March 3, 2011
Afghan Civilian Casualties Still Too Common
Nine children - 8 to 14 - are the latest victims of America's war in Afghanistan.
Lt. General David Rodriguez, deputy commander of U.S. forces in the country, briefs Tuesday's incident in Pech valley: assault helicopters fired rockets on a suspected group of Taliban, only to discover they had targeted 10 boys gathering firewood. The Pentagon is running in front of this latest tragedy with a personal apology from General David Petraeus, unlike the previous incident in Kunar. But this quick admission, being a reaction to fresh wounds, contradicts Rodriguez’s claim that, “These incidents are rare.”
Can’t be that rare in Kunar to happen twice in as many weeks.
Even those in Kabul, like Enyatullah, know too well, "It is not the first time they have killed our poor and innocent people, we don't accept their apologies. They have apologized in the past but continue killing our people again and again."
Petraeus’s personal response is the day to his night of February 17th, the 5-hour assault in Ghaziabad district. Here, according to locals and an Afghan investigation, U.S. attack helicopters bombarded a remote village and killed 65 civilians - including 21 boys and 19 girls under 18. Petraeus notoriously accused locals of conspiring to burn their own children to cover the Taliban’s losses, a claim the Pentagon refuted without providing any details. And ISAF continues to dispute the Afghan investigation's findings, saying surveillance indicated only insurgents had been killed. That’s just what U.S. forces initially thought in Pech before dispatching an investigation team.
If anything seems rare, it’s the rapidity of ISAF's decision to come clean. But they had no choice in light of the circumstances. With Hamid Karzai condemning this latest “ruthless attack” as he did in Ghaziabad, Petraeus’s response speaks to a deliberate change in tone from before.
"We are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologize to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and, most importantly, the surviving family members of those killed by our actions. These deaths should have never happened."
So why do they keep occurring?
Some of the belligerent responses to these reports blame Afghans themselves, or the Taliban for using civilian shields. This blissful thinking ignores the existence of guerrilla warfare, choosing the preferred “American” way of making war over the necessary strategy of counterinsurgency, and discards the fact that Petraeus himself recognizes civilian casualties as a key factor in victory or defeat. Conventional warfare aims to crush a population; counterinsurgency aims to win that population’s trust.
However, Petraeus is also the brainchild behind NATO’s escalation of night-raids and air-assaults, and he’s futilely attempting to have it both ways. Mixups are always going to happen. One coalition official explained, "What seemed to have happened was that there was an error between what the people on the ground were passing up and what the helicopters got.”
Isn’t this often the problem?
A relative decrease in civilian casualties compared to the Taliban isn’t enough to win Afghans’ permanent trust. The Pentagon cannot avoid the reality that Afghans blame foreign forces regardless of whose at fault for their deaths. And anti-foreign sentiment runs particularly high in Kunar. By accusing local political officials and residents of allegiance to the Taliban, one is admitting the closeness between the two. Nor do apologies mean much in a province where foreigners are universally unwanted, where TV and Internet use is low.
Like the attack in Ghaziabad, the truth is often determined by perceptions that favor the Taliban.
Said Mohammed Bismil, the 20-year-old brother of two boys killed in the strike, "I don't care about the apology. The only option I have is to pick up a Kalashnikov, RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] or a suicide vest to fight."