Hamid Karzai has gotten desperate. In a bid to justify his recalcitrance over not signing the bilateral security agreement (BSA) with the United States – an agreement that would grant a legal basis for U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after 2014 – Karzai’s government has presented evidence of dubious authenticity in an attempt to substantiate U.S. collateral damage in Afghanistan.
Last week, The New York Times reported that a dossier gathered by the Afghan government, “purporting to show the carnage inflicted during a raid by American forces: photographs of shattered houses and bloodied, broken bodies, and video images of anguish at a village funeral,” turned out to be massively unreliable, and some pieces of evidence were false – including photographs from incidents several years ago.
The Afghan government was looking into airstrikes that occurred on January 15 in a remote village; the investigation was intended to reveal an alleged U.S. cover up of civilian deaths and collateral damage. In its investigation, the Times also discovered that none of the members of the Afghan commission that investigated the incident actually visited the village in question and instead based their assessment of the situation from “accounts given by villagers, and the photographs and video that were distributed last Sunday by Mr. Karzai’s office.”
The airstrikes were conducted by the Afghan Army and, according to American officials, destroyed two Taliban compounds. According the United States, two children were killed in one of the houses. The Times’ account of the Afghan commission’s report states that according to its source the strikes were “primarily American, with roughly eight hours of indiscriminate and unprovoked bombing followed by a house-to-house rampage by American soldiers. The commission has said that it can prove that 12 civilians were killed, and that there were indications of two to five additional civilian deaths.”
In response to the controversy over the credibility of the government’s report, the Afghan government brought in villagers to testify first hand. According to The New York Times’ report on the testimony, one of the villagers who was supposedly present at the time of the airstrikes identified a photograph which was known to have been taken four years ago as a funeral occurring on January 16, suggesting that he had been instructed to do so by the government. The Times reports that when the villager was searched by a security guard at the site of the press conference, he was found to be carrying about $2,000 in cash on his person – a small fortune by local standards.
This incident isn’t the first time Hamid Karzai has confronted the United States head-on regarding civilian deaths in Afghanistan – even if they weren’t caused by American action. Karzai has drawn much domestic and international criticism for his refusal to sign the BSA and his main argument for not doing so was that he required additional guarantees that U.S. troops would adhere to stricter guidelines in their operations in Afghanistan. The BSA sees broad regional support from Afghanistan’s neighbors and the Loya Jirga supported the agreement as well.
American officials have become understandably frustrated with Hamid Karzai’s actions since the BSA became an fraught issue beginning in late-2013. U.S. forces are used to seeing themselves the as the target of frequent smear campaigns by the Taliban, but to have a supposed ally do the same is more novel. The rigmarole over the controversial investigation comes a week after the Pentagon proposed a plan of 10,000 or zero troops to the White House.
Karzai has argued that the BSA is a matter for his successor to settle. Many in the United States will be thankful that Karzai’s time as president is due to end soon, but the BSA is not an altruistic offer in the interest of Afghanistan’s security. Should the BSA go unsigned, the United States will be forced to exercise its zero option after 2014. The loss of an American presence in Afghanistan will be deleterious to the United States’ ability to conduct drone strikes against high-value targets in Pakistan. The White House has taken note of this contingency and has convened a team of intelligence and military experts to plan for such a scenario.