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"One of the problems is sometimes determining who exactly caused the casualties. It’s not always clear if a civilian casualty is caused by an extremist or coalition forces."
Major Chris Belcher, US spokesman, Afghanistan, June 23 2007
So it isn’t easy to tell whether civilians are killed by insurgents or foreign forces in Afghanistan? When they are slaughtered by "precision" bombing by B52s or rockets from attack helicopters or shells from artillery or missiles from drones, it is presumably because the Afghan insurgents also operate all these means of dealing death. Six kids killed by air attacks? It must have been these hi-tech Afghans who fly B52s at 30,000 feet. Or maybe some other Afghans who zoom down from the sky and mercilessly rocket villages.
They don’t? Well that’s hardly surprising. Because according to Associated Press, "US-led coalition and NATO forces fighting insurgents in Afghanistan have killed at least 203 civilians so far this year, surpassing the 178 civilians killed in militant attacks." NATO forces (commanded by a US general) and US forces operating outside the NATO structure in Afghanistan say they do not keep count of the number of civilians they kill, and admit to their slaughter only when it is absolutely impossible to deny that it has taken place. (The number wiped out by special forces cannot be assessed as these people are accountable to nobody and obey no laws. They assassinate at will and with impunity.)
Here is a typical absurdity. It concerns the killing of 25 civilians including nine women and three children on June 22 :
"ISAF said the target of the strike was a compound "assessed to have been occupied by up to 30 insurgent fighters, most of whom were killed in the engagement. ISAF troops are now investigating reports that a small number of civilians may also have been in the compound," it said in a statement." (AFP)
Right. Now tell us, you geniuses, exactly how you know that "most" of the "up to 30" alleged insurgents were killed? If you didn’t know that civilians were in the compound, and if you don’t know that civilians were killed, how do you know that the people you killed were insurgents? Were they wearing uniforms? Did you send anyone into the compound to identify the bodies?
The usual approach, once it has proved impossible to deny any longer that civilians have been killed, is for the military to blame the insurgents : "In choosing to conduct such attacks in this location at this time, the risk to civilians was probably deliberate," said another spokesman, Colonel Smith, who then announced that "It is this irresponsible action that may have led to casualties."
What proof is there for his statement?
The man says the risk to civilians was "probably" deliberate. What is the basis for that claim, other than wishful thinking? And he declares that this "may have led to casualties", when it is obvious from the evidence of local people that there is no "may" about it. The air strikes butchered civilians. End of message.
On the basis of the way that US/NATO propaganda is presented, the argument could be made by insurgents that they are fighting in their own country against foreign invaders and their killing of civilians takes place because foreigners occupy civilian areas and therefore place civilians at risk. We all realize that suicide bombings by bloodthirsty lunatics have been deliberate and merciless and have killed dozens of innocent people but it is morally corrupt to claim that US air strikes are one bit less evil when they kill women and children. And it is ludicrous that their deaths are laid at the door of "irresponsible action" by militants.
Then there is the downright lie:
"KABUL (AFP) – Sat Jun 16 : A shot fired by US soldiers at the scene of a deadly suicide blast in Kabul Saturday was not deliberate but an "accidental discharge," the US military said. Kabul police said the shooting killed one Afghan and wounded three others, though US military spokesman Colonel David Accetta said he was aware of only two [being] wounded. "It appears to have been an accidental discharge. The US soldiers did not intend to fire on anyone," he told AFP. "There might have been a weapons malfunction or some other cause. We don’t know, we are investigating," he said."
OK, so the shambles was investigated. Where is the investigation report? Can we believe for one instant that the killing and wounding were caused by an accidental discharge? In a pig’s valise.
A minor sort of victory for decency followed the murder on March 4 of eight Afghan civilians by a Marine unit that went berserk in Nangarhar province after being hit by a suicide car-bomber.
"Injured Afghans said the Americans fired on civilian cars and pedestrians as they sped away. US military officials said militant gunmen shot at Marines and may have caused some of the [thirty] civilian casualties." (ABC News)
And the usual knee-jerk explanation was given by the ever-ready Lt-Colonel Accetta who announced that
"Once again, the terrorists demonstrated their blatant disregard for human life by attacking coalition forces in a populated area, knowing full well that innocent Afghans would be killed and wounded in the attack." He went on to say that the Marine convoy was attacked by "small-arms fire from several directions. The coalition forces returned fire in self-defense. It’s unclear whether the casualties were from the car bomb blast or from the small-arms fire."
There are other views on this, such as those from many witnesses like the one who said
"They were firing everywhere, and they even opened fire on 14 to 15 vehicles passing on the highway," said Tur Gul, 38, who was standing on the roadside by a gas station and was shot twice in his right hand. "They opened fire on everybody, the ones inside the vehicles and the ones on foot." (Washington Post, March 5)
And afterwards, once the ‘elite’ marine unit had run away, there were attempts to cover up the circumstances in which the massacre took place:
"When I went near the four-wheel drive, I saw the Americans taking pictures of the same car, so I started taking pictures," [the photographer] said. "Two soldiers with a translator came and said, ‘Why are you taking pictures? You don’t have permission."
"The same soldier who took my camera came again and deleted my photos . . The soldier was very angry … I told him, ‘They gave us permission,’ but he didn’t listen."
Lt. Col. David Accetta, a US military spokesman, said he did not have any confirmed reports that coalition forces "have been involved in confiscating cameras or deleting images." (AP, March 5)
But neither the lies nor the cover-up worked. Even the US commander had to admit that the whole thing stank and ordered the unit out of Afghanistan. The reason given, mind you, was not because they had opened fire indiscriminately, thereby demonstrating gross professional incompetence. Nor because they murdered a lot of civilians. No : they were moved because they were giving a bad impression:
"[Lt-Colonel] Leto, the spokesman at Special Operations Command Central headquarters, said the Marines, after being ambushed, responded in a way that created "perceptions (that) have really damaged the relationship between the local population and this unit." Therefore, he said, "the general felt it was best to move them out of that area." (Washington Post, March 23)
There has been the usual investigation, although nobody without a salute stapled to his forehead will ever be allowed to read it.
But in a way, and unwittingly, the general got something right. It is this sort of mindless bullet-spraying that has helped destroy efforts to encourage Afghans to think that foreign forces are on their side. Removal of one bunch of knuckle-dragging buffoons will not reduce the loathing felt by millions of Afghans for foreign troops but it does indicate that deep down in the military mind there might be a stirring of realization that mowing down civilians doesn’t win wars.
Five days after the Nangarhar massacre, seemingly without irony, subprime George Bush pronounced that "I don’t think America gets enough credit for trying to help improve people’s lives".
Tell that to the relatives of the 203 Afghan civilians killed so far this year.
Ferocious attacks on civilians, be these by ill-trained troops or brave warriors of the skies who bomb and rocket houses occupied by women and children, are serving to hasten the spread of distrust and loathing. The opposition, whether ‘Taliban’, double-dealing warlords, drug thugs, or ordinary tribesmen who hate all foreigners, is by its nature disorganized and incapable of mounting major attacks. But it doesn’t need to. The war in Afghanistan is being lost because the foreign occupiers are killing Afghan civilians.
BRIAN CLOUGHLEY is a former army officer who writes on political and military affairs. His website is www.briancloughley.com