U.S. ‘Virtually Never Held Anyone Accountable’ for Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan War, Former White House Official Says
One night in October 2009, Mohammad Aalem was at home in Afghanistan’s Wardak province with his children and two brothers.
What Aalem says happened next is burned into his memory: U.S. forces blew up the gate to his home and began firing. It was one of the controversial “night raids” that would become a hallmark of America’s counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan.
“My brother was sleeping in his bed with his children,” Aalem, a taxi driver, tells correspondent Martin Smith about his brother, a police officer, in the above excerpt from Part Two of America and the Taliban. “When he opened the [bedroom] door, they instantly killed him.”
Pointing to his cheek, one shoulder, his chest and then the other shoulder, Aalem says of his brother’s death, “They shot him here and over here and here. They shot him in all these places.”
Wardak province was a hotbed of Taliban activity at the time. That night, in his guest house, there were guests, Aalem says: “I don’t know if they were [Taliban]. We are people from rural Afghanistan. If anyone comes, we give them food.”
But neither he nor his brothers were Taliban, Aalem says.
Aalem’s story unfolds in Part Two of America and the Taliban, which premiered Tuesday, April 11, 2023, on PBS and online. Over the course of the series, award-winning producers Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith chronicle how what began in the wake of the 9/11 attacks as an effort to eliminate Al Qaeda and eliminate its ruling ally, the Taliban, became America’s longest war, with nearly 50,000 Afghan civilians, almost 70,000 members of the Afghan national military and police forces, and approximately 2,400 American service members killed — and how it ended in defeat in August 2021 with U.S. troops withdrawing, the Western-backed government collapsing, and the Taliban once again in control.
Part Two of America and the Taliban focuses on how the war effort, which started under George W. Bush, played out during Barack Obama’s presidency. In reporting the documentary, Smith found that Aalem was not alone in his experience — and that a pattern of Afghan civilian casualties incurred during raids and other errant attacks severely undercut the U.S. military’s effort to win “hearts and minds” in the country, including that of Afghan leadership.
“President Karzai increasingly became bitter,” Omar Zakhikwal, a former minister in then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government, tells Smith. “The raiding of houses and night raids he was strictly opposed to. But the thing that particularly annoyed President Karzai was the killing of civilians. And it repeatedly happened.”
Retired Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command from 2008-10 and of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2010-11, apologized directly to Karzai after an airstrike killed nine children. In the above excerpt, Smith presses Petraeus on Afghan civilians killed or injured during raids and other operations by U.S. and coalition forces.
“The accumulation of civilian casualties — mistakes, all mistakes, to be clear — I mean, we were very, very tough,” says Petraeus, who made efforts to reduce civilian casualties. “War is full of mistakes. Full of incredible loss, tragedy, heartbreak, hardship and casualties.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, a deputy national security advisor from 2007-13, tells Smith the U.S. response to Afghan civilian casualties was lacking.
“We virtually never held anyone accountable for civilian casualties,” Lute says in the above excerpt. “I mean, we paid condolences and sometimes we said, ‘It wasn’t us.’ Or, ‘Sorry, it’s a mistake.’ But we never held anybody accountable.”
In the documentary, retired Army Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, who served two rotations in Afghanistan, tells FRONTLINE the “peace offerings” the U.S. often made to Afghans whose family members were killed in errant strikes weren’t enough to stem the badwill.
“They held those grudges and they did accumulate over time, not only in an individual action, but in the narratives our enemies were building about us being indiscriminate killers,” Dempsey says. “You know, our failure rate, if it’s 1, 2% out of hundreds and thousands of strikes per year, you can build a hell of a lot of stories about the evil Americans if you’re screwing up 2%, and I guarantee we were screwing up more than that.”
As for Aalem, he says that after his brother was killed, their house was then set on fire and he was taken to Bagram prison with another brother. He spent four years there and, he says, was never charged with any crime.
The experience turned him against the Americans. He says that after his release, he contemplated carrying out a suicide attack, but chose not to “because I have young children. I didn’t do it because I had to support my family.”
As seen in the excerpt, to this day, Aalem gets choked up when talking about his brother’s death — at one point pausing the interview and leaving the room.
He wants to keep his brother’s memory alive.
“They killed my brother,” Aalem says. “He was a police officer, a good one. He was on active duty, and on that night he had come home.”
For the full story on how the U.S. lost the 20-year war in Afghanistan, watch America and the Taliban. Parts One and Two of the three-part series are available to stream now on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel, at pbs.org/frontline and in the PBS Video App:
Part Three airs Tuesday, April 25 at 10/9c on PBS stations (check local listings) and on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel, and will also be available to stream starting at 7/6c at pbs.org/frontline and in the PBS Video App. America and the Taliban is a FRONTLINE production with RAIN Media, Inc. The producers are Brian Funck, Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith. The writers and directors are Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith. The correspondent is Martin Smith. The co-producer is Scott Anger. The executive producer and editor-in-chief for FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.
This story has been updated.