Three Afghan soldiers pinned a sheep to the dirt and looked at their superiors to see if they should slit its throat. On the dusty, unmade track outside an old man’s home in eastern Afghanistan, about 30 Afghan officers and a handful of American troops were enacting an ancient ritual known as Nanawate. It was a cunning use of Pashtunwali, Afghanistan’s complicated honour code in which one group seeks forgiveness by offering to sacrifice an animal at the other party’s door.
There was much to be absolved. The owner of the house, Haji Sharabuddin, and his family had suffered one of the most shameful episodes of America’s 12-year war. Five members of his family, including two pregnant women and a teenage girl, were shot during a night raid by American special forces. Afghan investigators accused the soldiers of then trying to cover up their actions by claiming that the men were Taleban and the women victims of an honour killing. They said that the soldiers dug the bullets out of their victims’ bodies and washed the wounds with alcohol. The American soldiers then arrested eight innocent people and refused to let anyone in or out for almost eight hours. A US military spokesman has since denied any cover-up, saying, “We have discovered no evidence that any of our forces did anything to manipulate the evidence or the bodies at the scene.”
Now, almost three and a half years later, the story of what happened in Khataba, which was first reported in The Times, has become a central part of Dirty Wars, a must-see documentary about America’s most secret soldiers and their targeted killings around the globe.
Jeremy Scahill, a journalist who wrote a bestselling exposé of the mercenary firm Blackwater, travels from Afghanistan to Yemen and then on to Somalia in a compelling and beautifully shot quest to give voice to the victims of America’s covert campaigns. It is film clearly made for an American audience. There are moments when Scahill’s angsty voiceover sounds like the trailer to a Hollywood action film.
“Kabul, Afghanistan. Four in the morning,” he says potentously, as the movie opens with a shot of our hero in a taxi. “As an American journalist, I was used to filing stories in the middle of the night, but there’s always something eerie, driving through the deserted streets.”
Then he’s talking into a television camera for a live studio two-way, then he’s on camera interviewing survivors, then he’s leafing through pictures of victims. We see him giving testimony on Capitol Hill, we see him on old chat shows. He’s quite often gazing contemplatively out of moving cars, leafing through more photos, working at his desk, putting pins in maps, taping pictures to the wall. We even see him buying a coffee in New York.
There’s no doubt this film is presenter-led. It is the Jeremy Scahill show. It might even qualify as celebrity journalism, which is one way of stitching together a complicated narrative that encompasses US-backed warlords in Mogadishu — who
confess to summarily executing foreign fighters — special forces whistleblowers in America and the Saana-based father of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was an American citizen killed by a missile strike in Yemen.
Among the American soldiers who came to Haji Sharabuddin’s mud-walled home in Khataba was a lean, grim-faced man in the distinctive brown camouflage of the US Marine Corps. He had three stars on his lapel and the words Navy and McRaven embroidered on his chest. However, this was April 8, 2010 — more than a year before the US Navy’s Seal Team Six would kill Osama bin Laden in neighbouring Pakistan and propel their boss into the international limelight.
I didn’t realise until I drove home to Kabul that the man standing next to the bleating sheep was Vice-Admiral Bill McRaven, the commander of America’s Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, one of the most secretive units in the world. He confessed to Haji Sharabuddin that it was his soldiers who killed the man’s children. “I am the commander of the soldiers who accidentally killed your loved ones,” he said. “I came to ask your forgiveness.” The sheep had been spared and led inside.
I witnessed what happened in Khataba with The Times’ Afghanistan correspondent, Jeremy Kelly — who took the only known photographs of Admiral McRaven in the field — and our fearless Afghan colleague Shoaib Najafizada. We had been invited there by the family after first exposing the truth a few weeks earlier. (Read more…)