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Afghan Massacre: Just a PR Problem for U.S. Occupation?

- Common Dreams staff

The massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, by a US soldier near Kandahar has not led to questions over the U.S. war on Afghanistan. Rather, corporate media have framed it as a "public relations disaster" for the continued occupation of Afghanistan.

FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) analyzes the media coverage:

The news that a U.S. Army sergeant killed 16 civilians, most of them children, in southern Afghanistan early Sunday morning was treated by many media outlets primarily as a PR challenge for continued war and occupation of that country.

"Afghanistan, once the must-fight war for America, is becoming a public relations headache for the nation's leaders, especially for President Barack Obama," explained an Associated Press analysis piece (3/12/12). Reuters (3/12/12) called it "the latest American public relations disaster in Afghanistan."

On the NBC Today show (3/11/12) the question was posed this way: "Could this reignite a new anti-American backlash in the unstable region?" The answer: "This is not going to bode well for the U.S. and NATO here in Afghanistan," explained reporter Atia Abawi. "Obviously people here very fearful as to what's going to happen next, what protests will come about throughout different parts of Afghanistan, and how the Taliban are going to use this to their advantage." "People," as used here, would not seem to include Afghans, who are presumably less frightened by protests against a massacre of children than they are by the massacre itself.

The front-page headline at USA Today (3/12/12) read, "Killings Threaten Afghan Mission." The story warned that the allegations "threaten to test U.S. strategy to end the conflict." In the New York Times (3/12/12), the massacre was seen as "igniting fears of a new wave of anti-American hostility." The paper went on to portray occupation forces as victims:

The possibility of a violent reaction to the killings added to a feeling of siege here among Western personnel. Officials described growing concern over a cascade of missteps and offenses that has cast doubt on the ability of NATO personnel to carry out their mission and has left troops and trainers increasingly vulnerable to violence by Afghans seeking revenge.
The fact that the massacres occurred two days after a NATO helicopter strike killed four civilians was "adding to the sense of concern."

Another Times piece (3/12/12) began with this:

The outrage from the back-to-back episodes of the Koran burning and the killing on Sunday of at least 16 Afghan civilians imperils what the Obama administration once saw as an orderly plan for 2012.

That sounds as if "outrage" is the most serious problem--the reaction to the actions, not the actions themselves.

Treating the killing of civilians as chiefly a PR problem is not a new phenomenon. As FAIR noted ("The Bad PR of Dead Civilians," 5/11/09), the news that dozens were killed in NATO airstrikes brought headlines like "Civilian Deaths Imperil Support for Afghan War" (New York Times, 5/7/09), "Claim of Afghan Civilian Deaths Clouds U.S. Talks" (Wall Street Journal, 5/7/09) and "Afghan Civilian Deaths Present U.S. With Strategic Problem" (Washington Post, 5/8/09).

Covering the latest atrocity, the Washington Post (3/12/12) reported that "the killings Sunday threatened to spark a new crisis in the strained relationship between the United States and Afghanistan." A separate piece quoted an anonymous U.S. official complaining that massacres "plays to the absolute worst fears and stereotypes" of the U.S. military, and that "it's the type of boogeyman [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai has always raised, but we've never had an incident like this."

But there have been similar single incidents, most notably a 2007 attack by Marines that killed 19 civilians. And night raids by NATO forces have killed Afghans throughout the war.

On the Sunday talkshows, Republicans and Democrats spoke about the massacre--often with little to distinguish their points of view. On ABC's This Week (3/11/12), Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told viewers that "unfortunately, these things happen in war.... You just have to push through these things." He added that "the surge of forces has really put the Taliban on the defensive.... We can win this thing. We can get it right." Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) remarked:

I think the president has a good plan. Obviously, it's a very difficult situation because we have real terrorism that emanated from Afghanistan. The president doesn't get enough credit. He's done an amazing job with the drones and Al-Qaeda.

On NBC's Meet the Press (3/11/12), Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, a Republican, said the news was "tragic because we have so many brave men and women, David, for now 10-plus years in the global war on terror, have done marvelous work for the cause freedom in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places.... It's too bad and we'll have to see the details. But I'm really proud of what our kids are doing there."

* * *

As Kathy Kelly explained on Democracy Now! this morning, the act was not an exceptional incident; "in fact, this tragedy reflects and encapsulates the U.S. war of choice in Afghanistan."

“President Obama and U.S. military brass are depicting a U.S. soldier killing 16 Afghan civilians as an exceptional event. But in fact, this tragedy reflects and encapsulates the U.S. war of choice in Afghanistan. Groups of U.S. soldiers have been breaking into Afghan homes and killing people, without cause or provocation, for the last 11 years. Civilians have been afflicted by aerial bombing by helicopter gunships, drone surveillance and attacks, and night raids.

“In the recent past, Afghan civilians have been appalled and agitated by news of U.S. soldiers that went on killing sprees, cutting off body parts of their victims to save as war trophies. They’ve been repulsed by photos of U.S. soldiers urinating on the corpses of Afghans whom they have killed. The burning of the Quran further enraged civilians. One of the greatest factors contributing to public dismay and hostility towards the foreign forces is the practice of night raids. As many as 40 of these raids happen around the country on some nights, and the U.S. military reports an average of 10 a night. U.S. /NATO soldiers burst into people’s homes and attack people in their sleep."

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