American foreign policy in Afghanistan is a counterinsurgency strategy of “winning the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people. It is about undermining their support for their own Afghan Muslim insurgent citizens, the Taliban, by protecting them from the insurgents’ retaliation and improving their lives with aid and development projects. It is about building schools, health clinics, roads, and courthouses, upgrading power and water systems, and enabling agricultural development, economic growth and political reform. About helping the Afghan people to establish their own security forces. It is about “partnering” with the massively bombed, invaded, occupied, infra-structure-devastated, national sovereignty-violated, spiritually-transgressed, psychologically-demeaned Afghan people. It is actually about our government disguising and making palatable war crimes committed in our name.
Called “Operation Enduring Freedom,” the enduring, decade-long war against powerless and non-threatening Afghanistan is actually about “winning the hearts and minds” of Americans. This propagandistic manipulation of Americans is seen in President Obama’s apology in response to the alleged lone American soldier’s horrific March 11 massacre of 16 (and now US military-determined 17) Afghan villagers, including four women and at least nine children, four of the children under the age of six, whose bodies the soldier then burned.
Reported as “heartbroken” over the American soldier’s killing of the Afghan villagers, President Obama’s quoted response was, “The United States takes this as seriously as if it was our own citizens and our own children who were murdered.” (“Obama: US will treat Afghan killings ‘as if it was our own children,’” By Amie Parnes, The Hill, Mar. 13, 2012.) Obama’s words are for the public consumption of US citizens and not for the Afghan people, who mournfully and angrily know better.
The Afghan people have suffered for ten years from the “seriousness” with which the United States government has regarded their lives and country. Former President George W. Bush left a serious trail of Afghan children and adult civilian deaths and injuries; and President Obama is following in his bloody foreign policy boot-prints.
Five months into Obama’s presidency, The New York Times reported that American airstrikes killed over 100 civilians in western Afghanistan. Following the US military’s denial of responsibility for so many civilian deaths, Farah Province governor Rohul Amin was quoted as saying, “The villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred.” He stated that “everyone at the governor’s office was crying, watching that shocking scene.” He also said the “he had talked to someone he knew personally who had counted 113 bodies being buried, including those of many women and children.” The news story also reported that the US Special Operations forces “have often been blamed for nighttime raids on villages, detentions and airstrikes that have brought the population in southern Afghanistan to the point of revolt.” (“Civilian Deaths Imperil Support for Afghan War,” By Carlotta Gall and Taimoor Shah, The New York Times, May. 6, 2009)
The above story is a rare, and brief, example of American mainstream media reporting about “the hearts and minds” of nameless Afghan civilian victims of US military attacks. More typical are these media’s coverage of the March 11 atrocity: little, if anything, has been reported about “the hearts and minds”—and names—of the nine or more murdered Afghan children, four mothers and other adult males, while extensive coverage is being presented about “the hearts and minds” of the alleged American soldier and his wife and family and friends.
“The United States takes this as seriously as if it is our own citizens and our children who were murdered.” Obama’s words do violence to “the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people. Their reality was reported as being voiced by tearful Afghan President Hamid Karzai at a meeting with families of the victims: “The massacre of 16 Afghan children, women and men by an American soldier ‘was not the first incident, indeed it was the 100th, 200th and 500th incident.’” (“Gulf Widens Between U.S. and an Increasingly Hostile Karzai,” by Rod Nordland, Alissa J. Rubin and Matthew Rosenberg, The New York Times, Mar. 18, 2012)
Later, President Karzai was reported to repeat that the murder of the villagers was merely “the latest in a long string of episodes in which coalition forces have killed Afghans. ‘This has been going on for too long,’ he said. ‘It is by all means the end of the rope here. This behavior cannot be tolerated. It is past, past, past the time.’” (“Karzai Lashes Out at NATO Over Deaths,” By Matthew Rosenberg and Helene Cooper, The New York Times, Mar. 16, 2012)
“The United States takes this as seriously as if it was our own citizens and our own children who were murdered.” Nor are President Obama’s words meant for the “hearts and minds” of the Pakistani people. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s research “has found that since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 [Pakistani] civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children.” And the Bureau’s “three month investigation including eye witness reports have found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow up strikes when they had gone to help the victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. These tactics,” the Bureau states, “have been condemned by leading legal experts.” The Bureau’s reminder: “Although the drone attacks were started under the Bush administration in 2004, they have been stepped up enormously under Obama.” (“Obama terror drones: CIA tactics in Pakistan include targeting rescuers and funerals,” by Chris Woods and Christina Lamb. Feb. 4, 2012)
As with Afghanistan, the ongoing killing of Pakistani citizens has brought the Pakistan government “to the end of the rope.” A national governmental security committee recently demanded that the United States halt its drone strikes in the country. Committee chairman Raza Rabbani is quoted as telling parliament, “It needs to be realized that drone attacks are counterproductive, cause loss of valuable lives and property, radicalize the local population, create support for terrorists and fuel anti-American sentiments.” (“Pakistan parliament committee demands end to U.S. drone strikes,” By Qasim Nauman and Rebecca Conway, Reuters, Mar. 20, 2012)
“The United States takes this as seriously as if it was our own citizens and our own children.” The imprisonment of independent Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye tells a different story. He remains in a Yemen jail cell precisely because he took “seriously” and exposed the killing of Yemen’s own citizens and children by a US air attack over Yemen against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Reported by The Nation correspondent Jeremy Scahill, in December 2009 journalist Shaye investigated the Yemeni government’s announcement that “it had conducted a series of strikes against an Al Qaeda training camp in the village of al Majala in Yemen’s southern Abyan province killing a number of Al Qaeda militants.” With the story traveling worldwide, Shaye went to the scene and found “remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs . . . ‘made in the USA,’” which he photographed and distributed to international news outlets. He also found and reported that the victims of the American strike included “fourteen women and twenty-one children”—with the killing of “anyone in Al Qaeda . . . remain[ing] hotly contested.” The Yemen government’s attempt to protect the United States by claiming responsibility for the bombing was exposed by a Wikileaks cable, which revealed that President Saleh had “assured Gen. David Petraeus that his government would continue to lie and say, ‘the bombs are ours, not yours.’”
Apparently the Obama administration was threatened by Journalist Shay’s discovery and circulation of just how “seriously” the US government takes killing Yemeni citizens, including children. Jeremy Scahill writes that “President Obama called Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh,” and “at the end of the call, according to a White House read-out, Obama ‘expressed concern’” over Saleh’s intended and imminent, widely supported, pardon of Shaye—who was serving time for numerous charges, including “being the ‘media man’ for Al Qaeda.” President Saleh did not sign the pardon, and Abdulelah remains in prison. Readers of Scahill’s article are urged to take action by signing the petition listed at the end of the piece. (“Why Is President Obama Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen?” The Nation, Mar. 13, 2012)
President Obama occasionally humanizes incendiary incidents, evidently in an attempt to help Americans personalize their thinking about and understanding of victims. It is about “hearts and minds”: putting oneself in another person’s or group’s position, so that one may better understand another’s reality and therefore respond more appropriately. Thus Obama said of the shocking, indefensible killing of unarmed 17-year-old black Trayvon Martin by armed 28-year-old white Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” (“A PERSONAL NOTE AS OBAMA SPEAKS ON DEATH OF BOY,” By Jackie Calmes and Helene Cooper, The New York Times, Mar. 24, 2012) Obama gave voice to the fears and reality of all black fathers and mothers in our still discriminatory white-controlled society.
President Obama’s personalizing of Trayvon Martin’s apparent murder is about “hearts and minds” that are able to experience and understand rather than interpret and remain oblivious to another family’s terrible loss and grief and demand for justice. Justice calls for all of us to personalize and identify with victims who look like us, and those who do not look like us. Victims who also are fathers and sons and mothers and daughters and brothers and sisters like us. People just like us. The whole world desperately needs such “hearts and minds.”
Nasser al-Awlaki, for example, had a son, an American citizen, named Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki, who looked somewhat like President Obama, and, like Obama, was a father. Imam Al-Awlaki was assassinated in Yemen by a CIA-operated drone authorized by Obama. Nasser al-Awlaki was quoted as saying about “the unlawful assassination” of his son: “Anwar was never a ‘militant’ nor was he ‘the head of Al Qaeda external operations.’ Anwar,” he continued, “was an American citizen who had not been formally charged with any crime, and no evidence was ever created.” (“Statement of Awlaki family on killing of 16 yr old son of Shaykh Anwar by the US,” shuratulmujahideen.blogspot.com, Oct. 21, 2011)
Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki had a 16-year-old American son, named Abdulrahman Anwar Awlaki, and he and several teenage friends were assassinated, during a barbecue under the moonlight in Yemen, by a CIA-operated drone. Nasser al-Awlaki said about his grandson, “Look at his pictures, his friends and his hobbies. His Facebook page shows a typical kid. A teenager who paid a hefty price for something he never did and never was.” (Ibid)
How many “typical” Iraqi, Afghan, Pakistani, Yemeni, Somali and other sons and daughters, who look like our children and their friends, or not, have been killed by US drone strikes and other air raids? How many mothers and fathers? Brothers and sisters? Grandparents and great grandparents? Who are people just like us.
In Florida, it is about the indefensible February 26 killing of black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who wore a hoodie. And in California, it is about the hate-filled March 21 murder of 32-year-old Iraqi Muslim immigrant Shaima Alawadi, who wore a headscarf. (“Iraqi Immigrants in California Town Fear a Hate Crime in a Woman’s Killing,” By Ian Lovett and Will Carless, The New York Times, Mar. 28, 2012)
The killing of Trayvon Martin recently led religious leaders and their communities across the country to rise up in pulpits and pews and demand justice for Trayvon and his family. USA TODAY, for example, reported, “In Northern California, ‘Hoodie Sunday’ was marked in hundreds of congregations,” with religious leaders stating they “are outraged that the killer showed so little regard for Trayvon that he took his life needlessly and senselessly,” and also“are outraged that local law enforcement officials have failed to act justly and expeditiously” (in not arresting and charging and bringing George Zimmerman to trail for the murder of Trayvon Martin). (“Florida case rings across pulpits: Faith leaders call for justice for teen,” By William M. Welch, Mar. 26, 2012)
It is also time for Christian denominational and other faith leaders and their communities throughout America to rise up in their pulpits and pews and elsewhere and demand an end to America’s criminal wars against people who are human beings just like us. “The United States takes this as seriously as if it was our own citizens and our own children who were murdered,” is a disingenuous, self-serving apology that changes nothing on the ground in Afghanistan. Needed is the recognition of the United States’ violation of the national sovereignty of the Afghan people and complete military withdrawal, and the moral obligation to rectify the harm committed as much as possible.
The United States government’s reported payment of $50,000 for each of the 17 Afghan civilians killed and $11,000 for each one wounded, while considerably more than the going rate of $2,000 each for those killed and $1,000 for each wounded, reveals just how “seriously” bankrupt morally our nation’s foreign policy has become. The moral obliviousness afflicting the soul of our country is seen in any American’s answer regarding the monetary value he or she would place on the life of his or her own son or daughter or wife or husband or grandchildren or other loved one.
A long time ago a Jewish insurgent was crucified for seeking to set his people free from the Roman Empire’s brutal occupation of their country. His prophetic ethic was The Golden Rule that took the form of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. An ethic empowered by the realization that all others are people just like us.
“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” The capacity to think and act in these terms, about every human being, is to live out The Golden Rule and the great commandment Jesus taught about loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Easter is about the resurrecting power of “hearts and minds” that are able to identify with, accept responsibility for and intervene on behalf of other oppressed human beings, in Florida and in Afghanistan and elsewhere– no matter who they may or may not look like.
Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care. His book, A Hospital Chaplain at theCrossroads of Humanity, has just been published. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.