April 29, 2010

US Still Justifying Unjustifiable Killings

Back in January General Stanley McChrystal deployed an ingenious - and cruel - weapon of war. In a two prong attack, McChrystal discouraged the use of air-strikes and ordered coalition forces to avoid night raids when possible, and to bring Afghan troops if they can’t.

The decisions were hailed as a turning point in US military thinking in Afghanistan. McChrystal, we were told, deeply understands counterinsurgency and is sensitive to Afghan culture.

At one level McChrystal’s new strategy is long overdue. Civilian casualties topped 800 in 2008 and nearly 600 in 2009, unsustainable levels. Reducing casualties through limited air-strikes and night raids also allowed the Taliban to statistically become the main cause of death, useful for perception and propaganda purposes.

And if sincere, the US military is finally realizing that counterinsurgency is won not by killing people, but by understanding them.

Yet beneath this pristine surface lies a dark motive that no White House or Pentagon official can disguise, which isn’t to say they won’t try. After a botched operation we’re swiftly and frequently told by the entire Pentagon - Gates, Mullen, Petraeus, McChrystal, and their host of spokespeople - that “all precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties.”

Gates, though, sometimes slips back into “accidents happen in war” mode, realizing the first justification doesn’t work when repeated endlessly. He would be right too, civilian deaths are part of the fog of war, but not every time. The “accident” justification doesn’t hold up either during recent atrocities in Afghanistan. These are no accidents, and they have no justification other than human error.

What McChrystal did by ordering his rules is create a false image to point at every time civilians are killed - especially when those rules are disobeyed. By doing investigations you look good, even what you did is bad. We had advised quicker apologies and investigations, but only if it was sincere.

Afghans can see through Western PR.

We want to be careful to avoid hyperbole since Afghans has suffered countless gruesome acts over their history and in the last nine years alone. Just weeks before McChrystal ordered his new rules of engagement eight children were handcuffed and executed by NATO forces, an incident that still lacks any resolution.

But the following months after McChrystal’s declaration saw some particularly brutal and shady murders.

Possibly the most horrific involved three women killed by NATO troops on February 12 during a nighttime raid in Paktia province; the episode is famous for the US military actively covering up the murders. Two months later NATO admitted to botching the operation and killing the women - and tried to forget the incident.

Here is the US State Department’s justification:
QUESTION: General McChrystal apparently has ordered a second investigation into the deaths of three Afghan women and two men during this nighttime raid in February. Apparently, originally, they thought it was an honor killing, but now it seems that there might have been some kind of cover-up and General McChrystal is ordering a new investigation. I was just wondering if you think that these type of incidents dilute the Afghan confidence in the U.S. military and the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, it underscores in my mind exactly what we were talking about a minute ago about other operations in and around Afghanistan moving forward. That has been a fundamental change in General McChrystal’s strategy.”
Look familiar? This is the US script for civilian casualties going forward. The fundamental change in McChrystal’s strategy is that people like Mr. Crowley are reading from that script when unjustifiable errors are committed.

Back in reality, two days after February 12th, another missile slammed into McChystal’s strategy by killing 12 civilians. Again it was the precise manner in which this attack occurred that made it more unjustifiable than usual. One day after Operation Moshtarak landed in Marja and NATO missiles kill Afghan civilians is the topic of conversation.

Had the attack occurred even a week into the operation the fallout would’ve been minimized. As it is there’s no justification, which obviously leads us to last night’s raid on Safiya Sidiqi’s house, a member of parliament.

The Associated Press reports, “NATO said Thursday that a joint operation with Afghan forces killed ‘one armed individual while pursuing a Taliban facilitator’ on Wednesday night. The person killed ignored demands given in English and through an Afghan interpreter to lower his weapon, NATO said, without giving details of the person's identity.”

According to Sidiqi, who wasn’t home at the time, “family members told her about 100 NATO soldiers stormed her home around 11:30 p.m. Sidiqi said the soldiers broke the windows of her home, entered and pulled out 15 members of her family who were then photographed and fingerprinted."

"My brothers thought they were thieves," Sidiqi told AFP. "One of my relatives took a shotgun and walked out of the room. The troops shot him dead."

She called the raid "barbaric" and, in line with our theme, vowed, "Whatever happened, it was the mistake of NATO.”

If the Taliban is supposed to be scary, imagine a group of 6 foot + US and NATO soldiers in body armor and laser scopes breaking into your house like Night of the Living Dead. Naturally hundreds gathered on streets near Jalalabad to burning tire and shouting anti-U.S. slogans.

"I will raise my voice. I am a member of Parliament, my residence must be protected," Sediqi said. "This man had five children. The Americans have created five more enemies."

But did America make these new enemies because NATO forces, surely led by US troops, took every available precaution and simply got unlucky? Was this an accident of war? Maybe Sediqi is lying and an investigation exposes a different picture, but all of McChrystal’s rules appear to have been broken.

This was no accident, it was a system failure.

Already a night time raid near a lawmaker's home doesn’t sound like a good idea. Perhaps a Taliban soldier was using it as a shield, but the dubious risk/reward of assaulting Sediqi’s house remains unthinkable. Any error could have exponential consequences compared to a normal raid, and likely will.

Furthermore, “She said she had phoned Afghan authorities from inside the house during the raid to try to have it stopped, but the US troops had the compound surrounded and did not let Afghan forces interfere.”

The only thing worse would be, according to provincial police spokesman Ghafoor Khan, if the operation hadn’t been coordinated with Afghan security forces. ISAF says it was, he says it wasn’t.

A night raid led by US forces, who interfered with and possibly failed to coordinate with Afghan forces, a dead Afghan and relative of a parliament member, protests, and germination of denial. And whoever did pull the trigger on Sediqi will most likely get away. A few thousand dollars will be dolled out and ISAF spokespeople await the next “accident.”

How many strikes on General McChrystal’s “new strategy? Six or seven? That’s beyond unjustifiable nine years into the Afghan war.

It’s unconscionable.

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