On May 4 the US bombed the village of Granai in Farah province, Afghanistan, killing 140 civilians according to the Afghanistan government, including approximately 90 children. It was the single largest loss of life caused by US/NATO forces since the 2001 invasion. President Hamid Karzai denounced the air strikes as "unjustifiable and unacceptable," hundreds of people demonstrated in Kabul and in Farah city there was a riot outside the governor’s office and traders closed their shops in protest.
The US military initially claimed the civilians had been killed by grenades hurled by Taliban fighters. These assertions were shown to be false by eyewitness accounts and were quickly withdrawn. The US military has since published a 13-page report, estimating that 20-30 civilians died in the bombing, along with 60-65 Taliban fighters. The investigation conceded that errors had been made in the military operation but did not call anybody to account or apportion blame. Importantly, it did not recommend "the curtailment of close air support."
In contrast to the findings of the US military’s investigation is the testimony of British photojournalist Guy Smallman, the only Western journalist to visit the site of the air strikes. Back in London after visiting Granai in late May, Smallman – an experienced journalist who has previously reported from Iraq, Lebanon, the social movements in Bolivia and the factory occupations in Argentina – speaks of the events of May 4.
With Granai and the surrounding area in western Afghanistan "pretty much controlled by the Taliban" the 37-year old photographer explains that it was "very risky" for him to photograph the bomb sites. "I was taken there by a couple of local people at a certain time when they thought the Taliban were less likely to be around," he says. "I was dressed as a local and my face was covered and I was wearing sunglasses. I was told to take the photos and keep my mouth shut. My translator did all the talking."
By combining the evidence he gathered on his trip to the village with an in-depth interview with a village elder, media reports and the US military investigation, Smallman has built up a detailed picture of what happened in Granai on the day the US struck.
Most accounts of the bombing start with the battle between Taliban insurgents and the Afghan government forces that took place "about three kilometres from the village" along the main road all afternoon, Smallman says. Pinned down by the Taliban, the Afghan government troops called for US assistance, and ground troops and close air support were dispatched.
Early news accounts and the US military reported that fighting had taken place in Granai with the Taliban firing from civilian compounds. Smallman says this is "absolute bullshit." The villagers he spoke to insisted the Taliban never entered the village. "We walked the length and breadth of that village … we never saw a single bullet-hole or single shell casing anywhere."
The bombing, carried out by a B-1B bomber, started at least an hour after the end of the fighting. "From the villagers’ point of view, they didn’t have a clue what was going on," says Smallman. "As far as they were concerned there was no reason for their village to be bombed." He notes there were two concentrations of air strikes in Granai, the first outside a mosque where a crowd had gathered after evening prayers. "You could see that trees were snapped in two by the bombs, so you can only imagine what happened to the people there," he says.
Understandably, this air strike produced "blind panic" among the villagers, with the elderly, women and children evacuated to a compound at the far end of the settlement. "A single 2,000lb bomb was then dropped in to the middle of them," says Smallman. "That was where there was the biggest loss of life. That is why the number of children killed was so high. A 2,000lb bomb vaporises literally everything at its epicentre."
During his visit to Granai, Smallman says he was saddened to see a mass grave in the cemetery with the remains of 54 people. "The reason they are buried together, which is very out of keeping with Muslim tradition, was because they were all in pieces and it was impossible to tell who was who."
Smallman is keen to highlight the absurdity of the US investigation’s claim that the civilians targeted had been "moving in a tactical manner – definitively and rapidly in evenly spaced intervals across difficult terrain" in the dark. "This is bullshit – the Taliban are not renowned for their marching or drilling. They are guerilla fighters."
He also argues the US estimate of the number of civilian dead is "way off the mark." He agrees the exact number will never be known but believes the best estimate to be 140 civilian deaths – a figure supported by the Afghan government, the Red Cross and the villagers themselves.
Smallman does not believe the US military deliberately targeted civilians in Granai – "they’ve got nothing to gain from this and everything to lose" – but he contends it should be investigated as a war crime. "What has happened so far is the US military has investigated itself, and found itself not guilty."
Smallman points out the US/NATO occupation forces in Afghanistan are caught in a Catch-22 situation. "If they take away the air support then they would immediately level the playing field between their troops and a very determined enemy fighting on their own turf. The NATO casualty rate would soar." However, if they continue using air strikes, he believes that "civilian casualties are absolutely inevitable" and "every time an innocent dies it brings money and recruits to the Taliban."
So what prospects does Smallman see for Afghanistan‘s future? "Would things be any better if the troops were pulled out?" he asks rhetorically. "It is hard to imagine that things could be any worse. Certainly the occupation is not working – it is a magnet for every jihadist headcase on the planet."
By documenting the attacks on Granai on May 4, Smallman has done a great service for those who wish to know the truth about the US/NATO occupation of Afghanistan. However, due to the danger to himself and his contacts in Afghanistan, he says he is unlikely to return to Afghanistan this year. "I don’t particularly want to push my luck. I’ve been there three times already," he says. "It is the maddest place I’ve ever been to, bar none."
The question of safety is hugely important because, as Smallman explains, if independent journalists cannot gain access, then the US military is better able to control the information flowing from the battlefield. "How many more massacres have gone completely uninvestigated because the slaughter has been off-limits to the press?"
*This article recently appeared in the Morning Star
Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. [email protected].