Are Afghan Lives Worth Anything?
Mourning Michael Jackson, Ignoring the Afghan Dead
It was a blast. I'm talking about my daughter's wedding. You don't often see a child of yours quite that happy. I'm no party animal, but I danced my 64-year-old legs off. And I can't claim that, as I walked my daughter to the ceremony, or ate, or talked with friends, or simply sat back and watched the young and energetic enjoy themselves, I thought about those Afghan wedding celebrations where the "blast" isn't metaphorical, where the bride, the groom, the partygoers in the midst of revelry die.
In the two weeks since, however, that's been on my mind -- or rather the lack of interest our world shows in dead civilians from a distant imperial war -- and all because of a passage I stumbled upon in a striking article by journalist Anand Gopal. In "Uprooting an Afghan Village" in the June issue of the Progressive magazine, he writes about Garloch, an Afghan village he visited in the eastern province of Laghman. After destructive American raids, Gopal tells us, many of its desperate inhabitants simply packed up and left for exile in Afghan or Pakistani refugee camps.
One early dawn in August 2008, writes Gopal, American helicopters first descended on Garloch for a six-hour raid:
"The Americans claim there were gunshots as they left. The villagers deny it. Regardless, American bombers swooped by the village just after the soldiers left and dropped a payload on one house. It belonged to Haiji Qadir, a pole-thin, wizened old man who was hosting more than forty relatives for a wedding party. The bomb split the house in two, killing sixteen, including twelve from Qadir's family, and wounding scores more... The malek [chief] went to the province's governor and delivered a stern warning: protect our villagers or we will turn against the Americans."
That passage caught my eye because, to the best of my knowledge, I'm the only person in the U.S. who has tried to keep track of the wedding parties wiped out, in whole or part, by American military action since the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan in November 2001. With Gopal's report from Garloch, that number, by my count, has reached five (only three of which are well documented in print).
The first occurred in December of that invasion year when a B-52 and two B-1B bombers, wielding precision-guided weapons, managed, according to reports, to wipe out 110 out of 112 revelers in another small Afghan village. At least one Iraqi wedding party near the Syrian border was also eviscerated -- by U.S. planes back in 2004. Soon after that slaughter, responding to media inquiries, an American general asked: "How many people go to the middle of the desert... to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?" Later, in what passed for an acknowledgment of the incident, another American general said: "Could there have been a celebration of some type going on?... Certainly. Bad guys have celebrations." Case closed.
Perhaps over the course of an almost eight-year war in Afghanistan, the toll in wedding parties may seem modest: not even one a year! But before we settle for that figure, evidently so low it's not worth a headline in this country, let's keep in mind that there's no reason to believe:
* I've seen every article in English that, in passing, happens to mention an Afghan wedding slaughter -- the one Gopal notes, for instance, seems to have gotten no other coverage; or
* that other wedding slaughters haven't been recorded in languages I can't read; or
* that, in the rural Pashtun backlands, some U.S. attacks on wedding celebrants might not have made it into news reports anywhere.
In fact, no one knows how many weddings -- rare celebratory moments in an Afghan world that, for three decades, has had little to celebrate -- have been taken out by U.S. planes or raids, or a combination of the two.
Turning the Page on the Past
After the Obama administration took office and the new president doubled down the American bet on the Afghan War, there was a certain amount of anxious chatter in the punditocracy (and even in the military) about Afghanistan being "the graveyard of empires." Of course, no one in Washington was going to admit that the U.S. is just such an empire, only that we may suffer the fate of empires past.
When it comes to wedding parties, though, there turn out to be some similarities to the empire under the last Afghan gravestone. The Soviet Union was, of course, defeated in Afghanistan by some of the very jihadists the U.S. is now fighting, thanks to generous support from the CIA, the Saudis, and Pakistan's intelligence services. It withdrew from that country in defeat in 1989, and went over its own cliff in 1991. As it happens, the Russians, too, evidently made it a habit to knock off Afghan wedding parties, though we have no tally of how many or how regularly.
Reviewing a book on the Soviet-Afghan War for the Washington Monthly, Christian Caryl wrote recently:
"One Soviet soldier recalls an instance in 1987 when his unit opened fire on what they took to be a 'mujaheddin caravan.' The Russians soon discovered that they had slaughtered a roving wedding party on its way from one village to another -- a blunder that soon, all too predictably, inspired a series of revenge attacks on the Red Army troops in the area. This undoubtedly sounds wearily familiar to U.S. and NATO planners (and Afghan government officials) struggling to contain the effects from the 'collateral damage' that is often cited today as one of the major sources of the West's political problems in the country."
And, by the way, don't get me started on that gloomy companion rite to the wedding celebration: the funeral. Even I haven't been counting those, but that doesn't mean the U.S. and its allies haven't been knocking off funeral parties in Afghanistan (and recently, via a CIA drone aircraft, in Pakistan as well).
Following almost two weeks in which the U.S. (and global) media went berserk over the death of one man, in which NBC, for instance, devoted all but about five minutes of one of its prime-time half-hour news broadcasts to nothing -- and I mean nothing -- but the death of Michael Jackson, in which the President of the United States sent a condolence letter to the Jackson family (and was faulted for not having moved more quickly), in which 1.6 million people registered for a chance to get one of 17,500 free tickets to his memorial service... well, why go on? Unless you've been competing in isolation in the next round of Survivor, or are somehow without a TV, or possibly any modern means of communication, you simply can't avoid knowing the rest.
You'd have to make a desperate effort not to know that Michael Jackson (until recently excoriated by the media) had died, and you'd have to make a similarly desperate effort to know that we've knocked off one wedding party after another these last years in Afghanistan. One of these deaths -- Jackson's -- really has little to do with us; the others are, or should be, our responsibility, part of an endless war the American people have either supported or not stopped from continuing. And yet one is a screaming global headline; the others go unnoticed.
You'd think there might, in fact, be room for a small headline somewhere. Didn't those brides, grooms, relatives, and revelers deserve at least one modest, collective corner of some front-page or a story on some prime-time news show in return for their needless suffering? You'd think that some president or high official in Washington might have sent a note of condolence to someone, that there might have been a rising tide of criticism about the slow response here in expressing regrets to the families of Afghans who died under our bombs and missiles.
Here's the truth of it, though: When it comes to Afghan lives -- especially if we think, correctly or not, that our safety is involved -- it doesn't matter whether five wedding parties or 50 go down, two funerals or 25. Our media isn't about to focus real attention on the particular form of barbarity involved -- the American air war over Afghanistan which has been a war of and for, not on, terror.
Now, we're embarked on a new moment -- the Obama moment -- in Afghanistan. More than seven-and-a-half years into the war, in a truly American fashion, we're ready to turn the page on the past, to pretend that none of it really happened, to do it "right" this time around. We're finally going to bring the Afghans over to our side.
We're ready to light out for the territories and start all over again. American troops are now moving south in force, deep into the Pashtun (and Taliban) areas of Afghanistan, and their commanders -- a passel of new generals -- are speaking as one from a new script. It's all about conducting a "holistic counterinsurgency campaign," as new Afghan commander General Stanley A. McChrystal put it in Congressional testimony recently. It's all about "hearts and minds"(though that old Vietnam-era phrase has yet to be resuscitated). It's all about, they say, "protecting civilians" rather than killing Taliban guerrillas; it's all about shaping, clearing, holding, building, not just landing, kicking in doors, and taking off again; it's all about new "rules of engagement" in which the air war will be limited, and attacks on the Taliban curbed or called off if it appears that they might endanger civilians (even if that means the guerrillas get away); it's all about reversing the tide of the war so far, about the fact that civilian casualties caused by air attacks and raids have turned large numbers of Afghans against American and NATO troops.
The commander of the Marines just now heading south, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, typically said this:
"We need to make sure we understand that the reason we're here is not necessarily the enemy. The reason we're here is the people. What won the war in al-Anbar province [Iraq] and what changed the war in al-Anbar was not that the enemy eventually got tired of fighting. It's that the people chose a side, and they chose us... We'll surround that house and we'll wait. And here's the reason: If you drop that house and there's one woman, one child, one family in that house -- you may have killed 20 Taliban, but by killing that woman or that child in that house, you have lost that community. You are dead to them. You are done."
The Value of a Life
As it happens, however, the past matters -- and keep this in mind (it's what the wedding-party-obliteration record tells us): To Americans, an Afghan life isn't worth a red cent, not when the chips are down.
Back in the Vietnam era, General William Westmoreland, interviewed by movie director Peter Davis for his Oscar-winning film Hearts and Minds, famously said: "The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient."
In those years, there were many in the U.S., including Davis, who insisted very publicly that a Vietnamese life had the same value as an American one. In the years of the Afghan War, Americans -- our media and, by its relative silence, the public as well -- turned Westmoreland's statement into a way of life as well as a way of war. As one perk of that way of life, most Americans have been able to pretend that our war in Afghanistan has nothing to do with us -- and Michael Jackson's death, everything.
So he dies and our world goes mad. An Afghan wedding party, or five of them, are wiped off the face of the Earth and even a shrug is too much effort.
Here's a question then: Will what we don't know (or don't care to know) hurt us? I'm unsure whether the more depressing answer is yes or no. As it happens, I have no answer to that question anyway, only a bit of advice -- not for us, but for Afghans: If, as General McChrystal and other top military figures expect, the Afghan War and its cross-border sibling in Pakistan go on for another three or four or five years or more, no matter what script we're going by, no matter what we say, believe me, we'll call in the planes. So if I were you, I wouldn't celebrate another marriage, not in a group, not in public, and I'd bury my dead very, very privately.
If you gather, after all, we will come.
© 2009 Tom Engelhardt