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When doctors started reporting that some of the victims of the US bombing of several villages in Farah Province last week—an attack that left between 117 and 147 civilians dead, most of them women and children—were turning up with deep, sharp burns on their body that “looked like” they’d been caused by white phosphorus, the US military was quick to deny responsibility.
US officials—who initially denied that the US had even bombed any civilians in Farah despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, including massive craters where houses had once stood—insisted that “no white phosphorus” was used in the attacks on several villages in Farah.
Official military policy on the use of white phosphorus is to only use the high-intensity, self-igniting material as a smoke screen during battles or to illuminate targets, not as a weapon against human beings—even enemy troops.
Now that policy, and the military’s blanket denial that phosphorus was used in Farah, have to be questioned, thanks to a recent report filed from a remote area of Afghanistan by a New York Times reporter.
C.J. Chivers, writing in the May 14 edition of the NY Times, in an article headlined “Korangal Valley Memo: In Bleak Afghan Outpost, Troops Slog On,” wrote of how an embattled US Army unit in the Korangal Valley of Afghanistan, had come under attack following a morning memorial service for one of their members, Pfc. Richard Dewater, who had been killed the day before by a mine.
After the ceremony, the violence resumed. The soldiers detected a Taliban spotter on a ridge, which was pounded by mortars and then white phosphorus rounds from a 155 millimeter howitzer.
What did the insurgents do? When the smoldering subsided, they attacked from exactly the same spot, shelling the outpost with 30-millimeter grenades and putting the soldiers on notice that the last display of firepower had little effect. The Americans escalated. An A-10 aircraft made several gun runs, then dropped a 500-pound bomb.
It is clear from this passage that the military’s use of the phosphorus shells had not been for the officially sanctioned purpose of providing cover. The soldiers had no intention of climbing that hill to attack the spotter on the ridge themselves. They were trying to destroy him with shells and bombs. In fact, the last thing they would have wanted to do was provide the spotter with a smoke cover, which would have helped him escape, and which also would have hidden him from the planes which had been called in to make gun runs at his position. Nor was this a case of illuminating the target. The incident, as Chivers reports, took place in daylight.
Clearly then, this article shows that it is routine for soldiers to call in phosphorus rounds to attack enemy soldiers, which is supposed to be against US military policy for this material. Whoever was manning the howitzer had a stock of the weapons on hand, and was ready to fire them.
The US initially flatly denied using white phosphorus weapons in Iraq, when reports first began to come out, including from US troops themselves, that they had been used extensively against insurgents defending the city of Fallujah against US Marines in November 2004. Under mounting pressure, the Pentagon first admitted that it had used the chemical in Fallujah but only “for illumination.” Later, the Pentagon added that it had used phosphorus as a “screen” to hide troops. But finally, in 2005, the Pentagon was forced to admit that it had also used white phosphorus directly as a weapon against enemy Iraqi troops in the assault on Fallujah, a city of 300,000 that still held many civilians.
The same pattern of denial and eventual admission regarding the use of this controversial and deadly weapon by US forces now seems to be repeating itself in Afghanistan.
It is odd that given the controversy over the use of white phosphorus weapons, which result in terrible wounds and eventual death as phosphorus particles burn their way down through flesh to the bone and sometimes straight onward through a body, leaving a charred channel of destruction, the New York Times’ Chivers—or perhaps his editors back in New York?—ignored any mention of the issue while reporting on the use of the chemical rounds to attack a lone spotter on the ridge.
Given the current controversy over whether the US used white phosphorus shells or bombs in Falah Province only days before, it is hard to understand why the issue wasn’t mentioned in this particular article. Indeed, in the online version of the story, the word phosphorus is set as a hotlink to an article on the controversy over the battlefield use of phosphorus, indicating that at least someone at the Times has integrity and a good news sense.
As for the US government and the Pentagon, it is clear that they know the weapon is a vicious and controversial one, and that besides causing horrific and painful wounds, it is profoundly dangerous for innocent civilians, particularly when used in town or village settings.
It is bad enough that the US is using this weapon. It is even worse that it is forced to lie about it.
Surely if the goal of US policy is to win the hearts and minds of Afghanistan’s people, it shouldn’t be using a weapon that causes such terrible and indiscriminate wounds. Then again, maybe winning those hearts and minds isn’t the goal. Maybe, as in the so-called “Pacification Program” applied by US forces in rural South Vietnam, the goal is to terrorize Afghan villagers in Taliban regions into rejecting the Taliban in their midst.
Requests for answers from the press office at the Pentagon, and at military headquarters in Afghanistan regarding US policy on the use of white phosphorus, and on the specific use of the shells mentioned in the New York Times article were ignored.
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org