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Questions to Ask in the Dead of Night

We forget the killings in Afghanistan easily, since they don't seem to impinge on our lives. Perhaps that's one of the benefits of fighting a war on the periphery of empire.

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 9:37 AM PDT

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: I'm proud to tell you that TomDispatch Associate Editor Nick Turse has just received a prestigious Ridenhour Prize—named after the remarkable GI who first blew the whistle on the My Lai massacre—for "reportorial distinction." It was for his powerful piece, "A My Lai a Month," on the mass killing of civilians during the Vietnam War, published by the Nation magazine. I was at the ceremonies, and it was an event to remember. You can check out this year's prizes by clicking here—don't miss Bob Herbert's acceptance speech—and you can watch Nick accept his award by clicking here. You might also check out Nick's TomDispatch piece on two Vietnamese peasants who lost their legs in that war. In its wake, U.S. Vietnam veterans and others put together a small fund that provided new prosthetic limbs for those two men, a small accomplishment that also leaves TomDispatch proud.

In addition, a recommendation: The filmmaker Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed, Iraq for Sale) is now producing a new film on the Af-Pak war and—an innovative act—releasing it, part by part, in "real time" on-line. It's called Rethink Afghanistan and it's a must watch. Part three, "The Cost of War," has just been posted. Check out the first three parts by clicking here and visit Greenwald's website Rethink Afghanistan, all part of a documentary campaign to raise public awareness about the war and affect Congressional oversight hearings. The work of both Turse and Greenwald is germane to the piece that follows. Tom]

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Killing Civilians

How Safe Do You Actually Want to Be?
By Tom Engelhardt

Almost like clockwork, the reports float up to us from thousands of miles away, as if from another universe. Every couple of days they seem to arrive from Afghan villages that few Americans will ever see without weapon in hand. Every few days, they appear from a world almost beyond our imagining, and always they concern death—so many lives snuffed out so regularly for more than seven years now. Unfortunately, those news stories are so unimportant in our world that they seldom make it onto, no less off of, the inside pages of our papers. They're so repetitive that, once you've started reading them, you could write them in your sleep from thousands of miles away.

Like obituaries, they follow a simple pattern. Often the news initially arrives buried in summary war reports based on U.S. military (or NATO) announcements of small triumphs—so many "insurgents," or "terrorists," or "foreign militants," or "anti-Afghan forces" killed in an air strike or a raid on a house or a village. And these days, often remarkably quickly, even in the same piece, come the challenges. Some local official or provincial governor or police chief in the area hit insists that those dead "terrorists" or "militants" were actually so many women, children, old men, innocent civilians, members of a wedding party or a funeral.

In response—no less part of this formula—have been the denials issued by American military officials or coalition spokespeople that those killed were anything but insurgents, and the assurances of the accuracy of the intelligence information on which the strike or raid was based. In these years, American spokespeople have generally retreated from their initial claims only step by begrudging step, while doggedly waiting for any hubbub over the killings to die down. If that didn't happen, an "investigation" would be launched (the investigators being, of course, members of the same military that had done the killing) and then prolonged, clearly in hopes that the investigation would outlast coverage of the "incident" and both would be forgotten in a flood of other events.

Forgotten? It's true that we forget these killings easily—often we don't notice them in the first place—since they don't seem to impinge on our lives. Perhaps that's one of the benefits of fighting a war on the periphery of empire, halfway across the planet in the backlands of some impoverished country.

One problem, though: the forgetting doesn't work so well in those backlands. When your child, wife or husband, mother or father is killed, you don't forget.

Only this week, our media was filled with ceremonies and remembrances centered around the tenth anniversary of the slaughter at Columbine High School. Twelve kids and a teacher blown away in a mad rampage. Who has forgotten? On the other side of the planet, there are weekly Columbines.

Similarly, every December 7th, we Americans still remember the dead of Pearl Harbor, almost seven decades in the past. We still have ceremonies for, and mourn, the dead of September 11, 2001. We haven't forgotten. We're not likely to forget. Why, when death rains down on our distant battlefields, should they?

Admittedly, there's been a change in the assertion/repeated denial/investigation pattern instituted by American forces. Now, assertion and denial are sometimes followed relatively quickly by acknowledgement, apology, and payment. Now, when the irrefutable meets the unchallengeable, American spokespeople tend to own up to it. Yep, we killed them. Yep, they were women and kids. Nope, they had, as far as we know, nothing to do with terrorism. Yep, it was our fault and we'll pony up for our mistake.

This new tactic is a response to rising Afghan outrage over the repeated killing of civilians in U.S. raids and air strikes. But like the denials and the investigations, this, too, is intended to make everything go away, while our war itself—those missiles loosed, those doors kicked down in the middle of the night—just goes on.

Once again, evidently, everyone is supposed to forget (or perhaps simply forgive). It's war, after all. People die. Mistakes are made. As for those dead civilians, New York Times reporter Jane Perlez recently quoted a former Pakistani general on the hundreds of tribespeople killed in the Pakistani borderlands in air strikes by CIA-run drones: they are, he said, "likely hosting Qaeda militants and cannot be deemed entirely innocent."

Exactly. Who in our world is "entirely innocent" anyway?

Apologies Not Accepted

A UN survey tallied up 2,118 civilians killed in Afghanistan in 2008, a significant rise over the previous year's figure, of which 828 were ascribed to American, NATO, and Afghan Army actions rather than to suicide bombers or Taliban guerrillas. (Given the difficulty of counting the dead in wartime, any figures like these are likely to be undercounts.) There are, in other words, constant "incidents" to choose from.

Recently, for instance, there was an attack by a CIA drone in the Pakistani borderlands that Pakistani sources claim may have killed up to eight civilians; or there were the six civilians, including a three-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy, killed by an American air strike that leveled three houses in Afghanistan's Kunar Province. Sixteen more Afghans, including children as young as one, were wounded in that air attack, based on "multiple intelligence sources" in which, the U.S. military initially claimed, only "enemy fighters" died. (As a recent study of the death-dealing weapons of the Iraq War, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, indicates, air strikes are notoriously good at taking out civilians. Eighty-five percent of the deaths from air strikes in Iraq were, the study estimated, women and children and, of all methods, including suicide and car bombs, air power "killed the most civilians per event.")

But let's consider here just one recent incident that went almost uncovered in the U.S. media. According to an Agence France Presse account, in a raid in the eastern Afghan province of Khost, the U.S. military first reported a small success: four "armed militants" killed.

It took next to no time, however, for those four militants to morph into the family of an Afghan National Army artillery commander named Awal Khan. As it happened, Khan himself was on duty in another province at the time. According to the report, the tally of the slain, some of whom may have gone to the roof of their house to defend themselves against armed men they evidently believed to be robbers or bandits, included: Awal Khan's "schoolteacher wife, a 17-year-old daughter named Nadia, a 15-year-old son, Aimal, and his brother, who worked for a government department. Another daughter was wounded. After the shooting, the pregnant wife of Khan's cousin, who lived next door, went outside her home and was shot five times in the abdomen..."

She survived, but her fetus, "hit by bullets," didn't. Khan's wife worked at a school supported by the international aid organization CARE, which issued a statement strongly condemning the raid and demanding "that international military forces operating in Afghanistan [be] held accountable for their actions and avoid all attacks on innocent civilians in the country."

In accordance with its new policy, the U.S. issued an apology:

"Further inquiries into the Coalition and ANSF operation in Khost earlier today suggest that the people killed and wounded were not enemy combatants as previously reported... Coalition and Afghan forces do not believe that this family was involved with militant activities and that they were defending their home against an unknown threat... 'We deeply regret the tragic loss of life in this precious family. Words alone cannot begin to express our regret and sympathy and we will ensure the surviving family members are properly cared for,' said Brig. Gen. Michael A. Ryan, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan."

A U.S. military spokesman added, "There will undoubtedly be some financial assistance and other types of assistance [to the survivors]."

The grieving husband, father, and brother said, "I want the coalition leaders to expose those behind this and punish them." He added that "the Afghan government should resign if it could not protect its people." (Don't hold your breath on either count.) And Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as he has done many times during past incidents, repeatedly demanded an explanation for the deaths and asked that such raids and air strikes be drastically curtailed.

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