Friday, May 11, 2007

Afghans' Patience for U.S. Unintentional Collateral Damage Is Wearing Thin

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A U.S. Army colonel in Afghanistan says he is "deeply ashamed" by the deaths of 19 civilians at the hands of American troops in early March:

"I stand before you today, deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people," US army spokesman Col John Nicholson told reporters in Washington by video conference from Afghanistan.

"The deaths and wounding of innocent Afghans at the hands of Americans is a stain on our honour and on the memory of the many Americans who have died defending Afghanistan and the Afghan people.

"We made official apologies on the part of the US government and payments of about $2,000 for each death," he said, after US officials visited some of the families left bereaved by the incident.

US forces were accused of killing the civilians during shooting near the city of Jalalabad.

Journalists said at the time that US troops confiscated their photos and video footage of the aftermath of the violence.

The Americans said the fighting started when a convoy of Marines was attacked by a suicide bomber and came under co-ordinated small-arms fire.

They said that their soldiers returned fire, and acknowledged that at least eight Afghan civilians had been killed, with a further 35 injured.

Reports said that as they left the scene along a busy highway, the Americans fired indiscriminately on civilians and their vehicles.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai strongly condemned the incident at the time.

Thousands of local people took to the streets shortly after the attack to protest against what happened.

The Associated Press news agency said it would complain to the US military after journalists said US soldiers allegedly deleted footage of the aftermath of the Nangarhar violence.

Freelance journalists working for the Associated Press said troops erased photos and video showing a vehicle in which three people were shot dead during the incident.

A US military commander determined that the Marines used excessive force and referred the case for possible criminal investigation.

Since that March incident, there have been at least two other major occurrences of civilian killings -- and reckless indifference on the part of military personnel played a significant part in both:

Airstrikes called in by U.S. Special Forces soldiers fighting with insurgents in southern Afghanistan killed at least 21 civilians, officials said Wednesday. One coalition soldier was also killed.

Helmand provincial Gov. Assadullah Wafa said Taliban fighters sought shelter in villagers’ homes during the fighting in the Sangin district Tuesday evening, and that subsequent airstrikes killed 21 civilians, including several women and children.

The U.S.-led coalition said militants fired guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars at U.S. Special Forces and Afghan soldiers on patrol 15 miles north of Sangin.
Maj. William Mitchell, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said troops killed a “significant” number of militants.

“We don’t have any report of civilian casualties. There are enemy casualties — I think the number is significant,” Mitchell said without releasing an exact figure.

A resident of the area, Mohammad Asif, said five homes in the village of Soro were bombed during the battle, killing 38 people and wounding more than 20. He said Western troops and Afghan forces had blocked people from entering the area.

Death tolls in remote battle sites in Afghanistan are impossible to verify. Taliban fighters often seek shelter in Afghan homes, leading to civilian casualties, and it is often difficult to determine if people killed in such airstrikes were militants or civilians.
The report of civilian casualties comes less than a week after Afghan officials said that 51 civilians were killed in the western province of Herat.

It also comes one day after the U.S. military apologized and paid compensation to the families of 19 people killed and 50 wounded by U.S. Marines Special Forces who fired indiscriminately on civilians after being hit by a suicide attack in eastern Afghanistan in March.

The BBC article about Col. John Nicholson's remarks concerning the 19 civilian deaths in March also notes the erosion of support for U.S. troops among Afghans as a result of too many incidents like this one. The current issue of Newsweek has a piece on the same subject. Unfortunately, the pro-U.S. military distortion is quite strong -- beginning with the article title and subtitle: "Collateral Disasters: In Afghanistan's lopsided ethos, every civilian death counts against the Americans." The article authors, Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau, hammer home the point starting with the second paragraph:

Most Afghans cheered the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and they appreciate the ways U.S. assistance has improved their lives since then: reopening schools, building roads and bridges, bringing electricity to remote villages. Yet they increasingly resent the unending war, especially its rising toll in civilian lives—and they don't hesitate to blame America and its multinational allies. Anti-U.S. rallies in the towns of Shindand and Jalalabad each drew more than a thousand protesters last week, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai once again declared that his government can no longer tolerate the deaths of so many innocent Afghans. "We are very sorry when the [U.S.-led] international Coalition Force and NATO soldiers lose their lives or are injured," he told a press conference. "It pains us. But Afghan [civilians] are human beings, too."

More than 900 of them died in 2006 alone. Roughly three quarters of that number died in Taliban attacks, nearly half of which "appear to have been intentionally launched" against civilian targets, according to a newly released report from Human Rights Watch. Even in attacks on legitimate military targets, the report found "little evidence to suggest that insurgent forces were in any way seeking to minimize [civilian] losses." Instead, the report said, the objective seemed to be "not merely to harm specific individuals but to generate broader fear among the civilian population." Roughly 230 civilians died in U.S. and Coalition attacks last year, but the report found no evidence that any of those killings were deliberate.

But on the very next screen, Yousafzai and Moreau demonstrate the disingenuousness of that claim:

... In early March, after being hit by a suicide car bomber near Jalalabad, members of a U.S. Marine convoy evidently snapped. According to a preliminary U.S. military investigation, they sped back to their base shooting wildly, killing at least 12 unarmed civilians and wounding 35 others. (The explosion had injured one Marine.) In the aftermath, hundreds of protesters closed a highway and clashed with police. The entire 120-man battalion was yanked out of the country, and the official investigation is continuing.

But, of course, the damage was done. And no amount of investigating will prevent incidents like this one from happening again and again and again, if nothing is done about the implied permission U.S. troops are clearly given to engage in reckless, indiscriminate behavior that is guaranteed to result in civilian deaths, even if such deaths are not, quote unquote, deliberate. When was the last time, for instance, that you saw the words "evidently snapped" used to explain an attack by Taliban soldiers?

And how about that "lopsided ethos" of getting so bent out of shape when the Good Guys accidentally kill dozens of civilians, knowing as we should that the Taliban kill so many more than we do, and besides, they don't even care? Here's the problem: The same people who want American soldiers to be given credit for being more professional, more humane, more noble in intention than our enemies of the moment, also want American soldiers to be given a pass when they behave unprofessionally, inhumanely, and ignobly. It just doesn't work that way:

Afghans expect the worst from the Taliban, but they hold America to a far higher standard. "The Taliban never claimed to support human rights," says Abdul Sattar Khowasi, a member of Parliament from Kapisa province, about 70 miles northeast of Kabul. "The U.S. came here in the name of human rights." Besides, people are increasingly afraid to criticize Mullah Mohammed Omar's Taliban forces in public. "I leave it up to Allah to punish those responsible," says Mohammad Tahir, whose two daughters, 4 and 7, were killed in late March when a suicide bomber hit an Afghan Army convoy outside his home in Laghman province. Ironically, his neighbors blame the attack on a U.S. military Provincial Reconstruction Team stationed in the town. "If the [U.S.] base wasn't here, the Taliban wouldn't be attacking us," says Kamin Agha, a local truckdriver.

As E&P's Greg Mitchell points out, there are times when "Sorry, that was an accident, we didn't mean to kill your whole family, here's $2,000," just does not cut it.


Cross-posted at Shakesville.

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