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Was There Actually an Airstrike in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province?

That’s the subject of an increasingly heated charge from the Afghan government after a Dec. 27 raid in the eastern province of Kunar left nine men dead. The International Security Assistance Force, NATO’s command in Afghanistan, said the men were part of an insurgent network planting improvised explosive devices. Representatives of the Afghan government say they were civilians. And the governor of the province says they were killed in an airstrike. Only one thing: there may not have been any airstrike.

There’s an investigation open into the Kunar incident ordered by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But an ISAF official who would only speak on background while the investigation proceeds said unequivocally that there was “no airstrike.” Instead, the official said, a joint U.S./Afghan operation — on the ground — disrupted an IED network, leaving nine male combatants in their late teens and early 20s dead. The allegation of an airstrike is a heated one because Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S./ISAF commander, sharply curtailed the use of airstrikes upon assuming command in June following years of airstrikes that inflamed the civilian population.

Obviously I’m thousands of miles from Kunar and can’t directly verify whether there was or wasn’t a strike. But the timeline of available reporting supports the ISAF official. On Monday, the day after the raid, Karzai referenced the raid, but not any airstrike. Neither did a New York Times story about the raid that ran yesterday. There are references to* civilian casualties* emerging from the raid, but nothing about any airstrike until Kunar Governor Sayed Fazlullah Wahedi told Reuters yesterday that a strike occurred. Yet The Times quoted the Kunar police chief, Khalilullah Ziayee, who didn’t mention any airstrikes, and he’s investigating the incident.

I called Afghanistan’s embassy in Washington and asked an embassy official named Ashraf Hadari if he could confirm a strike occurred. “Not really, I cannot confirm that,” Haidari said, “I think it’s still being looked into.” Similarly, there’s a demonstration scheduled for Wednesday in Kabul to protest the deaths. I called and emailed representatives of the group that’s sponsoring it, the youth wing of the Afghan Society for Social Reform and Development, but haven’t heard back from them. When I have more information about what happened in Kunar, I’ll update.

ISAF is pledging to cooperate with the Afghan investigation. But that effectively blocks its ability to come out and prove that there wasn’t an airstrike. With Karzai publicly endorsing the investigation and the governor of the province insisting the strike occurred, unequivocal public repudiations of the airstrike allegations would most likely be viewed as bigfooting the Afghan investigation and lead to additional political complications in the ISAF-Afghan relationship. And there’s no timetable for the investigation to wrap itself up.

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