May 7, 2009

The Dead Can't Hear

This story doesn’t begin well and probably won’t end well either. The bodies of at least 100 Afghan civilians, many of them women, children, and the elderly, are feared to be buried beneath a pile of rubble. According to similar events in the past, the damage probably isn't as bad as Afghan officials claim, but most likely worse than America will admit.

Immediately after the bombing in the Bala Baluk district, Azizabad was on the tip of Afghanistan’s tongue. Azizabad, a village in Shindand district of Herat province, was bombed in a NATO operation on August 22, 2008. Afghan officials initially estimated 70 civilian deaths; America’s estimate was zero, with 30 militants dead.

This evaluation soon changed to three civilian casualties and 25 militants. A month later America admitted to 30 civilian deaths, still too many in a guerrilla war. Afghan officials put the toll at 90.

Somehow spectacular attacks like the ones in Azizabad and Bala Baluk keep happening, with limited civilian deaths occurring in between. It’s a mystery that no explanation or excuse can satisfy. Why do these incidents keep happening? Did America forget that it’s fighting a guerrilla war? It’s actions suggest such a conclusion.

After the Azizabad incident, the Pentagon began reviewing its policy of commenting on such attacks. Before the review, no comment was a standard reaction. It didn’t take much thinking for Defense Secretary Robert Gates to realize the foolishness of this policy during a guerrilla war, and he vowed to immediately express regret and launch an investigation after future blunders.

But why did it take 7 years to change policy? The question is rhetorical, for it’s unconscionable to take so long. American officials have claimed for years that every measure is taken to prevent civilian casualties. Evidently, more than every measure is needed.

Actions and words are the heart of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The action implies a lack of care, the words a lack of understanding. Actions speak louder than words - President Obama said so himself - so what is the point of apologizing after killing upwards of 100 civilians? Save the apologies, stop the bombs.

Apologizing, or “deeply, deeply” regretting, feels like the right thing to do, especially when compared to the alternative of not apologizing. Saying anything, except for denial, is better than silence. “I’m sorry” needs to be said after incidents like Bala Baluk because there is no choice, but this need doesn’t translate into a positive effect.

Afghanistan is a guerilla war and actions speak louder than words, which are more often propaganda. There is no saving face after American bombs kill dozens of civilians, and massive repercussions for killing 100 or more. Never-mind the gathering Taliban, who aren’t an explanation for civilian deaths. Blaming the Taliban reveals ignorance of counterinsurgency, where the occupying army must assume risk and protect the population at all costs.

Saying “I’m sorry” is like adding one to negative 100. The hole is still deep, and thus dark, confusing, and depressing.
Obama has told the American people that he understands counterinsurgency, that he understands Afghanistan is a mixture of military and political warfare. The bombing in Bala Baluk technically isn’t his fault because he didn’t order the strike - a special ops force did - but this leads to a separate problem: once again military tactics trumped political reality.

Should military units unilaterally call in air-strikes that will potentially damage political relations between states? It’s unrealistic and infeasible that Obama will sign off on every air-strike in Afghanistan, but the consequence is playing out in every headline of every Arab news outlet in the world.

On the day of the highly publicized trilateral summit between Afghanistan, Pakistan and America, the headlines are dominated by civilian deaths. A conversation meant to center around Pakistan has been redirected in the worst way possible.

That civilians are dying by the dozens under American bombs, eight years after the war began, is bad enough. To think an apology or any expression of regret will minimize the damage is delusion. For this to happen on the eve of the White House’s summit with Afghan and Pakistani delegations is inexcusable.

This combination suggests that even after eight years, America understands guerilla warfare less than it likes to believe, an ill omen for the future.

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