SAJAWAND, Afghanistan -- Like any prospective bride, 18-year-old Fatima Akhundzadah was looking forward to her wedding with a mixture of excitement and nervous anticipation. On Tuesday, two nights before she was to marry a young man from her village, her female relatives helped paint her hands with henna, as is the tradition in Afghanistan.
But her dreams were extinguished in an instant around 2 a.m., when a U.S.-led coalition aircraft bombed the compound they lived in. She and 17 members of her extended family perished in the blast.
“They changed the color of her hands from henna to blood,” said Khan Wazir, one of Fatima’s relatives, as he stood amid the rubble on Thursday.
What happened at Sajawand on Wednesday, when U.S. and Afghan forces raided the village in the early hours, is still far from clear. But accounts from the International Security Assistance Force, as the coalition is known, as well as from interviews McClatchy conducted with Afghan officials and residents of Sajawand village in Logar province, south of Kabul, suggest that the raid went horribly wrong.
While the accounts vary in detail, it now seems almost certain that several Afghan women, teenagers and children were killed in the airstrike. They highlight the difficulties and dangers of waging counterinsurgency in a country like Afghanistan – of balancing the need to protect U.S.-led coalition forces with the need to protect the civilian population and to limit so-called “collateral damage.”
The accounts also illustrate the psychological as well as physical damage that wayward airstrikes can inflict – how they infuriate and alienate ordinary Afghans, significantly undermining the attempt to win hearts and minds that is the purported centerpiece of coalition strategy.
At first ISAF denied reports of civilian casualties. A coalition statement reported Wednesday that during an operation to detain a Taliban leader, a group of insurgents fired on the joint Afghan-coalition force with small arms and a grenade and refused calls to surrender. So the coalition called in an airstrike.
The coalition initially acknowledged that two women had “sustained non-life-threatening injuries,” but there was no mention of the Akhundzadah house being hit. Within hours, after Afghan media began to report that civilians were among the dead, ISAF said it would send a team to investigate.
Returning early to Afghanistan from an official visit to China, Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday condemned the airstrike, saying in a statement: “NATO operations that inflict human and material losses to civilians can in no way be justifiable, acceptable and tolerable.”
A McClatchy reporter who reached Sajawand around midday Thursday found a scene of devastation at the Akhundzadah compound, where the family’s two houses once stood. The home of Abdul Basir Akhundzadah – the father of Fatima, the bride – was badly damaged; its mud-brick supporting walls had collapsed and the roof had caved in.
The house of Qayum Akhundzadah, Abdul Basir’s brother, had a massive hole in what remained of the ceiling, indicating the location of the bomb dropped by the coalition aircraft. Piles of rubble littered the property, from the front of the compound to the shattered rooms of both houses.
Khan Wazir, a 22-year-old teacher trainee, could barely contain his fury. “Everything has been destroyed,” he said. “Nothing remained alive except four chickens and a cow.”