Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghanistan: Jun ‘08

United Nations source gives weight to IWPR story alleging foreign troop involvement in massacre.

It is rare that a journalist can have a measurable effect at international level – but thanks to their courage and persistence, the reporters of Helmand have done just that.

IWPR has been told by a source in the United Nations that an article on civilian deaths in the southern Garmseer district was seen by a special envoy who visited Afghanistan to investigate unlawful killings by all sides, and that it informed his report.

At a May 15 press conference in Kabul, Philip Alston, special rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, spoke of “the operation of forces within this country that are not accountable to any military but appear to be controlled by foreign intelligence services”.

“I have spoken with a large number of people in relation to the operation of foreign intelligence units,” he said. “It is clear that there are certain units operating in certain provinces; the names are well known to those involved, and these forces operate with what appears to be impunity.”

In his preliminary written report on the findings of his mission to Afghanistan, Alston did not go into further details on the identity of these forces, but he noted “credible information” that foreign intelligence operatives were working together with armed Afghans, under a command structure that he had found it impossible to identify.

A source in the UN with direct knowledge of the Alston mission, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that some of the evidence underpinning the special rapporteur’s remarks was provided by our reporters in Helmand

In December 2007, IWPR published a story, Foreign Troops Accused in Helmand Raid Massacre, which reported eyewitness accounts of a raid on the village of Toube in Garmseer district. Witnesses said foreign soldiers accompanied by Afghan combatants landed in a remote village late one October night, because they had been informed, erroneously, that two high-level Taleban targets were living there.

Residents alleged that the soldiers broke down doors, shot a number of people including children in their beds, and in one house slit the throats of two brothers, one of whom survived.

After careful consideration and fact-checking, IWPR decided to publish the story, which created a stir in Afghanistan. The diligence with which the Afghan journalists conducted their reporting persuaded several international organisations to launch inquiries into the case; other media also pursued the story.

Military sources told IWPR they were aware an operation took in Garmseer around the time of the alleged abuses, and were investigating the claims.

One of the problems with investigating the Garmseer raid, which sets it apart from many other cases where international troops are accused of causing civilian casualties in Afghanistan, is the question of command responsibility. Whatever unit may have been involved in the Garmseer raid, it does not appear to come under the regular troops deployed by either the Coalition (the US-led force deployed in southern Afghanistan) or by NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.

Alston’s report touched on this issue of accountability, noting, “There have been a number of raids for which no state or military command appears ready to acknowledge responsibility.”

More IWPR's Global Voices