NATO spokesman Brigadier General Richard Blanchette announced a joint probe between coalition forces, the Afghan government and the United Nations into a Herat air-strike earlier this month that stands as one of the largest incidents of US-inflicted civilian casualties since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. He hoped the investigation would allow the sides to reconcile widely differing accounts of the number of civilians actually killed.

Several investigations have already taken place under the auspices of various Afghan governmental ministries, and the United Nations conducted its own independent investigation into the incident last week. All have come up with very similar conclusions: that the air-strikes killed somewhere in the vicinity of 90 civilians, that 60 of those civilians were children, and that there appears to be not a single Taliban or foreign militant among the dead.

And while the White House has expressed its “regret” at the loss of innocent lives, the Pentagon has stood stubbornly behind its initial announcement: that only 30 people were killed in the strike, that at least 25 of them were “militants”, and that an important Taliban commander was among the dead. Military officials say that false claims of slain civilians are often spurred by the fact that the military offers compensations to families. Such compensation doesn’t always come with an admission of wrong-doing, but $2,000 was paid to each family after US forces killed dozens of civilians in a previous incident in Herat in 2007.

The Pentagon’s narrative is difficult to square with quotes from those on the scene. One Afghan official told the AFP that he had personally seen the bodies of at least 50 children being pulled from the wreckage, and assisted with pulling dozens of other bodies from the rubble. Afghan officials have attributed the attack to a false tip by a rival clan.

The killings have further strained an already rocky relationship between NATO and the Afghan government. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been particularly critical of the air-strikes, firing one of his top generals and issuing a declaration with his Council of Ministers that they would be reviewing the presence of international forces

Last 5 posts by Jason Ditz