Case Study: The Media and Gardez

Carnegie Fellow

On February 12, 2010, U.S. Special Operations helped to conduct a nighttime raid in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, and five civilians ended up dead — three women, including two who were pregnant; a district prosecutor; and a local police chief. Soldiers claimed that the men were insurgents, and that the women had been found dead, bound and gagged in the house, when the soldiers arrived. The soldiers made it seem as though the women had been victims of Taliban-organized honor killings.

NATO issued a press release entitled, “Joint Force Operating in Gardez Makes Gruesome Discovery,” with details about the deaths of the men and women at the house, and a CNN report, with contributions by reporter Barbara Starr, repeated the claims from soldiers; the story was entitled, “Bodies found gagged, bound after Afghan ‘honor killing.’” The military’s account, along with the report by CNN, made the incident in the village appear to be yet another disturbing account of Taliban brutality towards women.

Nevertheless, there were hints that the story of the raid was more complicated than the NATO public-affairs office and CNN had indicated. The New York Times reported on the day after the raid that there were discrepancies in the accounts of the raid. In addition, an Associated Press reporter named Amir Shah was even more skeptical about the NATO characterization of the raid, filing a video segment about the incident that was headlined, “NATO says insurgents killed; family says civilians.” Shah’s report, which contradicted both the NATO report and the CNN segment, appeared on an NBC affiliate, CW56, in Boston. Meanwhile, a RAWA News article that was posted on February 12 was even more direct: It was entitled, “Villagers accuse US Special Forces for killing five civilians.” The grammar was clumsy, but nevertheless the headline and accompanying article made it clear that there was another side to the story.

As it turned out, the Special Forces’ claims were untrue. The Pentagon admitted several weeks later that Special Forces had killed the men and women and had in fact dug bullets out of the bodies of the women to hide facts of the crimes. The press release that NATO had originally issued about the raid, and that the CNN reporter had cited in their segment, currently appears as a blank page with the following sentence: “This document has been rescinded.

Many of the facts about the deaths of the Afghan men and women on that night remain in dispute. But it is clear that something went terribly wrong that night – and moreover that botched nighttime raids had become commonplace. In the same month that the incident occurred, the campaign of nighttime raids became a controversial aspect of the efforts by U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan, with the publication a report that was issued by Open Society Institute (Available as a PDF), a New York-based organization headed up by financier George Soros. “While attacking homes at night, rather than daytime, may add an element of surprise and reduce the risk to pro-government forces, it dramatically increases the chances of indiscriminate use of force against innocent women, children, and men in the house,” wrote the authors of the report.

For a variety of reasons, the Special Forces raid on the house in Gardez ended in five needless deaths. The incident could have immediately prompted U.S. Special Operations to re-evaluate the policy of nighttime raids that were being conducted in Afghanistan and to determine whether the benefits of these actions outweighed the costs. One analyst at the United States Army Military History Institute, which is located at United States Army War College, told me that Special Forces have been the “worst perpetrators” of civilian deaths in the war in Afghanistan. Yet it took several weeks for the U.S. media to accurately assess the original statements from the military about the February raid and to report on what had happened that night. This was an unfortunate, and avoidable, lapse in the media coverage of the war in Afghanistan.

Left-leaning journalists such as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, was harsh in his criticism of the American journalists for their failure to report on the incident, even harsher than he was in his writing about the U.S. soldiers who had committed the murder. “What is clear — yet again — is how completely misinformed and propagandized Americans continue to be by the American media, which constantly ‘reports’ on crucial events in Afghanistan by doing nothing more than mindlessly and unquestioningly passing along U.S. government claims as though they are fact,” he wrote in an April 5, 2010, article.

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald was not the only one who was angry about the media coverage. Journalist Jerome Starkey, who was based in Afghanistan and wrote for The Times of London, accused both the American and British media of pulling their punches and refusing to investigate stories in Afghanistan. “This self-censorship is compounded by the ‘embed culture,’ which encourages journalists to visit the frontlines with NATO soldiers, who provide them food, shelter, security and ultimately with stories,” he wrote in a piece for Nieman Watchdog.

The worst offenses were committed that night by soldiers who decided to kill Afghan civilians – not by the journalists who were lax in their efforts to investigate the incident. Nevertheless, journalists should not have relied so heavily on the press releases issued by NATO’s public-affairs office; instead, journalists could have made a concerted effort to speak with people who had seen what happened during the raid, which would have allowed the journalists to write more complete and nuanced articles. If the stories about the raid had included more sources and additional reporting, the American public would have learned about a raid that had gone horribly wrong and perhaps the practice of these nighttime operations would have been re-evaluated. Unfortunately, the practice of these raids continued unabated.

Military officials expressed regret for crimes; a U.S. Special Operations commander, Vice Admiral William McRaven, visited the village where the men and women had been killed and apologized. “I am the commander of the soldiers who accidentally killed your loved ones,” he told the family, as reported by ABC News. That was the end of the story.