[Follow-up to: “Gates Open to Troop Increase in Afghanistan On Top of Obama Surge as More Civilians Die and Most Americans Oppose the Occupation“]

Of the 125 NATO officials are estimating in the total death toll, Afghan officials are saying that at least 70 civilians were killed in the U.S.-led NATO airstrike nearby the city of Kunduz.

The September 4 airstrike at 2:30 AM was first said to have killed 50 insurgents—according to the German military commander overseeing troops in the province. The early death toll was tallied at 90—according to Kunduz Gov. Mohammad Omar in Frank Jordans’ initial report at the AP (via AntiWar.com)—putting the civilian death toll at 40, at that time. Friday, The New York Times (NYT) reported:

A senior NATO official who had watched aerial surveillance video of the attack site said the Germans who ordered the strike “had every reason to believe what they were looking at was groups of insurgents offloading tankers,” a process that went on for several hours.

The official said that the nearest villages were two miles away and that the authorities “don’t know yet” whether the attack violated the rules governing the use of airstrikes tightened this summer by General McChrystal.

According to the new rules, airstrikes are, in most cases, allowed only to prevent American and other coalition troops from being overrun by enemy fighters. Even in the case of active firefights with Taliban forces, airstrikes are to be limited if the combat is taking place in populated areas.

From initial accounts given by NATO and Afghan officials, it was not clear whether this strike met those conditions, regardless of whether the majority of the dead were insurgents or civilians.

Today, Rajiv Chandrasekaran at The Washington Post reports that a NATO fact-finding mission has estimated the total death toll at 125, including “at least two dozen of whom—but perhaps many more—were not insurgents”. The AP reports (via the NYT) that local officials are now estimating that civilian toll over 70, staying consistent with the German military’s early assessment of 50 insurgents killed in the attack:

The deputy United Nations representative to Afghanistan, Peter W. Galbraith, said Saturday that he was “very concerned” about the strike. “Steps must also be taken to examine what happened and why an airstrike was employed in circumstances where it was hard to determine with certainty that civilians were not present,” he said.

General McChrystal discussed the strike with President Hamid Karzai and later told senior commanders that “we need to know what we are hitting,” an aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity under command policy….

The strike’s toll remained unclear on Saturday. Germany said that 57 fighters were killed and that no civilians were believed to have been in the area at the time, based on surveillance aircraft. But NATO’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, acknowledged that some civilians may have died.

The local governor, Mohammad Omar, said 72 people were killed and 15 wounded. He said about 30 of the dead were insurgents. The rest were probably fighters or relatives, he said.

M. Karim Faiez and Laura King at the Los Angeles Times add:

Dozens of villagers suffered serious burns in the massive fireball ignited when the tankers were hit, they said….

In the initial hours after Friday’s strike in Kunduz, Western military officials expressed confidence that nearly all those killed were insurgents.

But later reports trickling in from the scene painted a grim picture of impoverished villagers being engulfed by the explosion while trying to siphon fuel from the stranded tankers….

After the hijacking, the trucks were tracked via aerial surveillance to a spot near the village of Omar Khel, where they became stuck when the hijackers tried to drive across a riverbed. Western military officials said they believed there were no civilians in the area, a crucial precondition for airstrikes under the new tactical directive issued by McChrystal soon after he took command.

Gen. McChrystal’s focus on the “need to know what”—at who—airstrikes “are hitting” and Mr. Galbraith’s ‘concern’ comes from the report that this particular airstrike was executed based one sole informant asserting to intelligence that only insurgents were in the strike zone, according to German officers. Mr. Chandrasekaran reports, “[T]he target appeared to be far less clear-cut than it had to the Germans.”:

An Afghan informant was on the phone with an intelligence officer at the center, however, insisting that everybody at the site was an insurgent, according to an account that German officers here provided to NATO officials.

Based largely on that informant’s assessment, the commander ordered a 500-pound, satellite-guided bomb to be dropped on each truck early Friday. The vehicles exploded in a fireball that lit up the night sky for miles, incinerating many of those standing nearby….

None of the survivors and the relatives dispute that some Taliban fighters were at the scene. But just how many remains unclear, as does the number of civilians. And because many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, and others were buried in the hours after the explosion, it may be impossible to ascertain.

The decision to bomb the tankers based largely on a single human intelligence source appears to violate the spirit of a tactical directive aimed at reducing civilian casualties that was recently issued by U.S. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new commander of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. The directive states that NATO forces cannot bomb residential buildings based on a sole source of information and that troops must establish a “pattern of life” to ensure that no civilians are in the target area. Although the directive does not apply to airstrikes in the open, NATO officials said it is McChrystal’s intent for those standards to apply to all uses of air power, except when troops are in imminent danger….

[German commander, Col. Georg Klein] told the team, led by British Air Commodore Paddy Teakle, the NATO mission’s director of air operations, that he had asked a U.S. B-1B bomber flying over northern Afghanistan to search for two fuel trucks that had been hijacked Thursday evening. The bomber located the trucks, which by then were stuck on a small island in the middle of the Kunduz River, shortly after midnight Friday. The B-1 crew reported seeing rocket-propelled grenades and small arms among some of the people at the site, Klein said….

Twenty minutes later, two F-15E Strike Eagles arrived. A video camera pod beamed live images to Klein’s command center. He and his troops could see the trucks — and scores of people around them.

His intelligence chief had spoken to an Afghan source who insisted that everyone at the site was an insurgent. The description of the scene the source provided was similar to what Klein was seeing beamed from the F-15….

But there was no way to tell whether the dots on the screen were insurgents, as the source maintained.

“We heard there was a tanker and everyone was going to collect free fuel, so I went with them,” said Mohammed Shafiullah, the 10-year-old with the leg wound. He rode a donkey from his village and took in the scene from the western riverbank.

He probably would not have been alive had the airstrike coordinator at Klein’s command center not rejected the F-15 pilot’s recommendation to use 2,000-pound bombs on the trucks, which would have created far wider devastation. Instead, the coordinator demanded that 500-pound GBU-38 bombs be used.

Klein ordered the strike about 2:30 a.m. Two minutes later, the bombs had hit their targets.

Inside the command center, the screen showed a huge mushroom cloud enveloping the island. A few black dots — survivors — could be seen scurrying away. But most of the 100 or so dots that had been on the screen were gone….

“Everyone was panicked,” said Mirajuddin, the man who lost six cousins. “It was a horrible night.”

Instead of sending troops to the scene for an assessment of casualties — as McChrystal’s directive requires — the Germans waited until morning to send an unmanned aircraft over the site to take photographs. The first German troops did not arrive at the scene until noon Friday. By then, all the bodies had been removed.

Mirajuddin said he and his relatives found the bodies of only three of his cousins. He buried them that morning in the same grave, he said.

“News reports covering today’s attack by the U.S. command southwest of Kunduz province show that the good intentions of NATO forces in Afghanistan are not sufficient,” Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) stated in a press release, Friday. “If we want to avoid killing innocent civilians, we must end the war.”

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