Kabul, Afghanistan – When Ismail Nemati set out from Kabul last week to join his family in nearby Wardak province for the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, friends said, his biggest fear was running into Taliban forces who might question his allegiances.
Before sunrise the next day, Nemati lay bleeding in his family guest room, alongside two of his brothers, all shot dead by U.S. special forces who were on the hunt for a Taliban leader.
Their deaths sparked a vitriolic anti-American protest and generated a backlash against the dramatic spike in special forces raids, which have become a crucial element of President Barack Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan.
The number of secretive raids that target anti-Western insurgents has skyrocketed. NATO officials said this week that special forces are taking part in 1,000 operations in Afghanistan each month, a threefold increase over last year.
In most cases, American military officials say, the raids end without a shot being fired. It’s the small number of questionable raids, such as the recent one in Wardak, that Afghans remember, however.
“He was not Taliban,” Omid Ali, 21, said in broken English about his school friend Nemati. “I want to say to President Obama: Afghanistan doesn’t have hostility towards foreign forces, but, these mistakes, that is how they will be defeated in Afghanistan.”
American military officials said that Nemati’s shooting was no mistake. The 25-year-old student was shot as he was reaching for an AK-47 automatic rifle when the U.S. special forces team burst into the tiny guest room where he was sleeping with his brothers at the family compound, according to an account of the raid provided by the American military.
From the U.S. military perspective, the raid appeared to follow the standard procedures:
Afghan and American forces on the hunt for three Taliban suspects closed in on the compound in Sayed Abad, a small village in a risky part of Wardak province, officials said. The assault force called, over a loudspeaker in the local Pashto language, for everyone to come out.
After most people complied, according to the military account, the forces moved in and discovered Nemati and two of his brothers in the guest room.
When they entered the building, military officials said, the forces shot dead one of the brothers, who was carrying the AK-47. Then, according to the U.S. account, the second brother was shot dead when he tried to pick up the rifle. The military said the third Afghan was killed when he, too, tried to grab the Kalashnikov.
The military force reported finding no other weapons in the compound.
In its initial news release on the operation, the U.S.-led military coalition said the assault forces had apprehended a key Taliban commander at a nearby compound.
“This capture will severely degrade Taliban operations in the Tangi and Shehkabad district,” U.S. Army Col. Rafael Torres, a spokesman for the military coalition, said the day after the raid. “Now one less criminal is on the streets endangering Afghan civilians with his indiscriminate IED attacks,” a reference to improvised explosive devices, as the military calls homemade bombs.
Now, however, NATO military officials say they aren’t even certain they have the right man.
“Although initially we believed we captured an insurgent commander at one of the compounds, we have not been able to definitively determine that person’s identity,” said one NATO official who discussed the operation only on the condition that he not be identified, because of the sensitivity of the secret operations.
The Afhan family’s account of the raid differs on the most significant points.
Relatives said that Ismail and 23-year-old Buranullah, an earth studies major at Kabul University, had returned from Kabul that morning to celebrate Ramadan with their family. After dinner, relatives said, Ismail and Buranullah studied for exams in the guest room.
Around 1:30 in the morning, American soldiers burst through the door and started firing, said Wahidullah, a 13-year-old who said he was sleeping in the room with his three older brothers. Wahidullah said he heard no call to come outside before the shooting started.
Buranullah and 17-year-old Faridullah lay bleeding to death as Ismail spoke to the soldiers in English, Wahidullah said. Ismail was still alive as the assault force led him out of the room, said Wahidullah, who wasn’t sure whether all three brothers had been hit during the initial shooting.
U.S. military officials said this week that Wahidullah wasn’t in the room and couldn’t have known what happened during the shooting.
Photographs of the compound, which the family provided and the U.S. military verified, show three distinct bloodstains on the floor where the brothers were killed.
“I didn’t know that my brothers were being killed,” Wahidullah said in a telephone interview from his village. “I thought they were firing just to wake them up.”
The U.S. military said all three brothers “showed hostile intent towards the assault force.”
After killing the first brother, the military said, the assault force attempted to get the other two to come out peacefully before it shot them in succession as they tried to grab the weapon.
It was only after confronting the brothers in the guest room, said family members who were in the compound that night, that the assault force called in Pashto for people to come out.
One of those interrogated during the raid was Mohammed Aman, a 29-year-old brother who was sleeping in another part of the house.
While Mohammed Aman’s hands were cuffed and a hood was over his face, he said, his Afghan interrogator slapped him across the face while asking him about Taliban leaders in the village.
“They asked me, ‘Who are the Taliban sleeping in your room?’ ” Mohammad Aman said during an interview in Kabul before a memorial service for his brothers.
When the soldiers said that they’d found a weapon in the compound, Aman told his interrogator to show it to him.
“I said, ‘If you found any weapons, then come and shoot me with this weapon,’ ” Aman said. The soldiers never produced the rifle, he said.
Mohammed Aman told McClatchy that a pair of Taliban fighters had come to the family compound two days before the raid to ask for food. Afraid to say no, Aman said, the family fed the two before they went on their way.
The brothers’ shootings unleashed a protest in the area. Hundreds of Afghans blocked the main road as they shouted anti-American slogans.
U.S. military officials sought to put the shootings in context.
From Aug. 5, 2009, to Aug. 5, 2010, the American-led coalition said, the special forces who were involved in the Wardak operation killed or captured 553 targets in 1,225 raids. The assault teams opened fire in only two of every 10 cases, they said.
“They really work awfully hard not to have to shoot,” the NATO official said.
Anti-American insurgents have been responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths this year. A few days before the night raid in Wardak, the United Nations warned that increased Taliban attacks had led to a spike in civilian casualties.
Anti-American insurgents were blamed for 76 percent of the 3,268 civilian casualties. American-led forces and their Afghan allies were blamed for 12 percent of the civilian deaths and injuries during the first six months of this year, a 30 percent drop from last year.
Friends and relatives of the three brothers took little comfort in the numbers.
A few days after the shootings, dozens of men gathered for a memorial at Kabul’s National Institute of Management and Administration, a U.S.-backed vocational school where Ismail Nemati studied.
Safiullah, an uncle of the three brothers, sat on a cushion below banners with photographs of the dead trio. Photos of the brothers as they awaited burial showed the two older ones with a few thin wisps of whiskers on their young faces.
“I am not an enemy of the government, but I am ready to throw myself in front of a convoy, even if civilians are killed,” Safiullah, who like many Afghans goes by only one name, said in an interview. “We can’t forgive them. The only way is to put the people who gave them bad information on trial.”
After the service, friends of the brothers crowded into Ismail Aman’s sparse dormitory room, filled with metal double bunk beds and little else, and criticized the United States.
Friends pulled out Ismail’s notebooks filled with English proverbs (“Adversity often leads to prosperity”), marketing lessons and leadership development notes.
“Why are they killing innocent people?” one of the students asked. “We are the new generation of our nation.”
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)