Dispute over Civilian Casualties Roils US-Afghan Relations

Between 4 and 12 civilians were killed by US troops in a nighttime raid in Nangarhar province on Wednesday, NATO admitted today. Nangarhar has repeatedly been the scene of public protests against the foreign troop presence. In fact, the wikileaks Pentagon documents show that local protests against US and NATO troops have been widespread, routine, and largely unreported in the Western press. In Nangarhar, protesters have sometimes blocked main roads, demanding that the Yankees go home.

NATO is still denying a massacre of civilians in Sangin, Helmand Province, last month. But on Friday the presidential palace in Afghanistan issued a report finding that 39 civilians were killed in the fighting. Civilian casualties are the main cause of dissatisfaction on the part of most Afghans with the NATO & US troops in their country, and the Sangin finding signals an unwillingness of President Hamid Karzai to play the issue down down or sweep it under the rug.

Brave New Foundation has video interviews with the survivors at Sangin:

That the Pentagon and NATO cover up Afghan civilian deaths on a routine basis is clear from the Wikileaks documents on the Afghanistan war, and it is hard not to see the Pentagon’s stonewalling on Sangin as part of this long-term and widespread pattern.

The usually unflappable Tom Engelhardt is exercised that White House and Pentagon officials denigrated Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as having blood on his hands when the very documents they are trying to cover up or from which they wish to avert attention are chock full of reports of innocent civilians killed, with GIs sometimes covering up the killings via euphemisms or incomplete reporting. Engelhardt is also right that the US press reaction to the leaked documents was to mostly ignore the issue of Afghan civilian deaths, unlike the Guardian in the UK.

What you want to bet that at some point the Pentagon comes forward, and admits that there were after all some Afghan civilians killed at Sangin, but that they will do it after the controversy has died down, and they will minimize the numbers (that 4-12 thing is a pretty good trick, since they hope people will focus on the ‘4’ and will also disregard Afghan claims of many more killed.)

For more reporting on the Forgotten War, see Ann Jones at Tomdispatch, who has lived and breathed it on the ground.

In all wars, control of press reporting on the war effort is one key to success and public support. Since the fighting in Afghanistan is so hard to cover up close for independent reporters, they are mostly forced to do a Soviet-style embed, where they risk losing their objectivity and are sometimes turned into active-duty soldiers themselves. Being embedded thus becomes highly desirable, and can be doled out to reporters as a privilege for cheerleading the war. Thus, reporters such as Michael Hastings, who wrote the McChrystal story for Rolling Stone that got the general fired, has been turned down for a spot as an embed.

That will teach him to tell the unvarnished truth about that war.

8 Responses

  1. Admittedly there were earlier reports of the CIA supporting death squads in various Latin American countries, but it is depressing to learn that the American Army has constituted what in effect are death squads in Afghanistan. The argument that the Allies, as distinct from the Resistance, including the warlords and Taliban, conforms to International Humanitarian Law would appear not to be correct. Afghanistan has turned into a war of terrorism, possibly an inevitable consequence of occupation.

    • When the links are connected the chain will lead to Dick Chaneys office from where the orders were relayed to Stanley McChrystal to assassinate Pat Tillman. Nothing new here except the ignorance of an uninformed populace.

  2. Whenever NATO forces kill a large number of Afghani civilians, even though American troops on the ground may cover it up, Afghani officials publicize it to the world. The White House and the Pentagon know they need to keep Americans interested in the war, and that means publicizing the deaths of bad guys so that Americans at home can slake their thirst for blood. Americans don’t care whether any so-called bad guys happen to be civilians, which is why a popular cartoonist has portrayed the bombing of an Afghani wedding party in a lighthearted vein.

    American officials know that by stonewalling they can lengthen the life of each such controversy. Within the USA, the mainstream news media play along by reporting the much higher number of civilian deaths that Afghani officials themselves disclose and proclaim in pointedly disagreeing with American officials. Thus the White House and the Pentagon get each atrocity across to Americans watching the news in their dens.

    The public emphasis that the White House and the Pentagon place on avoiding civilian deaths is itself another way of reminding Americans that blood is being spilled.

    It’s the controversy that counts. Now the White House and the Pentagon are making statement after statement about Wikileaks, feeding the general controversy about civilian deaths. Had Washington ignored Wikileaks, only a handful of Americans would have noticed, considering the mass of unorganized material. Americans don’t care about past cover-ups that weren’t really cover-ups, they just want blood. The proof is that Congress keeps voting for war. Some Democrats posture about having wanted to vote against war, but it’s all theater. There are powerful vested interests who buy the votes needed.

  3. There are two recent postings by Glenn Greenwald that are relevant.

    From yesterday is this column on the collapse of support of Obama and the US in the Muslim world. There was hope that there would be change, but with the same policies, and even the escalation in Afghanistan, coupled with the continued support of Israel, it is the same old failed policies.

    Here is the link for that article.

    link to salon.com

    One friend who follows these issues closely, says that Obama, like John F. Kennedy, has to go along with the military or else he might be taken out. My hunch is that the power of the right wing media coupled with the permanent war economy, coupled with unbridled capitalism and the power of money to elect candidates, has drawn Obama down the path to support the status quo in far too many areas.

    Greenwald has a couple of postings on the reporter Hasting’s loss of embed status with the military which shows the attempt to control the story in Afghanistan and Iraq. You can find him at http://www.salon.com.

    I gladly pay $45 per year to get support salon.com. Juan Cole also writes several columns for salon.

  4. What about the wounded civilians? If we only grudgingly accept civilian kill numbers, wounded civilians are truly invisible.

    Time’s gruesome cover picture of a mutilated lady is supposed to shock us into realization of Taliban cruelty, but surely the victims of US military violence must have unpleasant marks to show.

    We know the wounded aren’t whisked off to Walter Reed or some super hospital in Germany. And it goes without saying that if don’t acknowledge the wounded’s existence, we certainly have no obligation to care for them.

    As for wounded Taliban, I’m sure we would destroy any ambulance or hospital we could vaguely identify as being theirs.

    • Very good points, the wounded are too often ignored.
      Also, apart from civilian casualties, there’s the unspeakable issue of self defense. If one accepts that the violence against Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan is legitimate; then this is a non-issue. But if one argues that these are illegal wars of aggression, then the “insurgent” casualties should also be cause for alarm. Apparently, Afghans, Iraqis, and Pakistanis have no right to resist a foreign invasion. Yet when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the USA did not call the Kuwaitis who fought back “insurgents”.

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