In the dusty Afghan village where U.S. troops killed two pregnant women and three other innocent civilians in February, a remarkable scene played out today between an aggrieved father and the most senior special operations officer in the United States military.
Vice Admiral William McRaven -- the commander of Joint Special Operations Command -- showed up with two sheep, and in the cultural understanding of the region, surrendered himself.
He didn't literally surrender. But he didn't have to. In the code followed by the southeastern Afghan family so devastated by the February incident, offering two sheep is the equivalent of begging for forgiveness.
And the father -- whose has lost two sons, two daughters and one grandchild -- accepted McRaven's apology, according to family members and Afghan investigators.
"I am the commander of the soldiers who accidentally killed your loved ones," McRaven told the family, according to the Times of London, which was present for the meeting. It was the first time special operations forces acknowledged their participation.
"I came here today to send my condolences to you and to your family and to your friends," McRaven said. "I also came today to ask your forgiveness for these terrible tragedies."
McRaven continued, addressing the father: "Sir, you and I are very different. You are a family man with many children and many friends. I am a soldier. I have spent most of my career overseas away from my family, but I have children as well and my heart grieves for you.
"But we have one thing in common, one very important thing," McRaven said. "We have the same god. He is a god who shows great love and compassion. I pray for you today, sir, that in your grief he will show you love and compassion and ease your pain. ... I also pray today that he will show mercy on me and my men for this awful tragedy."
Presenting sheep is such a powerful form of requesting forgiveness that the father is now obligated not to take revenge, even though he has told reporters he wanted to become a suicide bomber.
"We were very happy he came to our house," said Mohammad Tahir, the brother of the two men and father of the 18-year-old woman who was killed, referring to McRaven. "We told him, 'Thank you very much. We will not keep anything in our heart against you.'"
The family only asked McRaven to hand over whoever gave him the intelligence that led the joint American and Afghan force to their home on the early morning of Feb. 12.
"You don't have to give him to us," the family told McRaven, Tahir said. "At least hand him over to the Afghan government."
The forgiveness will help defuse one of the most troubling cases of troops killing civilians in the eight-and-a-half-year war, one in which the United States has had to backtrack from statements multiple times and is accused of a cover-up.
On Feb. 12, NATO emailed a statement to reporters with the subject line, "Joint force operating in Gardez makes gruesome discovery."
"Several insurgents engaged the joint force in a fire fight and were killed," the statement read. "When the joint force entered the compound they conducted a thorough search of the area, and found the bodies of three women who had been tied up, gagged and killed. The bodies had been hidden in an adjacent room."