AZIZABAD, Afghanistan – Once the Americans left, the survivors started digging.
There were too many dead and not enough shovels, so a local politician brought in heavy machinery from a nearby construction site. He dug graves deep enough to fit mothers with children, or children with children. Some were still in their pajamas, their hands inked with henna tattoos from the party preparations the night before.
Villagers picked through the rubble of what had been an entire neighborhood, looking for remains to wrap in white linens for burial. A boy clutching a torn rug walked in a daze on top of the ruins. A young man collapsed in grief by a pile of mud bricks where his home once stood – where his wife and four children had been sleeping inside.
The local doctor recorded a cellphone video to document the dead faces, freckled with shrapnel and blood, coated with dust and debris. Some were Afghan men of fighting age, but most – dozens of them – were women and children. Taza was 3 years old. Maida was 2. Zia, 1.
The hot summer wind kicked up dust, smoke and the smell of gunpowder as villagers tried to make sense of why their remote village was demolished by an American airstrike in the middle of the night.
A clue was found near several of the dead Afghan fighters: ID badges from the private security company at the American-controlled airfield up the road.
Why had a team of U.S. soldiers and Marines battled its own paid security detail?
After more than a decade, those who buried their families still don’t know.
U.S. military officials publicly touted the August 22, 2008, Azizabad raid – Operation Commando Riot – as a victory. A high-value Taliban target had been killed; the collateral damage was minimal; the village was grateful.
None of it was true.
The Taliban commander escaped. Dozens of civilians were dead in the rubble, including as many as 60 children. The local population rioted.
It remains one of the deadliest civilian casualty events of the Afghan campaign. But the story of how the operation turned tragic has been largely hidden from the public.
USA TODAY spent more than a year investigating the Azizabad raid and sued the Department of Defense to obtain almost 1,000 pages of investigative files previously kept secret because it had been deemed “classified national security information.” The records included photographs of the destruction in Azizabad and sworn testimony from the U.S. forces who planned and executed the operation.
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USA TODAY also obtained Afghan government records, evidence collected by humanitarian groups, including the Red Cross, and a confidential United Nations investigation into the incident.
In addition, a reporter traveled to western Afghanistan to interview government officials, investigators, first responders, witnesses and the villagers who survived.
Together, the records and interviews tell the story of a disaster that was months in the making as military and company officials ignored warnings about the men they had hired to provide intelligence and security. The records also reveal that the Defense Department has for years downplayed or denied the fatal mistakes surrounding the tragedy.
The problems began in 2007 when ArmorGroup, a private security company working on a Pentagon subcontract, hired two local warlords on the U.S. intelligence payroll to provide armed guards at an airfield on the western edge of Afghanistan.
Those warlords fought each other for control of the weapons and money ArmorGroup was giving out. The tangle of espionage and tribal infighting eventually drew in the very same military units that had helped empower the warlords in the first place.
The breakdowns in the U.S. military intelligence machine culminated with the raid itself. Some troops were never warned of Azizabad’s civilian population, and the special operation commanders who did know unleashed devastating force from the air anyway. Ground troops directed an American gunship to demolish house after house where at least one insurgent took cover, without knowing who else was inside.
“If they fled into the building, we were asking him to basically drop the building,” a Marine who was coordinating with the gunship testified. Most of the names were redacted from the military investigation.
Much about the mission in Azizabad remains in dispute, but this much is clear: The architects behind this corner of the war – and those profiting from the security contract – did not understand the difference between who they were supposed to be fighting, employing and protecting.
There still is no definitive death toll. After initially insisting that only five to seven civilians died, Pentagon officials were forced to adjust that figure to 33 after photos and videos of the carnage proved the official account wrong. Separate reviews by the Afghan government, Red Cross, United Nations and Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission put the civilian deaths over 70.
After two Pentagon investigations, the U.S. military denied any wrongdoing. Defense Department officials declined to comment for this story.
A 2010 Senate Armed Services Committee inquiry laid blame with both ArmorGroup and the Defense Department for doing business with the warlords. In response to the Senate report, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a letter recognizing problems with contract oversight, which he pledged to fix.
Yet in the aftermath of the Azizabad raid, records show, military leaders sought to present an image of success and mask evidence of a civilian casualty disaster. The false version of events was amplified by Oliver North – a former Marine commander and a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal of the late 1980s – who was embedded as a Fox News contributor with the forces conducting the raid. North’s segment, which presents the mission as a success and the Taliban commander “confirmed dead,” is still available on the Fox News website.
North did not respond to multiple interview requests. In an email, Fox News spokeswoman Caley Cronin did not address North’s segment and directed questions to North, “who is no longer a contributor with the network,” she wrote.
Lt. Colonel Rachel E. VanLandingham, a retired officer with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and the chief of international law at Central Command’s headquarters during the Azizabad raid, said the commanders responsible for investigating the incident seemed to ignore the failures instead of learning from them. She did not know the details of the operation or the military’s response until contacted by USA TODAY.
“The CENTCOM investigation seemed more worried about looking good than being good,” VanLandingham, now a law professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, said in an interview. “Everyone who deploys in Afghanistan should know this incident.”
G4S, the largest private security company in the world, purchased ArmorGroup in 2008 – after the company had signed its contract with the Pentagon to provide security at the airfield but before the Azizabad raid. The company’s role has remained virtually unknown other than a literal footnote in the Senate inquiry.
Executives at ArmorGroup, which G4S dissolved into another subsidiary it later sold in 2014, considered their decisions at the time to be the best option to keep those inside the base safe under difficult circumstances, according to emails collected by Senate investigators.
“Without the leadership and management” of company staff, the “worst could have caused the project to fail long before the August tragedy,” one said.
G4S declined to comment for this story, except to state that ArmorGroup is a former G4S subsidiary that wasn’t under the direct control of the parent company.
But some of the employees who were operating the air base contracts near Azizabad agreed to speak out publicly for the first time.
“It was wholesale slaughter,” David McDonnell, a former ArmorGroup director who oversaw mine clearing projects in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview. “And it didn’t need to be.”
His colleague, Tony Thompson, worked with some of the villagers killed in the raid. Thompson told USA TODAY he has spent much of the past decade wrestling with the truth kept secret all this time.
“Their families died, and they still don’t know why,” he said. “You’ll never bring them back. But you need to know how and why it happened.”
The Shindand District air base, on the southern border of Afghanistan’s Herat Province, was first built by the Soviets in the 1960s. A graveyard of abandoned Russian aircraft and land mines spread across open fields on both sides of the perimeter fence. The base is a 9-square-mile campus in a remote but strategic location between Iran’s eastern border and the Ring Road, which circles all of Afghanistan.
In a district that has long been controlled or contested by the Taliban, the airbase sits amid a major drug and arms trafficking route. The Taliban funds much of its national operation with the opium-poppy fields in the district’s Zerkoh Valley.
In April 2007, ArmorGroup – a private security company based in London – won a $5.1 million Air Force subcontract to guard construction workers building an expansion of the airfield for the Afghan National Army. (The company’s American subsidiary, ArmorGroup North America, based in Virginia, technically managed the contract). ArmorGroup had worked in more than 160 countries around the world and was known mostly for protecting oil and gas sites.
ArmorGroup agreed to a Pentagon requirement that it fill the guard positions by hiring nearby villagers. It was part of the Pentagon’s economic stimulus plan for Afghanistan, but it also was less expensive than bringing in guards from outside the country.
“We are a commercial company, of course, we are looking to do the business as cheap as possible,” a company official later told U.S. military investigators.
Shindand’s 450 villages are some of the most impoverished in the Herat Province. Many rural areas do not have running water or paved roads. Day laborers find work wherever they can, including across the border in Iran. A low-ranking Afghan National Police officer could earn roughly $70 a month.
At $275 a month, the guard jobs at the air base represented the best opportunity some would see in a lifetime.
ArmorGroup officials had no say in whom they would hire to pick the villagers. According to interviews and testimony, U.S. military personnel instructed ArmorGroup managers to let two local men – Timor Shah and Nadir Khan – select who could become guards.
The company assigned them code names: Mr. White for Shah and Mr. Pink for Khan. The names were an homage to Reservoir Dogs, the Quentin Tarantino classic film in which thieves betray and murder one another after an armed robbery.
Mr. White and Mr. Pink, two local patriarchs and sons of Shindand, would staff the guard positions from their extended families. The men were cousins, lifelong friends and business partners in the district. Their legitimate operations included car rentals and electronic stores in the northern city of Herat.
But U.S. intelligence and company officials believed that both men were burgeoning warlords with possible criminal and Taliban affiliations, according to interviews with local officials, testimony in the Pentagon investigation and memos from the Senate inquiry.
In rural Afghanistan, the line between village elder, warlord and legitimate Taliban is often blurred, which can confound outsiders trying to track allegiances on the ground.
Allegations of Pink and White’s illicit backgrounds weren’t necessarily a problem anyway. Military intelligence officers inside the airfield had been building a vast network of paid informants across the region, enticing them with money in exchange for information about Taliban meetings and the location of high-value targets.
White and Pink were both intelligence assets.
Lal Mohammad Umarzai, the Shindand governor at the time, told USA TODAY in an interview that he was never consulted about the wisdom of giving two warlords hundreds of thousands of dollars, access to an armory of automatic weapons and virtual control over Shindand. The district is one of the most diverse in Afghanistan, with complex tribal dynamics and a history of power struggles.
Had somebody reached out to him for advice, Umarzai said, he would have warned U.S. officials that White and Pink would bring trouble.
“They were the two most corrupt families in Afghanistan,” Umarzai said.
White and Pink initially split the work down the middle. They showed up in June 2007 outside the fence of the airfield with about 20 men each.
According to the Senate inquiry, ArmorGroup could not demonstrate that it had sent armed guard rosters or training records to the U.S. government, a violation of Department of Defense regulations.
“Normally in a country, if we were going to employ local people, they would be interviewed, qualification checks, names go to the government for security backgrounds,” McDonnell said in an interview. “None of that happened in Shindand. All of the normal procedures we would carry out didn’t happen because we were directed who to work with by the American forces.”
USA TODAY filed a public records request with the Air Force for documents about the armed employees – records the agency was required to collect and maintain, according to the contract. An Air Force official said those documents could not be located because they “might not have been processed or archived … due to the sensitive nature.”
Within weeks of starting the contract, Pink and White made the same calculation: Controlling half of the money and jobs was good. But having everything would make one of them untouchable.
They grew paranoid of each other. The resentment turned violent, and there were a series of shootings and bombings around Shindand that officials would blame on the feud between the two men.
Pink made at least one attempt on White’s life as he was leaving the air base. ArmorGroup officials grew increasingly worried that its guards would try to kill one another or leave their posts, according to internal memos and emails compiled in the Senate inquiry.
In December 2007, tribal elders brokered a cease-fire and called for White and Pink to settle their differences. A meeting was arranged for Dec. 12 in the Azizabad bazaar, a short strip of open-air shops on either side of the Ring Road.
White and Pink approached each other in the market, where villagers sold bread, fruit and home appliances.
Just before they reached each other, Pink pulled out a gun and shot White three times. A gunfight broke out in the market between ArmorGroup guards loyal to each man. Several civilians were wounded.
When the chaos ended, White was dead.
The Air Force project manager in Kabul reported the assassination to U.S. military officials, according to the Senate inquiry. But little changed.
“The incident did not give rise to a broader discussion at (the Air Force) about the wisdom of relying on two warlords to provide security,” the investigators wrote.
Pink, however, lost his job as an informant. ArmorGroup also fired him from the air base.
Fearing retribution from White’s family, Pink went into hiding in a nearby village with local Taliban militia. He was later involved in a series of kidnappings and other violent crimes, according to intelligence reports cited in the military investigation and internal company memos collected by the Senate investigators.
Military officials at the base went as far as nominating Pink as a high-priority target because “he was a force protection problem for the area,” one Marine testified during the Pentagon investigation. But U.S. commanders denied the request and decided instead to closely monitor him.
The airfield construction project continued, and ArmorGroup needed someone else to handle staffing guards at the air base.
So the company hired Reza Khan, White’s brother. They called him Mr. White II.
White II was another intelligence asset for the military personnel inside the air base. In one conversation with his handler, he disclosed that his nephew was Mullah Sadeq, a notorious Taliban commander operating in the Farah Province, just south of Shindand. Sadeq built and supplied improvised explosive devices around the region.
The Italian military had placed Sadeq on the high-priority-target list. U.S. special operation forces inside the air base had been tracking Sadeq for months in hopes of pinning down his exact location.
“It was really no surprise to us that (White II) had bigger connections with the Taliban than previously suspected,” White II’s Marine intelligence handler testified during the Pentagon investigation. “He had been playing both sides and ultimately we were actually looking to cut his ties that he had with us.”
Instead, military intelligence officers saw him as the key to taking down Sadeq.
In May 2008, London-based private security giant G4S bought ArmorGroup for $85.4 million. The acquisition came as the company expanded to more than 100 countries and took on dangerous business some of its competitors avoided, including mine clearing and base security in the Middle East.
The Shindand contract was already underway when G4S became the corporate parent. The company left ArmorGroup operationally independent with the same Afghanistan managers in place.
In July, Thompson, who worked for the company’s mine clearing division on a U.N. contract at the base, reported to executives in Afghanistan the threat White II posed. Thompson wrote that local police and the Afghan National Army had confiscated at White II’s Azizabad home stockpiles of unlicensed weapons and land mines. Guards had left the base with company weapons to moonlight as White II’s personal escorts.
Company officials expressed in interviews with investigators “permanent concern” about a full-scale war between militias loyal to Pink and White II.
“I would hate to see our people as the meat in the sandwich,” McDonnell, the company director, wrote in an email responding to the report.
Records show that ArmorGroup officials dealt with their concerns about White II by asking him to give a verbal assurance every week that the conflict wouldn’t escalate.
Around the same time, an Army Sergeant told White II’s intelligence handler that the warlord was funneling money from the air base contract – wages meant for the guards – straight to Taliban commanders. He was rebuffed.
“They know about it,” the sergeant told Senate investigators. “But they didn’t want to talk about it, for whatever reason.”
Through the spring and summer of 2008, special operation forces lost at least three of their own in the area.
On May 29, Sergeant First Class David Nunez, 27, of Los Angeles was on his third deployment with the Army Special Forces when his unit came under fire in the Farah Province desert plains. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for saving others from their vehicle as it became engulfed in flames. He had two sons.
A month later, five Marine special operators with the Second Battalion were gravely wounded while looking for a Taliban commander. Marine Staff Sgt. Edgar Heredia died. Heredia, 28, was a native of Houston and the son of two Mexican immigrants.
On a separate mission in the Zerkoh Valley, Marine Captain Garrett “Tubes” Lawton, 31, died when an IED detonated by his vehicle.
The leaders commanding these units were facing intense scrutiny. Night raids and air campaigns were often followed by reports of civilian casualties, an almost inevitable outcome when insurgents live and fight among their civilian neighbors.
Frank Rosenblatt, a retired Lt. Colonel and JAG who has written several books and studies about the military justice system, called 2008 “a time of strategic rudderlessness” for the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan.
He said military leaders rushed into operations that could be touted to the American public, often at the cost of the local population they were supposed to be protecting.
“Commanders wanted to be seen getting after it,” Rosenblatt said.
The Taliban used the civilian deaths to recruit new militia members, and Afghan citizens grew increasingly wary of the tactics of American forces.
“The Taliban are always telling people, ‘Look at the Americans, they came to kill you and your kids,’” said Mir Abdul Kalik, the former deputy governor in Shindand. “A huge gap has been created between the Afghans and the Americans.”
The sentiment had reached Kabul, where then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai repeatedly condemned the use of American gunships in urban areas.
“We can no longer accept the civilian casualties the way they are occurring,” Karzai said.
But the airstrikes continued. On July 6, an airstrike in Nangarhar province inadvertently killed 47 Afghan civilians, misidentified as insurgents, during a wedding. Two weeks later, another airstrike accidentally killed nine Afghan National Police officers in Farah province.
In August, two assets – code-named Romeo and Juliet – told their intelligence handler at the air base news he had been waiting on for months: Mullah Sadeq was coming to meet his uncle, White II, at his home compound in Azizabad.
For the first time since the Americans had been tracking him, Sadeq would be within 20 miles of the base.
The information was met with skepticism. Romeo and Juliet were known associates of Mr. Pink, so intelligence officers considered the possibility that Pink could have orchestrated the leak as a way to have U.S. forces attack White II. Was this a setup?
“I’ve thought about that before,” one of the intelligence officials later testified in the military investigation. “But these guys, they give me pretty reliable information on who, what, when, and where.”
Romeo and Juliet had provided good intelligence for missions into the Zerkoh Valley that summer. Plus, the intelligence office reckoned, White II himself had corroborated his relationship to Sadeq.
It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. As a bonus, Oliver North and a Fox cameraman would tag along for the mission for their ongoing “War Stories” dispatches.
The regional commanders green-lighted an operation to capture or kill Sadeq and approved an AC-130 gunship, often dubbed “hell in the sky,” for close air support. Operation Commando Riot was a go.
In the days before Sadeq was scheduled to arrive, the U.S. forces at the base worked with Afghan commandos to draw up a minute-by-minute plan.
Romeo and Juliet said Sadeq would show up with more than two dozen militia sometime before midnight for a meeting inside White II’s compound. The house was surrounded by other homes on three sides and a large courtyard to the southeast. Each structure was built with mud bricks as dense as concrete. A wide alley led directly to the compound.
Romeo and Juliet had a contact attending the meeting who would call as soon as Sadeq arrived.
To maintain the element of surprise, the mission would need to be a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.
Driving pickup trucks, a team of 12 from the Second Marine Special Operations Battalion would lead the strike. Army Special Forces and Afghan commandos would follow 10 minutes behind. The total attack force would be roughly 80 men.
Captain Elliot Ackerman would be the assault force commander with the Marines going in first.
She survived the airstrike that killed her family
Gul Rukh survived the air strike that killed her family, but wishes she hadn’t.
Video by Brett Murphy, Shahpoor Sabir, Aleem Agha and Jasper Colt, USA TODAY
Ackerman, 28 at the time, was commissioned as an officer right after college. He had earned numerous medals, including the Silver Star for saving fellow Marines four years earlier during the second battle of Fallujah, the bloodiest engagement of the Iraq War.
Because most of the names were redacted from the testimony in the military investigation, it’s not clear whether Ackerman was the commander who ultimately led the entire Azizabad operation. He declined multiple interview requests for this story.
The laws of war require that all feasible precautions are taken to avoid harming civilians. To reduce collateral damage, experts and activists urge a “pattern of life analysis” – hours of reconnaissance in the target area ahead of a mission so everyone going in, including air support, understands how many civilians are present and where they are located.
But in Shindand, the troops were relying largely on third-hand information and a general understanding of villages in the area, the intelligence officers later told investigators. Even the intelligence assets, Romeo and Juliet, had not recently visited Azizabad themselves for fear of being identified.
A lead intelligence officer and a Marine commander were aware that a funeral ceremony for families was planned for the day after Sadeq was set to arrive, according to their testimony with military investigators. However, almost everybody else involved with the planning and execution of operation Commando Riot testified that they were not told about a civilian gathering.
“Everybody that was going to be at that meeting were Taliban commanders with their security guys,” a communications sergeant testified later. “There wasn’t supposed to be any women and children.”
It is unclear why that information was not widely known or whether it had been reported up the chain of command before the mission and the gunship were approved.
The morning of August 21, Gul Rukh piled her four kids into her cousin’s car and headed north on the Ring Road to her parents’ house in Azizabad. Hundreds of villagers around the Zerkoh Valley and Farah Province had received invitations to commemorate the death of a prominent village elder eight months earlier.
His name was Timor Shah – also known as the original Mr. White.
Rukh, 39, stopped in the city of Shindand to go shopping for the ceremony. She bought new clothes for her kids and a wooden chest to keep tchotchkes. It was the type of splurging Rukh reserved only for special occasions.
When they arrived in Azizabad that evening, families gathered in the courtyard around outdoor fire pits and got to cooking. They slaughtered 16 sheep and cooked rice in steel drums.
Rukh’s sons, Dawa, 10, Ghani, 6, and Nabi, 5, and her daughter, Rahima, 9, spent most of the daylight hours kicking a soccer ball with their cousins. When the sun went down, the kids darted between houses playing hide and seek. They painted henna tattoos on one another’s hands.
Once most of the food was prepared, families peeled off for bed. The houses were too full, so many camped in the courtyard. It was cool enough to sleep outside comfortably, and the lucky ones had mosquito nets.
Rukh stayed up past midnight talking with her parents, mostly listening, while they tried persuading her to stay a couple of extra days after the ceremony. They finally drifted off to sleep.
The call from the contact inside the compound came just before 1: 30 a.m.: Sadeq is here.
While the troops mounted into their trucks, a soldier knocked on the trailers around the garrison to roust North and the Fox cameraman. North emerged in military fatigues and night vision goggles and headed toward the convoy.
“What the hell was Oliver North doing there?” McDonnell, one of the ArmorGroup directors, said in a recent interview. “He wasn’t passing through for a cup of tea. This was set up to put on a show.”
The intelligence officers who helped plan the mission climbed to the top of the garrison barracks and faced Azizabad, 18 miles to the south. They watched the AC-130 pass overhead.
The Marines in the two lead pickup trucks turned off the Ring Road and toward the compound around 2 a.m. They heard a single pop from a rifle. That was the warning shot alerting the compound that enemies were incoming.
They saw a light on in White II’s compound. The trucks rumbled over the dirt, through a narrow passage with walls on each side at least 8 feet high.
A water truck parked at the near end of the alley blocked the route into the compound. The Marines hopped out to proceed on foot.
Gunshots poured in from the west and north. The fire felt as if it was coming from directly above.
Bullets peppered the walls next to the crouching Marines. They returned fire to the rooftops, where they could see flashes from rifle bursts through their night vision goggles. It was the most constant, accurate fire some of them had ever experienced since coming to Afghanistan, they testified later.
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph “Willy” Parent took a round through his foot.
They were pinned down. The commander shot two red flares into the air so the other units trailing behind could find them. He would later testify that he did not consider retreat a viable option.
“For the reputation and just the credibility of coalition,” the commander said, adding that withdrawing from a fight with the Taliban when you are so far committed is “completely inconceivable and unacceptable.”
The 12 Marines who had exited the trucks moved into a building, where a woman and child were huddled in the corner. There, the Marines set up a base of operations.
The commander told the radio controller next to him to call the gunship in the air, circling at 10,000 feet. The enemy was “danger close.”
The controller yelled into the radio for immediate fire on the insurgents approaching them in the alley.
The gunship crew heard panic on the other line and got to work. They used high-powered cameras to scan around the courtyard and the surrounding buildings.
Then, they unleashed 40-millimeter and howitzer rounds into the alley and onto rooftops. Some exploded above the ground and flung 14,000 shrapnel fragments per round into a rainbow pattern.
Some targets appeared to be running, and others were taking up positions. But identifying people from the air alone was impossible, the pilot would later tell investigators.
It was like going “out into a field in the middle of the night on about a quarter moon light, and you see a dark shape moving through the field,” the pilot said.
For two hours, the air crew coordinated with the commander on the ground to blast apart buildings where the enemy fighters took up positions. Troops lay prone on the far side of a domed roof to peek across the courtyard and relay information to the gunship.
“If they fled into the building, we were asking him to basically drop the building,” the controller on the ground later testified.
The gunship blasted room by room, house by house, until there was nobody left shooting.
In total, the gunship fired 82 howitzer rounds and 242 of the 40-millimeter rounds. The barrage ended with a 500-pound bomb dropped onto White II’s compound.
Daylight broke through the clouds of dust and smoke.
Rukh couldn’t feel her legs. Shrapnel had shredded her spine.
Her hearing was muffled behind a low hum, but she was conscious and saw everything. Through the debris, she could make out her oldest son’s pistachio pajamas. He was dead. And so was her mother, who was just a few feet away.
The rest of her family was beneath the rubble of a clay roof, 18 inches thick, that had collapsed to the ground. They were crushed to death. Rukh desperately cried out for a glass of water.
The American forces found her and two children – not her own – still breathing. They pulled them from the rubble, which was chest deep in areas where the roofs had collapsed. One child died almost immediately. The other, a 5-year-old girl named Kobra, was shaking as they carried her to a medic. Her face was vacant and coated in dust.
The troops photographed what was left of other insurgents’ bodies – but only those visible above the rubble. Altogether, they found seven dead men with guns around them and six dead civilians.
Among the dead was White II.
The source who called Romeo and Juliet to confirm Sadeq had arrived was also dead. “He took one for the team,” a military official testified.
The troops cordoned off the neighborhood for three hours while a team of Army Special Forces operators went door to door with the Afghan commandos to clear the buildings and collect weapons, explosives and documents. They blew up a cache of land mines in one of the buildings.
There was no sign of Sadeq.
Just after 9 a.m., the convoy left for the air base with what they had seized: 14 automatic rifles, 15 mines, 4,000 bullets, 32 magazines, stacks of U.S. and Afghan currency, 19 cellphones, boxes of documents – and ArmorGroup ID badges found near some of the dead men.
They also left with five prisoners in blindfolds. Two of them were ArmorGroup guards at the air base.
The convoy returned to a barbeque at the airfield.
“It was just something I’ve never experienced before: singing and dancing and everybody seemed to be happy,” said Thompson, who had just learned several of his employees were likely killed. “The whole thing was a bit surreal.”
Thompson’s colleague sent a desperate report to the Air Force over concerns the surviving employees might turn their guns on one another or the men inside the base in revenge.
“We are currently on full alert and are expecting once the dead are buried an attack of some sort,” ArmorGroup Senior Team Leader Nigel McCreery wrote.
All 43 local guards abandoned the base to go look for their family members.
“At this time I’m unsure as to how many (ArmorGroup) local guards who were off duty have been killed or wounded,” McCreery wrote.
“The next 24hrs will tell the tale.”
After a week-long inquiry, Central Command said in a press release that the raid disrupted a planned attack on the air base and more than 30 Taliban fighters were killed. “The evidence suggested” Sadeq was among them, the statement said. The release claimed that five to seven civilians also died.
Fox News ran a segment hosted by North “confirming that Mullah Sadeq is dead.” The report included footage of Rukh and Kobra being stabilized at the air base before surgery. He did not report the fact that Rukh was paralyzed or that Kobra died in the hospital soon after.
North also wrote a chapter about the raid in his book, “American Heroes in Special Operations.”
It appeared the U.S. “had achieved a stunning success,” he said in his book and an online story accompanying the Fox video.
After the raid, the Azizabad villagers picked through the rubble and compiled a list of the dead: 91 total, including 60 children.
Then they rioted. Confused and furious, about 200 villagers marched on the Ring Road hurling rocks at reporters and police officers. They set fire to an Afghan National Army vehicle and shot at soldiers.
In front of local television cameras, the villagers held up their ArmorGroup badges, evidence of their loyalty to the U.S. forces. They showed the invitations to the funeral commemoration, evidence of a civilian gathering, not a Taliban meeting.
This version of events was diametrically opposite to what the Pentagon and North’s Fox News segment had presented. Among skeptical Afghan and even some ArmorGroup officials, it seemed plausible that Mr. Pink had duped U.S. forces into taking down his bitter rival.
“You got to hand it to Pink,” an ArmorGroup manager wrote in an email collected by the Senate investigators, “pretty shrewd.”
President Karzai was just finishing a lunch meeting in the presidential palace hall in Kabul when government officials from Shindand walked in carrying a white linen, bundled up like a bag.
They waited for everyone to finish eating and unwrapped the contents on the floor: Severed fingers from Azizabad. Too small to be from adult men.
“Everybody was weeping looking at that,” Mohammad Omar Daudzai, Karzai’s former chief of staff, said in an interview.
After a phone call with then-President George W. Bush, Karzai flew to the Shindand airfield, where he met with reporters and a crowd of locals. He condemned the “irresponsible and imprecise” military operation.
“I have been working day and night in the past five years to prevent such incidents, but I haven’t been successful,” Karzai said. “If I had succeeded, the people of Azizabad wouldn’t be bathed in blood.”
Karzai paid $2,000 for each of the 91 victims. It was the standard solatia, “blood money,” payment for mourners. He also promised to rebuild the destroyed homes in Azizabad.
Karzai fired the Afghan National Army General who was in charge of the Afghan commandos on the mission. He ordered his intelligence agency to arrest Mr. Pink for providing false information to the special operations forces.
In the days and weeks that followed, investigators from the U.N., Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and Red Cross flew into Shindand to investigate the death toll discrepancy.
International media outlets published more accounts from witnesses and the geopolitical firestorm it had created between Washington and Kabul. New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall reported new evidence from the ground – including another child’s body she discovered – which raised more questions about the American narrative.
But the Pentagon continued to publicly claim Sadeq had been killed, and officials denied to the media that there had been mass civilian casualties. At the same time, military officials worked behind the scenes to steer the narrative back in a more favorable light.
Abdul Salam Qazizad, a local politician who was part of the Afghan government’s delegation to Azizabad, was called to the Shindand air base two weeks after the raid, he said in an interview.
He said two military officers presented the U.S. forces’ point of view and asked him to walk back statements he had made on television about mass civilian casualties.
“But I told them, ‘I am not doing that,’” Qazizad recalled. “‘Humans make mistakes. You made a mistake. Come and tell the people that you made it.’”
The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission received a similar message from the U.S. government. Ahmad Nader Nadery was head of the group at the time and now leads the Afghan government’s administrative reform and civil service commission.
He summarized the group’s findings for Pentagon officials, including the large number of civilian deaths.
“They said, ‘This is all bulls—t,’” Nadery recalled in an interview. “I ended the meeting and said, ‘Well, thank you.’”
Brigadier Gen. Michael Callan’s phone rang at 1 a.m. one night in early September. Callan, a decorated pilot, was enjoying the sunset of a three-decade military career at the U.S. Ramstein Air Base in Germany. A call like this was unusual.
On the other end of the phone was someone claiming to be Maj. Gen. Jay Hood, chief of staff at Central Command in Tampa, Fla. He said he had a secret assignment for Callan in Afghanistan.
Callan thought it was a prank phone call and went back to bed.
A few days later, after more phone calls and official emails confirmed the situation, Callan said goodbye to his wife and kids and boarded a flight to Kabul.
A grainy cellphone video had emerged, taken from the local doctor from inside the Azizabad mosque. It showed a chaotic scene of dozens of bodies lined up and wrapped in linens while survivors wailed.
The Pentagon could no longer maintain its public position and was forced to open a new, full-scale investigation. Callan was picked to lead it.
He had never handled such an inquiry before, but he reckoned his experience as a special operations pilot qualified him for the job. His team included two military lawyers, two Marines, two Army majors and a translator.
“Our mission was to get the facts on what happened that night,” Callan wrote in a statement to USA TODAY. “Given the heightened media attention, we needed to focus on this event, leave our ‘real jobs’ behind and complete the investigation.”
After meeting with General David McKiernan, then-commander of the International Security Assistance Force, Callan’s team fanned out to gather evidence from the other organizations that had already investigated the Azizabad raid.
The United Nations, Red Cross, Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and Afghan government investigations had differing views of how many Taliban were in the village, if there were any at all.
But what was clear to each group was the count of the dead was far greater than what the Pentagon had claimed.
The confidential U.N. report concerning the Azizabad raid, which has never been made public before, is the most exhaustive and methodical. The organization’s accounting of the casualties included the name of each victim, age, home village and father’s name. The report includes several pictures of babies wrapped in the white linens. The investigators, who made four trips to the village, noted the number could never be considered final or certain without exhuming the bodies.
“It is evident that the low number of injured is due to the fact that most, if not all, persons present in the houses that were destroyed in fact died,” they wrote.
The U.N. investigation concluded that 10 of the fighting age men who were killed in the raid were ArmorGroup employees and that some of the guns confiscated by the U.S. Forces belonged to the company.
U.N. investigators also tried to determine whether U.S. officials had visited the village after the raid to gather facts in the immediate aftermath.
“The answer from numerous witnesses is no,” the U.N. report states. “No forces have returned to the village since the incident.”
Callan met with U.N. officials in Kabul on Sept. 18. He asked them to show him their investigation and the evidence they had collected in Azizabad, according to internal U.N. communications and memos.
Emails show the U.N. officials were wary of trusting the Bush administration “to admit culpability for wrong-doing.” But they decided it was best to provide their inquiry and some supporting evidence with the understanding that Callan’s team would coordinate the final U.S. report with them before anything went public.
Two weeks later, U.S. Central Command, led at the time by Lt. General Martin Dempsey, published a summary of Callan’s findings. CENTCOM exonerated the military of any war crimes, violations of the rules of engagement and most other allegations raised by the villagers. Callan’s team never briefed the U.N.
CENTCOM’s full 15-6 investigation, which includes more than 1,500 pages of sworn testimony, photographs, videos and other evidence, was never released. The Pentagon denied journalists and activists who requested it, citing national security considerations.
USA TODAY received most of the records, but not the videos, after suing the Defense Department in 2018.
Callan’s executive summary said that 55 people died in Azizabad after a proportional response from U.S. forces acting in self-defense: 33 civilians, including 12 children, and 22 anti-coalition insurgents, some of whom were likely employees of ArmorGroup.
It concluded that the Taliban violated the laws of war by choosing to fight alongside women and children. CENTCOM dismissed villagers’ testimony about a higher count of dead civilians.
“This would be akin to dismissing all eyewitness testimony during a criminal trial conducted in the U.S.,” a U.N. official wrote in an internal memo after the Pentagon made the summary public.
CENTCOM did not acknowledge the intelligence breakdowns that left most of the force unaware of the funeral ceremony. It also did not explain why regional commanders approved the use of close air support for multiple hours despite information that women and children were in the village.
Lt. Colonel VanLandingham, the law professor and former chief of international law at CENTCOM, said those leaders seemed to fail to take all precautions to avoid civilian harm and then skirted accountability during the investigation.
“Heads should have rolled for that,” she said. “There should have been consequences for that failure.”
The public summary also did not include an array of testimony from U.S. forces that cast a negative light on what had happened. For example, Callan concluded that “Operation Commando Riot was not triggered by clan-on-clan rivalry.” However, intelligence officers testified that the information about the Taliban meeting was sound but driven by the feud between Pink and White.
Perhaps most notably, the summary did not admit that Sadeq had survived the raid. Intelligence officials told the military investigators he had most likely escaped through an underground cavern just north of the compound.
Sadeq “according to our (human intelligence) sources, is alive and well in his traditional operating area,” one of the officials testified. It’s unclear from the records whether Sadeq is still alive.
Callan did not respond to specific critiques of the investigation and the omissions from the public summary. In an email to USA TODAY, he said his team “unequivocally conducted the most comprehensive review of this mission of any investigation accomplished to date.” They “left no stone unturned,” Callan said.
In the public summary, CENTCOM discounted evidence collected by outside inquiries, including those from the U.N., as tainted by political or financial agendas.
Former U.N. officials defended their work and the veracity of the investigation.
“We really did want the Americans to stop killing people. We really did want the Talibs to stop killing people,” Norah Niland, the Human Rights Director at the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan at the time, said in a recent interview. “That was the agenda.”
But U.N. officials decided against publicly criticizing the Pentagon’s shortfalls to avoid “generating a lot of hostility,” according to an internal U.N. memo.
“It is not advisable to reopen the issue again,” they wrote.
Gul Rukh, whose parents and four children died, now spends most of her days alone. She can peel potatoes or string together bracelets but is unable to move anything below her waist. She doesn’t have a wheelchair, so her brothers carry her around in their arms.
Five pieces of shrapnel are still embedded in her spine. Doctors say they can’t get them out without risking further paralysis in her hands and tongue.
Rukh feels the same way now as she did when she first woke up in the hospital.
“I wish I was dead too,” she said in a recent interview. She called herself a burden on her family – more like an object or piece of furniture in the house, rather than a person living in it.
“I got accustomed to it,” Rukh said, “and I lost hope.”
Today, the Taliban controls the Shindand District. Azizabad is in quiet ruins. Fewer than two dozen families live there.
The houses leveled in the raid were never repaired. The neighborhood is a pile of mud bricks and walls scarred with bullet holes.
Daudzai, Karzai’s former chief of staff, said he didn’t know the government had failed to deliver on its promises to rebuild Azizabad.
“We should have done it,” he said in an interview. “We are also equally guilty.”
A row of flat, marble tombstones stands upright in the cemetery near the mosque. The epitaph over the grave of Reza Khan, known to some as White II, reads: “Innocently martyred in the coalition airstrike.”
Construction projects on the air base finished in 2013, and it’s still in control of the Afghan National Army.
Days after the raid, ArmorGroup hired someone else to take over the staffing: White II’s brother, Gul Ahmed. They called him Mr. White III.
In an interview, he conceded that Sadeq was his nephew but denied that his brother hosted him that night. He said there were no Taliban in the village that night.
“I lost my son and my relatives, close friends, and everyone,” Ahmed said. “It is mind-blowing.”
He added of the U.S. forces involved in the Azizabad raid: “They will never accept that they had killed civilians.”
In 2010, the Senate Armed Services Committee launched an inquiry into the Air Force’s failures to provide oversight on the contract. Investigators found a litany of lapses and linked ArmorGroup, Pink and White II to the doomed mission.
But there were no congressional hearings or public reckoning. G4S, ArmorGroup’s parent company, was only mentioned in a footnote in the Senate report. The company has collected more than $6 billion from taxpayers through federal contracts since 2005, according to government data.
The Afghan federal government sentenced Mr. Pink to death in 2009 after he was convicted of espionage and for giving false information to U.S. forces. He appealed and is now in Bagram prison.
Pink’s son, Mirwais Khan, who was also once a guard at the airfield, denied that his father was a spy or responsible for the civilian casualties.
“We had our enemies, and our enemies accused us,” he said in an interview. “My father was not the president, he was not a military commander, not a corps commander to order the airstrike. The airstrike was conducted and commissioned by Americans.”
Ackerman, the Marine assault force commander on the mission, is now an accomplished author and columnist. He has been vocal about his service and often writes about the human cost of the wars he fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he has never spoken publicly or written about what happened in Azizabad.
Most of the troops who testified in the CENTCOM investigation were not identifiable from the interview transcripts. They largely denied that anything had gone wrong or that there had been large numbers of civilian casualties.
Callan’s interviews ended with the same question for some of those who planned the Azizabad raid: If you could do it again, would you change anything?
“No sir,” one intelligence officer responded. “I wouldn’t do anything different.”
Aleem Agha contributed to this reporting in Afghanistan
The team behind this investigation
REPORTING AND ANALYSIS:
Brett Murphy, Gina Barton, Nick Penzenstadler
Chris Davis, Matt Doig, Sam Roe, Brett Blackledge
GRAPHICS AND ILLUSTRATIONS:
Ramon Padilla, Kyle Slagle, Mitchell Thorson, Shawn Sullivan, Javier Zarracina, Ray Soto, Will Austin, Alex Daley-Montgomery, Alan Davies
Jasper Colt, Chris Powers, Brett Murphy, Shahpoor Sabir
DIGITAL PRODUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT:
Spencer Holladay, Annette Meade, Ryan Hildebrandt, Dan Alegria
SOCIAL MEDIA, ENGAGEMENT AND PROMOTION:
Cara Richardson, Elizabeth Shell
Five takeaways from our investigation into the world’s largest private security company