Bombing Afghanistan

Afghan President Tells 60 Minutes That Too Many Civilians Are Being Killed

CBS All Access
This video is available on CBS All Access

This segment was originally broadcast on Oct. 28, 2007. It was updated on Aug. 28, 2008.

There's been a burst of fighting in Afghanistan in recent weeks. The enemy sent waves of suicide bombers to attack U.S. bases. Allied troops and unarmed humanitarian workers have been ambushed and killed. Now there is controversy about whether an American air strike killed a large number of civilians.

The Afghan government says about 90 civilians were killed last week in the strike, as many as 60 of them children. U.N. investigators say they verified those deaths. The U.S. military insists only five civilians were killed, but it's investigating.

As correspondent Scott Pelley first reported last year, the Afghan government has been demanding an end to air strikes, even though the U.S. military says they're vital to supporting the troops. 60 Minutes wanted to find out what effect the strikes are having on the war, so we traveled to a small Afghan village that was hit by American bombs in March 2007.

Our journey took us through Afghanistan, up the Shomali Plain north of the capital, Kabul. The Taliban are active in the area, so 60 Minutes hired Panjshiri mercenaries to cover our trip. The scene of the air strike is a village in the hills above Kapisa Province.

The 60 Minutes team found the dead buried in a cornfield. It appears there were no enemy combatants. It was four generations of one family, all killed in the air strike: an 85-year-old man, four women, and four children, ranging in age from five years to seven months. One boy survived. The night of the bombing, seven-year-old Mujib happened to be staying with his uncle, Gulam Nabi.

"Some of the bodies were missing a hand or a leg or half a head. We recognized one of them only by the clothes she was wearing," Nabi remembers.

Nabi recognized Mujib's mother among the dead.

"I saw my mom, my sisters, and my brother and my grandfather were dead. And our house was destroyed," the little boy remembers.

Mujib's father was not there. He's accused of being a local Taliban leader and the U.S. has been searching for him with no luck. The air strike came the night of March 4. An Army press release says it started after enemy forces fired a rocket at a U.S. base above the village. The rocket fell "causing no coalition casualties," in fact, "missing the fire base" altogether. Then U.S. pilots saw two men with AK-47 rifles leaving the scene of the rocket attack and entering a compound in the village.

The fort, which is on a hill, began raining down mortar fire on part of the village -- mortar fire that came down for about an hour. It was nighttime, and even though there were no U.S. forces in contact with the enemy on the ground, a decision was made after the mortars to call in an air strike. U.S. Air Force aircraft dropped two bombs on the neighborhood, each one weighing 2,000 pounds.

The bombs hit their intended targets, but when the smoke cleared there were no men with rifles -- just Mujib's family.

"During the Russian invasion we haven't heard of 10 members of one family being killed by Russians in one incident. But the Americans did that," a villager remarked.

These Afghans, like many others, are trying to decide whether to support the U.S.-backed government. We expected anger, but we didn't expect this.

"You can't be saying that the Soviets were kinder to your people than the Americans have been," Pelley remarks.

"We used to hate the Russians much more than Americans," the villager replied. "But now when we see all this happening, I am telling you Russians behave much better than the Americans."

Really, there's no comparison. The Soviets killed something like a million Afghans over ten years. But it's the kind of thing that Afghans are saying, and here's why: in 2007, 22 air strikes killed more than 320 civilians, according to the humanitarian organization Human Rights Watch.

It leaves Afghan President Hamid Karzai explaining to his people why they're being killed by his allies.

"Why are so many Afghan civilians being killed by U.S. forces?" Pelley asks.

"The United States and the Coalition Forces are not doing that deliberately. The United States is here to help the Afghan people. The Afghan people understand that mistakes are made. But five years on, six years on, definitely, very clearly, they cannot comprehend as to why there is still a need for air power," Karzai explains.

Asked if he is asking the American government to roll back the air strikes, Karzai says, "Absolutely. Oh, yes, in clear words."

Karzai told 60 Minutes he delivered those words, privately, to President George W. Bush last year, but he decided to take the message public in this interview. "And I want to repeat that, alternatives to the use of air force. And I will speak for it again through your media," he says.

"You're demanding that?" Pelley asks.

"Absolutely," Karzai says.