Afghan journalist’s death must lead to better combat rules

Wednesday, the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) released its report, “Death of an Uruzgan Journalist: Command Errors and Collateral Damage,” by Kate Clark on the July 2011 shooting death of journalist Omaid Khpalwak. Clark’s details on how Khpalwak died corroborate and then go beyond the investigation already conducted by the U.S.-led NATO forces who were responsible. Her report was important to write, and is important to read.

Khpalwak, who worked for the BBC and Pajhwok Afghan News, was at a local office of state broadcaster Radio and Television of Afghanistan in Tarin Kot, capital of Uruzgan province, when the Taliban targeted the governor’s office and police headquarters at the same location. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the Taliban had killed him, or he died in the cross-fire when the NATO forces, known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), counterattacked.

Eventually, as we reported in September 2011, ISAF released a statement taking responsibility for the killing. They said an American soldier shot Khpalwak because he thought he was an armed insurgent reaching for a bomb under his vest. “He was unarmed; no weapon was found nearby. It appears all the rounds perceived as coming from him were instead fired by U.S. soldiers,” the ISAF statement said. Investigators concluded that troops may have mistaken a press card Khpalwak was holding up as identification for a bomb trigger.

Using a freedom of information request, Australian reporter Tom Hyland, writing for The Sunday Age in January this year, managed to get a heavily redacted version of the full ISAF report — which still had plenty of revealing detail. 

While Hyland pressed for the full official account to fill out his own investigation, AAN’s Clark was on the ground delving into the full circumstances of Khpalwak’s death. She found conflicting accounts. The Afghan government, in an unreleased report Clark managed to access, said the Taliban had killed him. Further muddying the waters, ISAF initially claimed that Afghan National Security Forces had led the counter-attack. Clark’s harrowing account of the siege of the broadcaster’s office — first a Taliban suicide bomb attack and then the counter-attack by ISAF and what it initially said were Afghan troops — refutes those claims. Her reporting found little evidence of any but the most negligible involvement of Afghan forces.

I checked this morning with ISAF for their response to Clark’s report. This is what Lieut. Col. Jimmie Cummings, who handles public affairs in Afghanistan, had to say:

ISAF stands by its reporting on this unfortunate incident. After a thorough investigation it was determined that Mr. Khpalwak was killed in a case of mistaken identity. The reporter was shot by a U.S. member who believed he was an insurgent that posed a threat and was about to detonate a suicide vest improvised explosive device (IED). After thoroughly looking at all the evidence it was determined that U.S. forces acted appropriately and within the ROE [rules of engagement] under the circumstances.

Still, AAN’s decision to cut through the chaos of what happened that day is admirable. In raising many questions and levelling serious charges about the various official accounts of Khpalwak’s death, she reminds us of the importance of ground-level reporting and dogged investigation — something that often goes by the boards in the rush of daily events in a theatre of war like Afghanistan. Even if all sides are operating in the best of faith, simply relying on official accounts of combatants from any side in a conflict does not do the job.

AAN wants more honesty from ISAF: They initially claimed the Taliban killed Omaid and that Afghan forces were there and had performed well. Perhaps worse, they wouldn’t release the internal military report into his death — a report that was critical of a commander’s failure to exercise tactical patience and to check for civilians present — until a freedom of information application was made. AAN says more forthrightness could have assuaged widespread suspicions of a cover-up that festered for months.

One take-away from the report is a concern that CPJ has raised before: Khpalwak was killed in his place of work, a radio and television broadcast facility, waving his press card, unarmed, in the middle of a chaotic fire fight in a confined area. In the U.S. Army and Marine Corp’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual (COIN-FM) — the basic outline of tactics for troops in situations like those encountered in Afghanistan — there is not one word of how combat troops should interact with journalists, local or foreign, who they encounter in the field.

One of the goals of Clark’s report is to “raise the question of whether local journalists, who are the key figures in reporting in conflict zones in Afghanistan, can be better protected.” In my reporting on local journalists in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas in October 2009 I raised a similar issue. It’s as good a point to make now as it was back then:

As the U.S. military calculates its strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it should reassess its own approach toward journalists in the field. The U.S. military should set an international example by training its troops on rules of conduct when they encounter local reporters in the field. To be effective, those rules should be written in consultation with the global community of journalists, and the next edition of the military’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual should include those rules. The COIN-FM reflects the most current thinking of the world’s most prominent military. It is the rule book by which U.S. troops behave in the field, and those rules must be laid down clearly.

If those rules had been laid down more clearly, just possibly Omaid Khpalwak might still be alive today.