Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan have a fearsome reputation for capturing and killing high-value Taliban targets in Oruzgan, a lawless province southwest of Kabul. The aggressive approach of the Special Air Service regiment and Army commandos complements the regular forces' efforts to win hearts and minds by providing security and building roads, bridges and hospitals.
At least, that is how things are supposed to work. But last month the twin strategies collided when one of President Hamid Karzai's allies, Rozi Khan, was killed in a firefight with Australian special forces about 35 km northeast of the provincial capital, Tarin Kowt.
The governor of Oruzgan's Chora district, Khan was a former provincial police chief who had acted as Karzai's protector when the Pashtun leader returned from exile in 2001 to rally tribes against the Taliban. His death "has made the tribes angry," says his elder son, Dawood. "They want to stand against the Australians."
On the night of Sept. 17-18, according to an Australian Defence Force spokesman, a special forces patrol was moving to "conduct a planned activity" when it was fired on. The Australians "fired back in self-defense." The ADF spokesman says "a number of groups" including Afghan police were involved in the fight, which left three Afghans dead. He says the Australians appear to have followed their rules of engagement, and their actions were "appropriate and proportionate in what was a complex and lethal environment."
In an exclusive interview with TIME, Rozi Khan's younger son, Khosal, who was wounded that night, gave an eyewitness account of the shoot-out. At about 10 p.m. his father got a call from a friend named Samad Jan, who had heard suspicious noises and feared Taliban fighters were surrounding his home. "The Taliban had come to Jan's house a few nights earlier," says Khosal, and his father had promised to come to Jan's aid if they showed up again.
Khosal says his father and a relative drove toward Jan's house in a police vehicle, accompanied by about 15 or 20 other men. "We parked the car about 500 m away, then walked toward the house." Sensing something amiss, "my father called to [Jan] that the Taliban were around the house," Khosal says. "Then there was shooting. My father got two bullets in the throat from the front side, and then the elders who were with us came and dragged him away." When Khosal picked up his relative, who had also been shot, "I was shot in the leg.''
Khosal said his father's men fired back at their assailants, who were only about 20 m away. The elders rushed Khan to hospital but he was dead on arrival. At first, Khosal says, the locals "were thinking it was the Taliban who had done the shooting. Then they heard someone calling out. It was the Australians' interpreter, who was surprised and was asking, Who are you?" When Khan's men replied, "We are police," Khosal says, they were told to lay down their weapons. Khosal says the Australian troops offered no medical assistance to the wounded Afghans. The ADF spokesman says that continuing fire meant the Australians could not remain at the scene without "unacceptable risk."
Khosal's brother Dawood says local tribes want Australian troops to quit the area, but he does not believe President Karzai has the power to order them out. In a meeting in Kabul, he says, Karzai offered to continue paying his father's salary every month. The Australian government says it is negotiating to pay compensation to Khan's family. ADF head Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston said, "We deeply regret [Khan's] death. We are working very closely with [Khan's] tribe to ensure that this has no far-reaching negative effects on our operations in the province of Oruzgan."
Several weeks after the shooting, the Australian military flew in a group of reporters for a controlled visit to Tarin Kowt; on Oct. 5 it was announced that Australian and Afghan troops had captured a notorious Taliban bomb-maker. The publicity may have shored up Australians' enthusiasm for the Afghanistan mission, but it has yet to penetrate the mud-walled forts of Oruzgan's tribal chiefs, whose support is now needed more urgently than ever.
— with reporting by Hashim Shukoor/Kabul
6 months ago