Provincial leaders in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar, including the governor and the provincial chief of police, are claiming that a joint US and Afghan clash in Kunar province claimed the lives of upwards of 65 people. The five-hour-long battle took place late last week in the Ghaziabad district in Kunar after ISAF attack helicopters identified armed Taliban fighters and engaged them, ISAF said last Friday, claiming that more than 30 Taliban fighters were killed.
But ISAF’s top spokesman is denying the reports of civilian casualties, and said that the Taliban encouraged locals to make such reports. From The Associated Press:
Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, director of communications for the coalition, said he watched video of a five-hour battle — recorded by cameras mounted on helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles — and saw no evidence of civilian casualties or strikes against any structures.
He said helicopters flew to the area on the evening of Feb. 17 after the coalition received intelligence that insurgents had planned a gathering there to plan an attack against coalition and Afghan forces further down the valley. Once the insurgents saw the helicopters, they dispersed down the hillside and were targeted and killed, Smith said.
During the operation, Smith said the coalition picked up conversations between insurgents, including one man saying “Call government officials and tell them that civilians are being killed so the coalition will stop shooting us.” Smith said others were heard saying “We’ve lost 50 of our men so far” and “We need help with our wounded. We have to bury our dead.”
Early on Sunday, in a press release, ISAF also issued somewhat of a denial while stating that it would investigate the claims of casualties:
ISAF reporting and weapons system video shows 36 insurgents, who were carrying weapons, were killed. This operation took place in a very remote valley in Kunar province, over very rugged terrain in the late night/early morning hours.
Immediately upon receipt of the press release, I requested ISAF release a copy of the video. The response was that ISAF is reviewing the video and considering its release. The problem is that releasing the tape this late in the game is too late; the tape, or portions of it showing what Admiral Smith describes, should have been put out immediately after the allegations were made.
Every hour that ISAF sits on that tape, the ability to set the record straight degrades. The Taliban have already set the narrative, and the media has for the past day reported that civilians were likely killed in Kunar. ISAF can only try to mitigate the damage at this point. Even if the truth is that ISAF forces only engaged and killed Taliban in Kunar, the Taliban walk away with a propaganda victory, even if suffering a tactical defeat on the battlefield.
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