Targeted killings and two worlds in Afghanistan: inside the Takhar attack

On September 2, 2010, ten men in northern Afghanistan were killed in an air attack that was a targeted killing, part of the U.S. Special Forces ‘kill or capture’ strategy. The U.S. military said it had killed the Taliban deputy shadow governor of Takhar, who was also a ‘senior member’ of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU): one Muhammad Amin, as well as “eight or nine other insurgents.”

Many Afghans, including senior government officials, were incredulous. Many knew the man who had actually been targeted — who was not Muhammad Amin, but Zabet Amanullah. He had not fought for the Taliban since 2001 and had been out campaigning for his nephew in Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections with more than a dozen other men, mainly extended family members. That very morning, as per usual, he had called in to the district police chief to check on security before the election campaign convoy set off. The strike was an “obvious mistake,” said the provincial governor, Abdul-Jabar Taqwa. “He was an ordinary person and lived among normal people,” said the Takhar Chief of Police, Shah Jahaan Nuri. “I could have captured him with one phone call.”

U.S. Special Forces got the wrong man, but despite overwhelming evidence, they have remained adamant that they were correct. Senior Special Forces officers’ gave me lengthy accounts of the attack, including the intelligence behind it. That has allowed a piecing together of what went wrong.

Intelligence analysts were monitoring the calls of Muhammad Amin in early 2010 — and confirmed that he really was the Taliban deputy governor of Takhar. They came to believe that one number he had called in Kabul was passed on to him. They believed he began to use this phone and to ‘self-identify’ as Zabet Amanullah. In other words, they believed Muhammad Amin was using the name ‘Zabet Amanullah’ as an alias.

Friends and family have confirmed that Zabet Amanullah, who was living in Kabul, was in occasional telephone contact with active members of the Taliban, but this is not unusual in a country where fortunes change and it is prudent to stay in touch with all sides. Zabet Amanullah also kept in touch with senior members in the government. What may have looked like a suspicious cluster of calls and contacts, in reality, proved nothing about the actual conduct of the caller. Zabet Amanullah’s life, lived quietly and openly at home in Kabul, has been documented in detail. I met him in 2008 when he had just fled Pakistan where he had been working on a human rights project. He had been detained and severely tortured by the Pakistani intelligence agency, he believed, because he was a former Taliban commander who was not fighting.

The Special Forces unit denied that the identities of two different men, Muhammad Amin and Zabet Amanullah, could have been conflated. They insisted the technical evidence that they were one person was irrefutable. When pressed about the existence — and death — of an actual Zabet Amanullah, one officer said, “We were not tracking the names, we were targeting the telephones.”

Yet in the complex political landscape of Afghanistan, it is not enough to track phones. It is certainly not enough to base a targeted killing on. The analysts had not built up a biography of their target, Muhammad Amin —where he was from, what his jihadi background was, and so on. They had not been aware of the existence of a well-known person by the name of Zabet Amanullah. They had not had access to the sort of common, everyday information available to Afghans watching election coverage on television. They had not made even the most basic background checks about a target they had been tracking for months. Instead, they relied on signals intelligence and network analysis (which attempts to map insurgent networks by monitoring phone calls), without cross-checking with any human intelligence.

Dealing with the U.S. military, it has felt like we are from parallel worlds. Their Afghanistan, where knowledge is often driven largely by signals intelligence and reports provided by a very limited number of local informants, with a very narrow focus on insurgent behaviour, and the normal, everyday world of Afghan politics. In the case of the Takhar attack, these two worlds simply did not connect.

The human cost of killing ten civilians and turning forty women and children into widows and orphans is great. Legally, the magnitude of the intelligence failings may have been so great that the U.S. military violated the rules of war, whereby combatants must take all feasible precautions to protect civilians. However, there are strong indications that the flaws in intelligence highlighted by this case are systemic. Indeed, General David Petraeus spoke about this, about the U.S. military’s lack of a “granular understanding of local circumstances,” by chance, on the very day of the Takhar attack.

For the U.S. military, simply reiterating that they were right, in response to overwhelming evidence to the contrary is not an adequate response and will hardly reassure Afghans that similar mistakes will not be made in future.

By Kate Clark, May 11, 2011



Kate Clark, a senior analyst at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, is the author of an investigation into the Takhar airstrike, from which this is excerpted. The investigation was featured in PBS’ Frontline’s “Kill/Capture” documentary. Join the AfPak Channel at 1:00pm EST on May 11, 2011 for a live chat about the film with Frontline journalists Stephen Grey and Shoaib Sharifi.

U.S. Navy Ensign Haraz N. Ghanbari/ISAF Regional Command (South) via Getty Images
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