The bombing, just south of the Afghan capital, set off the latest dispute over the human toll of American bombing in the country.
The Afghan investigation was up-close and gruesomely personal. As Zer Gul, a local police commander, sorted through the body parts at the scene, in the Azra District of Logar Province, he concluded that nearly all the victims were police officers under his command, along with a few volunteers who were allies of the police force. He recognized the uniforms they wore, he said, but he also knew some of his own men by body parts he could identify.
“Anyone who denies any police were killed are liars and rumormongers,” Mr. Gul said in an interview on Wednesday. “Definitely American forces bombed our front line and 12 police were killed here and five more were killed on another outpost. They bombed our lines instead of the Taliban’s lines.”
The American investigation was both high tech and at a distance, based on camera footage from coalition warplanes flying above the area, which is about 20 miles south of the provincial capital, Pul-i-Alam. American officials did not dispute that the airstrike had happened — just who the victims were.
Lt. Col. Martin L. O’Donnell, a spokesman for the American military in Afghanistan, said in a statement on Thursday: “Following a review of footage from the strike conducted by U.S. Forces-Afghanistan in support of Afghan operations and in defense of Afghan forces in Azra district, Logar province, August 7, we have determined that no Afghan security force members were killed.”
“Our determination is also supported,” Colonel O’Donnell continued, “by firsthand accounts from Afghan security force leaders and members present during the incident, who confirmed those firing upon them were Taliban members.”
So far, however, no Afghan official has emerged to agree with the American assertion — to publicly state that the airstrikes did not kill police officers — although some claimed that Taliban fighters were killed as well.
Afghan officials who agreed that members of the police force were among the victims included Shamshad Larawai, the spokesman for the governor of Logar Province; the Azra District governor, Hamidullah (who uses only one name); Mr. Gul, the local police commander at the scene; a provincial councilman, Abdul Wali, who is from Azra; and Nasrat Rahimi, the deputy spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior, which is in charge of the country’s police force.
“Our forces made a tactical retreat and called for air support,” Mr. Rahimi said. “Fighting continued and when airstrikes were conducted by Resolute Support, they hit our police which resulted in the killing of nine police and injuries of 14 others,” he said shortly after the airstrike, before the complete death toll was known. Mr. Rahimi also said 30 Taliban insurgents were killed.
Resolute Support is the name of the American-led coalition’s mission in Afghanistan.
A tribal elder, Abdul Sattar, speaking by telephone from the Azra District, his voice breaking into sobs, said local residents were incensed at the government and their American allies. “We could only find one intact body,” he said. “For the rest of them we buried just body parts.”
Asked about the assertions of Afghan police and local officials, Colonel O’Donnell said that American officials had talked to Afghan National Army officials in the area, including the Fourth Brigade and the 203rd Corps, who were responsible for calling in the airstrike, and that the officers said the airstrike did not kill any policemen. “If the reports from the ground are accurate, these casualties did not come from this strike, it didn’t come from us,” he said.
Officers of the Afghan National Army, however, said in interviews that police officers were killed in the American airstrike. “There was a misunderstanding, a group of local police and uprisers was bombed by American aircraft,” Gen. Abdul Raziq, commander of the Afghan National Army’s Fourth Brigade, said in an interview Friday. “Nine local police were martyred as a result of the bombardment and four more were killed in an outpost.” Uprisers are unpaid volunteers who help fight the Taliban.
Maj. Mohammad Farooq, the acting spokesman for the 203rd Corps, also said on Friday that policemen were killed in an American bombardment, but he put the death toll at three.
American officials had no explanation for the contradictory accounts offered by Afghan officials in the area. But the military spokesman, Colonel O’Donnell, said the aerial photography was clear. “The footage clearly depicts an attack on an Afghan security force observation post by a group of fighting-aged males using multiple heavy weapons and tactics, techniques and procedures employed by the Taliban from an open position on a ridgeline above the observation post,” he said.
Before the strikes, he said, “both the enemy and friendly locations were verified and cleared by Afghan security forces on the ground, through the regional coordination center, which is located with the 203rd Corps operations center, prior to the strike.” That center includes both American and Afghan military officials. He confirmed, however, that no American forward air-controller was on the ground to direct the airstrike, as would normally be the case if American ground forces were involved.
The episode on Tuesday was the latest in a series of cases in which the outcomes of American airstrikes were disputed, and occurred as the tempo of coalition air actions in support of their Afghan allies has risen sharply. With only about 14,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan — compared with 140,000 at the peak of the deployment — most of the ground operations are being conducted by Afghan forces, whose air force is small and poorly equipped.
In the first six months of this year, United States forces dropped more than 3,000 bombs across Afghanistan, nearly double the number for the same period last year and more than five times as many as the number for the first half of 2016.
For this same six-month period, the United Nations documented a 52 percent increase in civilian deaths from airstrikes compared with the first half of 2017.
On July 19, an American airstrike in the Chardara District of northern Kunduz Province killed 14 members of one extended family, including women and children, according to Afghan officials in the area.
On Friday, Colonel O’Donnell said that the American investigation of the July 19 airstrike in Kunduz had been closed after determining that there were no civilian casualties. “After carefully considering all relevant and reasonably available information, which included a review of the Afghan government’s report of findings, our investigation found no credible information to corroborate the allegations,” he said.
Aerial video footage showed a single bomb dropped on two homes where the Taliban had been firing from for more than an hour, he said, and the firing stopped as soon as the bomb was dropped.
The American military spokesman said that no Afghans had come forward to document any civilian deaths, and the only complaints received were two that documented damage to homes and one injured person.
A New York Times reporter at the scene, however, was given a list of the names of all 14 fatalities from the same extended family. The list was provided by family members and verified by government officials and the Kunduz hospital, where 12 of the dead were taken. The victims included five women, seven children aged 2 to 14, and two men, a father and an uncle to the children.
Told about that, Colonel O’Donnell said, “When we’re presented with any credible evidence, if something is provided to us we will take a look at it.”