Report From a Forgotten War (4th in a Series)

Oliver North

8/29/2008 12:01:00 AM - Oliver North

HERAT, Afghanistan -- A Taliban sentry fired the first shots shortly after 2:30 a.m. as Afghan commandos and U.S. Special Operations Command troops surrounded the compound at Aziz Abad. Though the Marine Special Operations Team had employed a daring deception to achieve surprise, they were engaged heavily by gunfire from AK-47s and machine guns almost immediately after deploying at the objective.

For the next 2 1/2 hours, the 207th Afghan Commandos and their U.S. Army and Marine counterparts were in a running gunfight with heavily armed Taliban fighters inside the walled compound. When enemy combatants on rooftops and in narrow alleyways could not be dislodged by fire from U.S. and Afghan troops on the ground, they were hit by supporting fire from manned and unmanned aircraft overhead.

By dawn Aug. 22, it appeared that the commandos and their American advisers had achieved a stunning success. Credible information received after a "Shura" -- a town meeting with local tribal leaders -- had revealed the timing and location of a Taliban gathering. The intelligence was confirmed painstakingly, and U.S. Special Operations Command officers sat down with their Afghan commando counterparts to carefully plan a "capture-kill mission" with the goal of taking several key Taliban leaders into custody. Fox News cameraman Chris Jackson and I accompanied the raid force.

To us -- and the U.S. and Afghan troops we were covering -- it appeared as if they were victorious. Though one U.S. Marine had been wounded in the fray, a senior Taliban leader and 25 of his fighters were dead. A major Taliban arms cache was located and destroyed. Weapons, ammunition, communications equipment, materials for making improvised explosive devices, and thousands of dollars in cash had been confiscated.

As the commandos withdrew from the objective shortly after sunrise, they gently treated and evacuated a woman and her child who had been wounded in the crossfire. Our Fox News cameras had captured the battle on videotape -- including the careful treatment of noncombatants. Unfortunately, the good news quickly turned bad.

While we were en route back to the base from which the raid had been launched, the U.S. ground force commander received a report over the radio that pro-Taliban agitators already were asserting that "the Americans (had) killed 30 civilians." The claims and alleged number of civilian casualties quickly escalated.

Shortly after noon Aug. 22, Iranian television reported, "A U.S. airstrike south of Herat in western Afghanistan has killed more than 50 innocent civilians, including women and children." To counter these reports, U.S. aircraft transported Afghan and foreign reporters to the special operations base so that they could see the confiscated weapons and other evidence for themselves. It didn't help.

That evening, as we filed our full story with videotape of the raid and an interview with a U.S. special forces officer, unnamed "sources" at the Ministry of the Interior in Kabul were telling reporters that 76 civilians had been killed. Little or no attention was paid to the Taliban arms or equipment that had been destroyed at the objective or to the care provided to the wounded woman and her child.

By the morning of Aug. 23, little more than 24 hours after the operation, the international press wires and mainstream news outlets were carrying photos of damaged buildings, and an Afghan human rights organization was charging that 88 civilians -- among them 20 women and 50 children -- had been killed by U.S. forces. Later in the day, President Hamid Karzai first called for an investigation -- and then denounced the operation. Though only about 15 new graves were evident in nearby cemeteries -- and no local civilians had sought medical treatment for wounds -- the number of noncombatant casualties allegedly inflicted in the raid continued to rise.

On Aug. 24, with several investigations under way but not yet complete, the commando battalion commander was "suspended." That evening, in a report on Fox News, I noted that neither cameraman Chris Jackson nor I had seen any noncombatants killed and that "the Taliban and their supporters are running a very effective propaganda campaign to discredit coalition efforts. Exaggerated claims of damage often result in demands for more money in compensation."

The next day, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan concluded that 90 civilians had been killed during the raid at Aziz Abad. Then, as we were departing for Herat, we were informed that the government in Kabul was offering $200,000 to settle the claims and was planning new restrictions on Special Operations Command missions.

Let's hope that won't be the end of this story. U.S. commanders here are appealing to the Karzai government to look at the evidence -- including our videotape -- and to continue to support intelligence-driven operations against the Taliban. Brig. Gen. Khair Mohammad, chief of staff of the 207th Corps, Western Military Region, told me: "We need to have America's help to win this fight. Your enemy is our enemy."

He's right. The sooner officials in Kabul realize it the sooner this war will be won.