghan police Embedded Training Team (ETT) post. We were supposed to stay there overnight. But for some reason, about an hour after arriving, we were told to return to the AFCOP again. We slept between the MRAPs at the AFCOP and apparently they fired some mortars and illumination rounds from the hill that night. I sleep very deeply and was completely unaware of this, so can’t elaborate. I believe the LT told me that it was a show of force, but again, I don’t remember if it was connected to the fight in the village or not.
The next morning, after a little bit of heated conversation between the infantry LT and SECFOR LT, we headed back to the village to conduct a shura (a public meeting). The SECFOR LT told me that the infantry LT was extremely condescending, and had told him to ‘stay put’ while he went and handled things. The SECFOR LT insisted on accompanying the infantry platoon, but agreed to take up the rear. Later, I listened to the infantry LT telling his guys that the SECFOR LT was a coward for running away from a fight.
On the way to the shura, a minor incident announced our arrival. I don’t think anyone actually fired at us, but one of the gunners thought he saw an insurgent with a grenade, and the SECFOR LT told him to go ahead and fire if he had positive identification. The gunner fired, and then the infantry platoon came over the radio, told us to stay put, and they went off chasing the insurgent. They came back and said they found nothing, and were clearly irritated. An Afghan soldier produced some shards of a grenade, but I don’t know where they were found or by whom.
When we got to the village, we pulled up by the tree where the little boy had been lying, and used a loud speaker to call the shura. While the elders and local men slowly filtered out, we looked at the holes in the tree and qalat from the firefight. The angles that the rounds had entered the qalat from looked as though our vehicle had been slightly in front of the tree. The angle which the rounds had entered the tree from was on the back side of the tree. It seemed that the rounds had to come from the corner of the qalat. From this, we deduced that whoever had shot the tree had been on foot from the corner. Our gunner had been aiming at him in that position. The ANP and ANA with us tried to dig a round out of the tree, but never found one. Again, the sand that the little boy had been laying in had no traces of blood. The villagers had made a small stack of rocks where he had been.
When everyone was gathered, the infantry LT launched into a public explanation of the events. I was standing with the SECFOR LT listening to him rant about how the infantry LT was pompous, arrogant, etc., and hadn’t even bothered to ask him for any details.
The story that the infantry LT gave the village was factually incorrect (and in my opinion, he botched COIN efforts completely). He told them that he was sorry for their loss of a 12-year-old boy but that we had nothing to do with it. He said that the child was killed by insurgents prior to the firefight, and then placed there. He said the insurgents wanted the villagers to believe that we had killed him. All of these are possibilities, but when the elders objected, his story changed. He said that if the boy was killed in the crossfire, he had not been killed by us as we hadn’t engaged the enemy at this point. I don’t remember exactly how he worded his response, but he tried to make it sound like we had barely defended ourselves, that we had been attacked, and had just been trying to get away from the attackers. He was very indifferent and formal in his delivery, and his apologies sounded hollow. Whether he was trying to convince them, or he just wasn’t aware of the circumstances, his story changed significantly enough to demonstrate his complete inability to be addressing the matter.
The elders were clearly livid, and one of them stood up to challenge the infantry LT. He asked him why they should believe him when we only come to them with lies. He said that he may be uneducated, but he has eyes to see what happened, he has ears to hear what happened, and he knows when people are untruthful. He said that the uncle of the boy who died was there and wanted to say a few words.
The uncle stood up and started by mentioning that the boy was a young child, not a young a man, and that we came to them with apologies but hadn’t even taken the time to learn who he was (i.e. a 7-year-old, not a 12-year-old). The uncle asked why we needed to apologize if we didn’t do it. He said that the children were sitting in the tree when we came through shooting for no reason. He said that the children climbed down and ran, and that we shot the boy. He said this is what the other children told him.
The infantry LT apologized again, and reiterated that it was not us, but didn’t have much further explanation.
One of the elders stood and told him that they did not want us in their village. They said their women and children fear us because we come into their village and murder their children. He said the insurgents do not do this and they would rather live in peace, than have us trying to bring peace but bringing war instead. He said they do not need our money, our schools, or our help at the cost of their children. The shura ended shortly, with no resolution.
I moved over to the infantry LT’s group to listen to their conversation and ask a few questions. They thought that the militants had already persuaded the elders to take their side, and that there was nothing else that could be done in this case. They thought the SECFOR had handled the fight poorly, not only by running away from the fight, but also by not conducting a battle damage assessment immediately. Without viewing the body of the boy, they would never be able to prove anything. The infantry platoon said that they were not thrilled with the responsibility of cleaning up the mess that the SECFOR made because they were too scared to handle the situation properly.
I talked to the SECFOR LT several times over the remaining missions (we went on to finish some KLEs and the QA/QC on a health clinic) and he acknowledged that he maybe hadn’t handled the situation well, but that the infantry LT really shouldn’t have approached the elders without getting a clear understanding of what happened first. He admitted that he had no way of knowing how the boy died, and thought that honesty with the villagers would have been the best tactic. He said he would have given condolences and tried to focus instead on the insurgents launching an attack in a residential area on a convoy that was simply looking at a school. He would have made the point that his particular group is not a ‘combat’ unit, but an engineering unit. He thought that the villagers would have responded better to honesty, but instead, the first thing out of the infantry LTs mouth was clearly deceptive, so he lost their trust immediately. He said if the infantry LT would have approached him with mutual respect as opposed to a superiority complex (in his opinion, part of the National Guard versus active duty tension) they could have discussed a more reasonable presentation. Instead, the SECFOR LT was so offended that he took a back seat (according to him… although I don’t think that the infantry LT seemed interested in any kind of partnership).
We also discussed the little boy. Between me, the other soldier in the back who had looked at the body, and from what the gunner could see, we thought it looked like maybe the boy had fallen out of the tree. The way his body was laying, the placement of his sandals, and no evidence of any external wounds lent an unlikely picture of what a 35-pound child would look like if hit with a .50cal round (or even an AK-47). None of our gunners had used any other weapon. Of course, it is possible that we hit him, or that the insurgents did, or that it was staged. And it is also possible that I just prefer to think of him falling out of the tree instead of being caught in crossfire. But I would swear in court that he did not have any bullet wounds.
In my opinion, most of the issues in this case could have been avoided through communication between the two LTs. I realize the pressure is immense, immediate, and often the time and energy involved makes it unreasonable to communicate thoroughly. But in this case, it seemed to me that the problem was ego. Almost every explanation or answer to a question that I got from both sides eventually came back to what a horrible job the other LT had done.
I can’t pretend to correctly evaluate any of the infantry tactics used. I honestly don’t know what the SECFOR LT should have done. (Of course on a personal level, I had a major issue driving away from the body of a dead child. But that is why infantrymen make those calls, not me.) However, I can say that from a public affairs perspective, or simply from the many shuras I attended, that this particular shura was a disaster because of two LTs’ disdain for one another.
Andrya Silberman was an Army public affairs reporter and photographer from 2008-2010.
Photo credit: Andrya Silberman