US military is increasingly trying to control public information about conflict, nearly leading to ban on UN staff from Kabul base
By Sune Engel Rasmussen
A US Army soldier patrols near Baraki Barak base in Logar Province.
Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images
The US military in Afghanistan is increasingly trying to control public information about the war, resulting in strained relations with western organisations offering different versions of events to official military accounts, the Guardian has learned.
In a recent incident, the most senior US commander in Afghanistan, Gen John W Nicholson, considered banning or restricting the UN’s access to a military base in Kabul, according to informed sources in both organisations.
The dispute followed a UN report in late September claiming that a US drone had killed 15 civilians. Washington insists it only killed members of Islamic State.
UN and US military officials declined to speak to the Guardian, but various sources confirmed that working relations were “a nightmare”, as a UN staff member put it.
The dispute is a sign that the US military wants to remain in charge of details about its operations and the overall situation in Afghanistan, a coalition staff member said, adding that it will try to “maintain [the official] narrative over anything”.
Since the international coalition ended its combat mission in 2014 and assumed a more advisory role, security in Afghanistan has deteriorated markedly. In the past year, the rise of self-declared Isis franchises in the east of the country has caused some US officials to worry that Afghanistan may again become a terrorist haven.
On 28 September, an American drone attacked a private house in Achin, a district of Nangarhar province and a headquarters for militants loyal to Isis. Afghan authorities initially said the strike killed 15 militants and three civilians. The following day, however, the UN said 15 civilians had been killed.
At the provincial hospital in Nangarhar, the Guardian spoke to several young men below the usual fighting age who had been wounded in the strike, including a 12-year-old boy.
Relatives of those killed were gathered at the hospital without being guarded by intelligence agents, whose presence would have been expected had the men been suspected terrorists.
The coalition staff member said the Guardian report relaying the UN’s claim that the victims were civilians was “accurate”.
Since January, the US military in Afghanistan has had greater authority to target people who have an affiliation with Isis, a military spokesman said. “We have concluded that those killed were members of [Isis] and as such, valid military targets,” Capt William K Salvin said.
Gen Nicholson, who assumed command in Afghanistan in February, was apparently so displeased with the UN’s public contradiction of the military’s account that he considered revoking UN staff access to the international coalition’s headquarters in Kabul, but advisers convinced him otherwise.
A US military spokesman, when asked to relay questions to Nicholson, declined to confirm or deny the incident.
“Resolute Support works every day with the United Nations and many other Afghan and international organisations. We share the common goal of helping the people of Afghanistan and will continue that work,” said Brig Gen Charles H Cleveland.
Weeks later, during a weekly security briefing at the military base, a UN staff member was relegated from his normal seat in the main briefing room to an overflow room, receiving only audio from the meeting and being denied the opportunity to ask questions. Sources familiar with the incident assumed the move was a response to the UN drone report.
In a more recent incident, an airstrike called in to protect US and Afghan troops near the city of Kunduz killed up to 30 civilians.
While the US military says an investigation is continuing, a spokesman for the Kunduz governor said the civilians were hit because the Taliban were using their houses as cover. The coalition staff member refuted this claim, saying although there were insurgents present, it was unlikely that they were using civilians as human shields.
Perhaps the most tempestuous recent disagreement between the US military and an international organisation occurred last year, when a US gunship destroyed a hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières, killing 42 people.
A US military report released six months later left a list of questions from MSF unanswered. The US rejected calls from the organisation and the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, for an independent investigation into the incident.
Staff from the UN human rights unit in Kabul who investigated the drone strike in Nangarhar declined to comment, even on background for this article.
Liam McDowall, the director of strategic communications for the UN in Afghanistan, said: “In keeping with established practice, the mission does not speak to the media about its relations with Afghan or international parties, other than to say they are conducted to the highest standard of professionalism.”