U.S. Vice Admiral Apologizes for Afghan Deaths

Special forces commander offers sheep in Afghan custom of apology.

April 8, 2010, 11:14 AM

KABUL, Afghanistan, — -- 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."

A Special Forces Cover Up in Afghanistan?

When that story was challenged by the family, senior NATO officials vociferously defended the incident, criticizing a reporter who quoted the family in a story and claiming the women had defensive wounds, an implication that they had been killed by their own family.

But family members and now Afghan investigators accuse the American and Afghan special forces unit of trying to cover up the deaths.

"They committed a crime on top of a crime," says the head of the Afghan team investigating the incident, Gen. Mohammad Mirza Yarmand.

Tahir goes even further, saying he saw American troops extract bullets from the women's bodies, an explosive charge in a conservative country where American troops are generally told to avoid interacting with women, especially in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

"I saw Americans taking bullets out of the body of my sister-in-law and they were pushing me away from the scene," Tahir said. "When I told them, 'Let me take them to hospital,' they said, 'Don't worry, the helicopter will be coming and we will take care of them.'"

Yarmand says the family found one bullet that was left inside one of the women.

A military spokesman denies any cover-up, saying in a statement to ABC News, "We have discovered no evidence that any of our forces did anything to manipulate the evidence or the bodies at the scene," according to Lt. Col. Joseph Breasseale, the deputy chief of public affairs for NATO forces in Kabul.

But the incident so inflamed the family, the father initially vowed to take revenge, "even if it breaks me into pieces."

"I have lost patience. I am obliged to revenge my martyrs," he told an ABC News cameraman on March 18. "I will destroy everything I have and will launch my own suicide attack. My heart is burning."

But today the father forgave, a lesson in the importance of cultural sensitivity, especially in a region dominated by people who follow a strict, centuries-old set of principles known as Pashtunwali.

McRaven asked for that forgiveness -- an act called Nanawati in Pashto -- one day after Afghan investigators presented their findings of the incident to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of all foreign forces in Afghanistan.

McChrystal ordered McRaven to go for Nanawati, according to a U.S. military official, who said this was not the first time American troops have performed such an act.

McChrystal has made reducing civilian casualties a cornerstone of his policy since arriving in Kabul late last spring, an acknowledgement that perhaps more than any other action, civilian deaths can push Afghans away from the government and toward the insurgency.

To a certain extent, he has been successful. Last year, according to the United Nations, the number of civilians killed by international troops dropped to 596 from 828.

In the last month, McChrystal has brought more special forces troops under his control, and he has restricted how special forces can conduct raids at night, demanding that Afghans remain in the lead the entire way, although it's not clear whether the forces who conducted the raid on Feb. 12 are under his direct control.

"Despite their effectiveness and operational value, night raids come at a steep cost in terms of the perceptions of the Afghan people," McChrystal wrote in a directive released on March 5. "Night raids must be conducted with even greater care, additional constraints, and standardization throughout Afghanistan."

The apparent lack of care with which the troops conducted the raid on Feb. 12 pushed a family who supported the government away. It took a visit by a three-star for the family to move on and to forgive, which they apparently have.

And that may help quell the demand for an investigation, limiting the fallout of the incident.

"The good thing is they have accepted their mistake," Gen. Yarmand said today. "That makes all the difference in the case."