Today should have been a good day in Afghanistan. District leader Abdul Zahir Aryan, the newly appointed civilian chief for Marjah, arrived Monday to begin restoring government authority. He plans to meet with community leaders and townspeople regardless of the security situation.
"The Marines have told us that the situation is better,” Aryan said. “It's OK. It's good. "I'm not scared because it is my home. I have come to serve the people."
Aryan could have carried Monday’s news cycle in Afghanistan. He’s going to be exposed and is already publicizing himself so he’s perfect journalistic material. But that prospect is gone now that the media cycle is dominated by at least 27 civilians killed in a NATO air-strike in Urōzgān province.
Mr. Aryan will spend the day bottom feeding on these reports.
"Yesterday a group of suspected insurgents, believed to be en route to attack a joint Afghan-ISAF unit, was engaged by an airborne weapons team resulting in a number of individuals killed and wounded," ISAF said in a statement. “After the joint ground force arrived at the scene and found women and children, they transported the wounded to medical treatment facilities.”
Zemarai Bashary, spokesman for Afghanistan's interior ministry, said the victims were traveling between the Kijran district and Chahar Chino district of Uruzgan when they were bombed.
"ISAF thought they were armed enemy elements who were driving towards their bases," he said.
America’s response was automatic. General McChrystal told reporters, “ We are extremely saddened by the tragic loss of innocent lives. I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan people, and inadvertently killing or injuring civilians undermines their trust and confidence in our mission. We will redouble our efforts to regain that trust.”
But there is no evidence to trust his efforts, and the speed that he’s addressing casualties is actually beginning to backfire as the “tragic losses” stack up.
January closed with the deaths of four Afghan police mistakenly bombed by NATO. Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, a NATO spokesman, called the event a “regrettable incident” and promised an investigation, saying, “We work extremely hard to coordinate and synchronize our operations."
Two weeks ago Afghan police shot dead seven Afghan villagers, young men who were collecting firewood at night.
On the eve of Operation Moshtarak we pointed to Paktia province as an indicator of the chaotic and uncontrollable nature of war. Moshtarak opened with a fireball that consumed 12 civilians. Three more were picked off over the next two days.
“It's regrettable that in the course of our joint efforts, innocent lives were lost," General McChrystal would say amid the controversy. "We extend our heartfelt sympathies and will ensure we do all we can to avoid future incidents."
Elsewhere a NATO air-strike in Kandahar province mistook five civilians for Taliban laying an IED.
Just last Thursday, in Kunduz province, another NATO air strike missed its target and killed seven Afghan police while wounding two more.
"Afghan national security forces are critical to the security of this nation and the loss of a single Afghan life affects all of us," said Lieutenant General David Rodriguez in the statement. "We have committed to our Afghan partners every resource available to investigate this incident."
That was only February and every single time an investigation followed - as if that is the solution. These acts occur and will continue to occur because, for instance, the rockets that killed the 12 civilians were put back into the field.
After running all over the map on whether the HIMARS misfired or not, NATO concluded, “an investigation found that the weapon had not malfunctioned in Sunday's strike but that it still was not known why the house was hit.”
The statement also reads, "The review is still ongoing, but it has been determined that the HIMARS weapon system functioned properly,” meaning they know why the house was hit - they aimed at it despite a civilian presence.
General McChrystal is losing credibility.
He’s killed almost half as many civilians as Taliban over the course of Operation Moshtarak, and several incidents served as spectacular fodder for the media. President Karzai undermined him further by demanding zero casualties, an impossibility designed to protect and distance himself from America and its allies. That's not the plan.
25 or more fresh, dead civilians are certain to effect Operation Moshtarak going forward. By dropping bombs on innocent Afghans, America is dropping bombs on its own counterinsurgency.
Arrogance is deviously at work in the notion that civilian casualties can be minimized. US and NATO forces aren't necessarily making mistakes, they are succumbing to the inherent disadvantage in guerrilla warfare. War in general is chaotic, uncertain, uncontrollable, and McChrystal cannot deliver low casualties while fighting 20,000 Taliban at the same time.
Yet to kill busloads of men, women, and children instead of Taliban soldiers is truly heinous in itself and cannot be glossed over as a mistake of war. It is a crime of both humanity and counterinsurgency.
The possibility remains open for a Taliban setup, bad intel, but being tricked is not an excuse. Only a complete fabrication will save McChrystal. The Afghanistan Council of Ministers doesn't sound like it will accept "I'm sorry" this time, calling the mistake "unjustifiable."
The question then becomes: will the Afghan people?