“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. “
“ZIZABAD, 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.SHOW OF FORCEThis is an ongoing series of reports about G4S, the world’s largest private security force, which provides guards for thousands of private businesses and government agencies across the nation. Reporters at USA TODAY and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel spent more than a year gathering records and interviewing current and former employees, as well as those impacted by violence associated with G4S guards.
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.”