Collateral Damage in Pakistan: Cloughley

Brian Cloughley writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

I started thinking about the phrase after a recent, disturbing trip to Pakistan. ‘Collateral damage’ is a seemingly bland phrase, but it indicates stomach-churning contempt for human life. It was fashionable during the Vietnam war, when countless thousands of civilians were blown to bits, burned to death by napalm, or otherwise destroyed or maimed by a military machine that was out of control.

In later years the jargon words fell into disfavour with those who killed civilians in conflict, if only because the world had realised that when some robotic mouthpiece mentioned ‘collateral damage’ in a media briefing it was certain that official savagery had resulted in the deaths of an unknown number of innocent people. But the phrase came back into fashion.

During NATO’s war against the Serbs there was a particularly repulsive spokesman called Jamie Shea whose smug account of the destruction of a bridge in May 1999 was a typical attempt to justify the killing of civilians. Of this particular blunder the BBC recorded that “At least 11 civilians were reported killed and a further 40 injured when Nato bombers mounted a daylight raid on a bridge in south-central Serbia . . . Rescuers who went to aid the injured were hit in the second attack.”

And Shea announced that the bombs were directed at a “legitimate designated military target.” There was no regret for the massacre, or even for the killing of patients when NATO planes bombed a hospital in Belgrade.

Then came the sublime moment, the resurrection of the We-are-the-Masters jargon, after a US airstrike on a train killed a dozen civilians. It provided an opportunity for Shea to declare “We regret any loss of life that this may have caused because our policy remains to minimize collateral damage.” The fool couldn’t see the absurd callousness of his statement – and he could hardly admit that ‘collateral damage’ is usually caused by criminal incompetence and sometimes with criminal intent.

The phrase wasn’t used much during the Iraq fiasco and has been avoided during the equally senseless war in Afghanistan. Which doesn’t mean to say there have not been enormous numbers of civilian deaths. Many blameless civilians have been killed in Afghanistan – and Pakistan – by foreign forces and their video-gamers in the sky.

In Afghanistan in October, for example, the reporter Kathy Kelly related that : “. . . the first picture showed his cousin’s ruined home. A US aerial bombardment had destroyed the dwelling. The next pictures were of two bloodied children. ‘All of his children were killed,’ the spokesperson said. ‘All his family, his wife, his five children, by an attack from the air’.”

In Pakistan most of the killing of civilians by US drone-fired missiles goes unrecorded. There is no doubt many of the 100 drone strikes this year have killed some very nasty people, but it would be ridiculous to claim there have been no civilian casualties. The attacks take place in remote areas of the country, and the dead are rarely seen by independent witnesses. But the slaughter of his fellow citizens by US missiles is not a cause for concern to Pakistan’s President Zardari who is reported in Bob Woodward’s ‘Obama’s Wars’ as telling the Director of the CIA in 2008 that “Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.”

Give that man an ‘A’ for bluntness. And a ‘Z’ for decency, honour, loyalty and compassion.

The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Yousef Raza Gilani, had no problems with drone strikes either, and in 2008 told the US ambassador in Islamabad (as learned through Wikileaks) “I don’t care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.” What a fine example of caring democracy, to be sure.

But only too often American missiles and assassination squads do not “get the right people”. The US military and the CIA have an appalling record in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the numbers of ‘collateral damage’ deaths have been enormous; and there has been a policy of official lying about civilian casualties until forced by facts to admit the truth.

It is difficult to conduct investigations into drone killings in Pakistan’s isolated valleys, but a Washington-based organisation, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, managed to probe some of the strikes and determined there had been “30 civilian deaths in just nine cases that we investigated – all since 2009 – including 14 women and children.” In one account, “In June 2010, Shakeel Khan was sitting in his home in North Waziristan with his family when a drone missile struck: ‘I was resting with my parents in one room when it happened. God saved my parents and I, but my brother, his wife, and children were all killed’.”

But there is not only butchery in the drone campaign ; there is colossal damage being done to Pakistan, with massive propaganda advantage to insurrectionists, extremists, thugs and anarchists of all descriptions. The country is in ferment and on the edge of social disaster. There could hardly be a worse time for the US, in concert with an unpopular, corruption-struck and feeble government, to carry on blitzing.

The US has achieved control and lost credibility. But the government of Pakistan has lost both. That’s collateral damage, too.


Brian Cloughley is author of War, Coups and Terror: Pakistan’s Army in Years of Turmoil.

7 Responses

  1. “with massive propaganda advantage to insurrectionists,
    extremists, thugs and anarchists of all descriptions” Any room in
    that nasty collection for normal innocents who are rising to
    rebellion and action because they are being bombed and killed? Just
    a question.

  2. Minor detail: “a military machine that was out of control.”
    The military machine was in complete control of the US government,
    as it still is. Let’s not give the SOBs any excuses.

  3. “achieved control?” Of what? Where? Other than facilitating
    the game that the jackals and cowboys love to play, hiding behind a
    smokescreen of “national interest security legitimacy,” where they
    can pretend that by definition, ipso facto, QED, the “hajjis” they
    “light up” are nothing but Turrists or Auxiliary Turrists or that
    wonderful fraud of a catch-all, “insurgents,” or would be if they
    weren’t killed first. This first link is to the War Department’s
    own “mandatory dictionary of military terms:”
    link to The connoisseur of
    irony, euphemism, futility and obfuscation will find lots to savor
    here, pretty much on any page. The narrower focus (click on “I”)
    gets to the definition of “insurgency,” conveniently broad enough
    to encompass Whatever The Brass Decides To Do: “The organized use
    of subversion and violence by a group or movement that seeks to
    overthrow or force change of a governing authority. Insurgency can
    also refer to the group itself.” Interesting to contrast this
    recently revised definition with that of a few years earlier,
    before the present stage setting of the Forever War: “An organized
    movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through
    use of subversion and armed conflict.” Under the new fig leaf, you
    will find that an “occupying power” is a “governing authority.” The
    cynic just has to love the circularity conjured up in such
    contexts. The Wiki article, despite some redundancy, has some
    interesting takes on the “legitimacy” of various actors and actions
    involved in David Petraeus’ exegesis of modern asymmetrical
    unconventional irregular warfare (I guess I missed something — is
    there any other kind?): link to For
    all you folks out there who believe your grand military is busy
    with nothing but activities that Protect Your Freedoms, you might
    do yourselves a favor and wander the fat and growing stacks of the
    War Department’s increasingly insane musings (as in “gone off into
    their own private version of reality”). Here’s a tiny example of
    the kind of stuff Our Brave Troops spend their days doing, there in
    the various Rings of Power in the Pentagram and the top tiers of
    the Crystal City Jungle:
    link to
    And of course there’s the famous PowerPoint slide, that McChrystal
    supposedly said “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the
    link to
    A slide privately COPYRIGHTED by a British contractor paid several
    million dollars (a drop in the bucket) to develop, and presumably
    fail to explain to the generals who supposedly are trying valiantly
    and mightily to Win That War and Be Successful, whatever the
    Hellfire that means. Drone warfare: an idea whose time has
    obviously come. The New Legitimacy for the Forever War. Unless the
    whole idea is to do like other terrorists do: keep stirring the
    witch’s brew of human passions, to keep anything from settling out.
    Or pretend to be fixing the chronometer, by striking it repeatedly
    with a big hammer?

  4. The “mere gook rule” lives on. Who is a “gook” you may well
    ask? Anyone the USG does’nt like at any given moment.

  5. Media attention to ‘collateral damage’ focuses almost entirely on deaths. Even then it does not convey the truth that in any country, the cultural emotional tauma of a single person killed ripples out much farther than media cares to even think about. It isn’t just “them” Afghans or Iraqis; all you have to do in America to see we are no different is to look at a missing child on a milk carton, or comprehend the prominence of a news story about a single person’s heartwrenching tragedy two thousand miles from where you live. But we Americans do clearly fail to show any comprehension that one unjust death of ‘furriners’ has a thousand ramifications, almost all of them resulting in anti-US sentiment.

    But collateral damage is much more than death and US media completely ignores that, save in small dispersed jolts. Large scale displacement of people (refugees resulting from US policy)in war zones we approve of (Swat Valley). Or damage to essential public infrastructure: power, water, sewage, medical, regulatory, transportation (Swat Valley, and virtually all scenes of Ameican military actions, including all its ‘successes’ in Iraq). And also the multiplying effect of completely natural, and therefore entirely predictable, natural disasters that just happen to fall smack dab on top of those man-made disasters above (Swat Valley).

    If ‘collateral damage’ was anything but a euphemism to escape the real emotional repercussions of what the US actually does to countries it says it is saving, we would have lots of follow-up stories on the Swat Valley, and Fallujah, and every other place America has wrecked, or encouraged others to wreck on its behalf, chasing evil chimeras. Those stories aren’t to be found. What the rest of the world sees is that Americans are magnificently hypocritical, and that they simply don’t care. This type of societal trajectory has no happy ending.

  6. Unfortunately Obama and the mainstream media are lying to the American public about the real (strategic) reasons for the US war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We need to look at the Pentagon objective (which they are quite open about) of getting energy and mineral rich Balochistan to secede from Pakistan as a US client state – just like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and other oil and mineral rich former Soviet republics. At present Balochistan and wider Pakistan essentially function as Chinese client state (given their massive investment in the Gwadar Port and all the super highways and other infrastructure)- for the purpose of transporting Iranian oil and natural gas to China. Nevertheless the drone strikes and CIA support for the Baloch separatist movement (they are training young separatists in bomb making and other terrorist activities) is very effectively disrupting operations at the Gwadar Port. Moreover Pakistan is rapidly become a failed state, which makes it even more likely Balochistan will secede. Thus from a strategic perspective, our military operations in the Pakistani tribal areas are an enormous success. I blog about this at link to

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