A photograph that the Afghan government distributed as evidence of civilian casualties in a U.S. airstrike on Jan. 15 this year was actually a 2009 Agence France-Presse photo of a different funeral, a media investigation revealed this week, raising questions about the credibility of the official government account.
The presidential palace gave journalists a dossier compiled by a fact-finding team that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had sent to Parwan province to gather evidence on this month’s airstrike. Among the 14 photographs in the dossier is an AFP image taken on Sept. 4, 2009, of a funeral in Kunduz province after a U.S. airstrike that destroyed two fuel tankers, killing at least 70 civilians.
"We are taking this issue very seriously to find out who put this photograph in the dossier, which was made by several government departments," Aimal Faizi, spokesman for President Karzai, told AFP.
"There is no lack of evidence about the operation from at least 10 other photos and matching video in the dossier, as well as from the families and survivors," Faizi said.
He did not deny that the photograph was misrepresented, but he accused The New York Times, which first investigated the error, of running a "politically motivated story to undermine general opinion about this incident.”
"The truth is there – that there were civilian casualties, houses were destroyed and that this was a unilateral operation and not in cooperation with local authorities," he said.
The New York Times on Sunday added that some of the material in the dossier was posted on a Taliban website two days before the government began handing it out. It also raised questions about the authenticity of at least one other photograph in the dossier.
Karzai and the U.S.-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan both confirm there were civilian casualties in the joint Afghan-U.S. operation on Taliban-held villages in Parwan province.
NATO said "several" civilians died during the 24-hour operation, without giving details, while Karzai backed the investigation team's conclusion that 12 civilians died.
At a government-organized news conference in Kabul on Sunday, families of the civilian victims of the Parwan operation denied that the photograph was from 2009 and insisted it was of a funeral after the attack 10 days ago.
But Parwan Gov. Basir Salangi told AFP last week that six civilians had died, and he accused the head of the investigation team, parliament member Abdul Satar Khawasi, of being a "treacherous liar" for exaggerating the death toll.
Civilian casualties have been one of the most sensitive issues of the 13-year military intervention in Afghanistan, and Karzai has berated foreign countries over misguided airstrikes, stirring public anger.
Ties between the allies have deteriorated over stalled negotiations on a deal to allow some U.S. troops to remain in the country after 2014. The United States is seeking to maintain troop levels at about 10,000 to facilitate the security transition to Afghan forces, and to engage in counterterrorism operations.
Despite widespread fears that Afghan forces are not yet prepared to fend off the Taliban, Karzai has refused to sign such an agreement and insists that the U.S. is free to pull out altogether unless certain preconditions are met, namely accountability for civilian casualties.
Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse