Death of an Uruzgan journalist: command errors and collateral damage

25 Apr 2012

This report into the fatal shooting of an Afghan journalist by a US soldier raises critical questions about the safety of local reporters working in the field, and argues that greater honesty is needed by coalition forces when operations go wrong.

Omaid Khpulwak was killed at his place of work, the RTA building in Tirin Kot, Uruzgan, in July 2011, when it came under Taleban suicide attack and US counter-attack. Omaid was one of the outstanding journalists of his generation, who had worked with courage and integrity for the BBC, Pajhwok Afghan News and Afghanistan’s national broadcaster, RTA, yet the question of how he was killed and by whom emerged only slowly.

ISAF initially published a press release on the attack at RTA and a simultaneous attack on the governor’s compound in which it described the heroic success of Afghan commandos in defeating the Taleban. It refused to say whether US or other international forces had also been at the scene. The Afghan government insisted Omaid had been killed by the suicide bombers, but his family was sceptical: Omaid had bullet wounds, rather than injuries caused by a blast or shrapnel. The family received death threats in anonymous phone calls – presumed to come from a local, pro-US commander - in which they were told to stop voicing their suspicions that a US soldier had killed Omaid. An initial investigation by AAN based on interviews, ballistics and other evidence, pointed to the possibility that a US soldier had killed him.

This indeed turned out to have been the case. In September, the US military published the executive summary of its investigation into Omaid’s death, revealing that one of the US soldiers who cleared the RTA building had mistaken him – a ‘military aged male with a beard’ – for a possible suicide bomber and shot in self-defence.

This report draws heavily on the military investigation which has been published after a Freedom of Information request.

The military investigation also revealed the dismal, virtually negligible, role of Afghan security forces at RTA that day – quite at odds with ISAF’s initial and still uncorrected press release. Indeed, ISAF spokesmen have continued to try to spin the story – claiming even recently that the counter-attack had been ‘Afghan-led’, when in fact, no Afghans were involved at all.

The report acknowledges the greater efforts made by General Allen to reduce civilian casualties by soldiers under his command (both ISAF and the predominantly US Special Operations Forces of Operation Enduring Freedom), but says this must be allied to honesty when operations go wrong.

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