Killing Civilians: Questions to Ask in the Dead of Night

Almost like clockwork, the reports float up to us from thousands of
miles away, as if from another universe. Every couple of days they seem
to arrive from Afghan villages that few Americans will ever see without
weapon in hand. Every few days, they appear from a world almost beyond
our imagining, and always they concern death -- so many lives snuffed
out so regularly for more than seven years now. Unfortunately, those
news stories are so unimportant in our world that they seldom make it
onto, no less off of, the inside pages of our papers. They're so
repetitive that, once you've started reading them, you could write them
in your sleep from thousands of miles away.

Like obituaries, they follow a simple pattern. Often the news initially
arrives buried in summary war reports based on U.S. military (or NATO)
announcements of small triumphs -- so many "insurgents," or
"terrorists," or "foreign militants," or "anti-Afghan forces" killed in
an air strike or a raid on a house or a village. And these days, often
remarkably quickly, even in the same piece, come the challenges. Some
local official or provincial governor or police chief in the area hit
insists that those dead "terrorists" or "militants" were actually so
many women, children, old men, innocent civilians, members of a wedding party or a funeral.

In response -- no less part of this formula -- have been the denials
issued by American military officials or coalition spokespeople that
those killed were anything but insurgents, and the assurances of the
accuracy of the intelligence information on which the strike or raid
was based. In these years, American spokespeople have generally
retreated from their initial claims only step by begrudging step, while
doggedly waiting for any hubbub over the killings to die down. If that
didn't happen, an "investigation" would be launched (the investigators
being, of course, members of the same military that had done the
killing) and then prolonged, clearly in hopes that the investigation
would outlast coverage of the "incident" and both would be forgotten in
a flood of other events.

Forgotten? It's true that we forget these killings easily -- often we
don't notice them in the first place -- since they don't seem to
impinge on our lives. Perhaps that's one of the benefits of fighting a
war on the periphery of empire, halfway across the planet in the
backlands of some impoverished country.

One problem, though: the forgetting doesn't work so well in those
backlands. When your child, wife or husband, mother or father is
killed, you don't forget.

Only this week, our media was filled with
ceremonies and remembrances centered around the tenth anniversary of
the slaughter at Columbine High School. Twelve kids and a teacher blown
away in a mad rampage. Who has forgotten? On the other side of the
planet, there are weekly Columbines.

Similarly, every December 7th, we Americans still remember the dead of
Pearl Harbor, almost seven decades in the past. We still have
ceremonies for, and mourn, the dead of September 11, 2001. We haven't
forgotten. We're not likely to forget. Why, when death rains down on
our distant battlefields, should they?

Admittedly, there's been a change in the assertion/repeated
denial/investigation pattern instituted by American forces. Now,
assertion and denial are sometimes followed relatively quickly by acknowledgement, apology,
and payment. Now, when the irrefutable meets the unchallengeable,
American spokespeople tend to own up to it. Yep, we killed them. Yep,
they were women and kids. Nope, they had, as far as we know,
nothing to do with terrorism. Yep, it was our fault and we'll pony up
for our mistake.

This new tactic is a response to rising Afghan outrage over the
repeated killing of civilians in U.S. raids and air strikes. But like
the denials and the investigations, this, too, is intended to make
everything go away, while our war itself -- those missiles loosed,
those doors kicked down in the middle of the night -- just goes on.

Once again, evidently, everyone is supposed to forget (or perhaps
simply forgive). It's war, after all. People die. Mistakes are made. As
for those dead civilians, New York Times reporter Jane Perlez recently quoted
a former Pakistani general on the hundreds of tribespeople killed in
the Pakistani borderlands in air strikes by CIA-run drones: they are,
he said, "likely hosting Qaeda militants and cannot be deemed entirely

Exactly. Who in our world is "entirely innocent" anyway?

Apologies Not Accepted

A UN survey tallied up
2,118 civilians killed in Afghanistan in 2008, a significant rise over
the previous year's figure, of which 828 were ascribed to American,
NATO, and Afghan Army actions rather than to suicide bombers or Taliban
guerrillas. (Given the difficulty of counting the dead in wartime, any
figures like these are likely to be undercounts.) There are, in other
words, constant "incidents" to choose from.

Recently, for instance, there was an attack
by a CIA drone in the Pakistani borderlands that Pakistani sources
claim may have killed up to eight civilians; or there were the six
civilians, including a three-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy, killed
by an American air strike that leveled three houses in Afghanistan's
Kunar Province. Sixteen more Afghans, including children as young as
one, were wounded in that air attack, based on "multiple intelligence
sources" in which, the U.S. military initially claimed, only "enemy
fighters" died. (As a recent study of the death-dealing weapons of the
Iraq War, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, indicates, air strikes are notoriously good at taking out civilians. Eighty-five percent of the deaths
from air strikes in Iraq were, the study estimated, women and children
and, of all methods, including suicide and car bombs, air power "killed
the most civilians per event.")

But let's consider here just one recent incident that went almost uncovered in the U.S. media. According to an Agence France Presse account,
in a raid in the eastern Afghan province of Khost, the U.S. military
first reported a small success: four "armed militants" killed.

It took next to no time, however, for those four militants to morph
into the family of an Afghan National Army artillery commander named
Awal Khan. As it happened, Khan himself was on duty in another province
at the time. According to the report, the tally of the slain, some of
whom may have gone to the roof of their house to defend themselves
against armed men they evidently believed to be robbers or bandits,
included: Awal Khan's "schoolteacher wife, a 17-year-old daughter named
Nadia, a 15-year-old son, Aimal, and his brother, who worked for a
government department. Another daughter was wounded. After the
shooting, the pregnant wife of Khan's cousin, who lived next door, went
outside her home and was shot five times in the abdomen..."

She survived, but her fetus, "hit by bullets," didn't. Khan's wife
worked at a school supported by the international aid organization
CARE, which issued a statement strongly condemning the raid and
demanding "that international military forces operating in Afghanistan
[be] held accountable for their actions and avoid all attacks on
innocent civilians in the country."

In accordance with its new policy, the U.S. issued an apology:

"Further inquiries into the Coalition and ANSF
operation in Khost earlier today suggest that the people killed and
wounded were not enemy combatants as previously reported... Coalition
and Afghan forces do not believe that this family was involved with
militant activities and that they were defending their home against an
unknown threat... 'We deeply regret the tragic loss of life in this
precious family. Words alone cannot begin to express our regret and
sympathy and we will ensure the surviving family members are properly
cared for,' said Brig. Gen. Michael A. Ryan, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan."

A U.S. military spokesman added, "There will undoubtedly be some
financial assistance and other types of assistance [to the survivors]."

The grieving husband, father, and brother said, "I want the coalition
leaders to expose those behind this and punish them." He added that
"the Afghan government should resign if it could not protect its
people." (Don't hold your breath on either count.) And Afghan President
Hamid Karzai, as he has done many times during past incidents,
repeatedly demanded an explanation for the deaths and asked that such raids and air strikes be drastically curtailed.

What Your Safety Is Worth

All of this was little more than a shadow play against which the
ongoing war continues to be relentlessly prosecuted. In Afghanistan
(and increasingly in Pakistan), civilian deaths are inseparable from
this war. Though they may be referred to as "collateral damage,"
increasingly in all wars, and certainly in counterinsurgency campaigns
involving air power, the killing of civilians lies at the heart of the
matter, while the killing of soldiers might be thought of as the
collateral activity.

Pretending that these "mistakes" will cease or be ameliorated as long
as the war is being prosecuted is little short of folly. After all,
"mistake" after "mistake" continues to be made. That first Afghan
wedding party was obliterated in late December 2001 when an American
air strike killed up to 110 Afghan revelers with only two survivors. The fifth one on record was blown away last year. And count on it, there will be a sixth.

By now, we've filled up endless "towers" with dead Afghan civilians. And that's clearly not going to change, apologies or not, especially when U.S. forces are planning to "surge" into the southern and eastern parts of the country later this year, while the CIA's drone war on the Pakistani border expands.

And how exactly do we explain this ever rising pile of civilian dead to
ourselves? It's being done, so we've been told, for our safety and
security here in the U.S. The previous president regularly claimed that we were fighting over there, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, to keep Americans safe here; the former vice president has made clear
that among the great achievements of the Bush administration was the
prevention of a second 9/11; and when, on March 27th, President Obama announced his latest Afghan bailout plan, he, too, played the 9/11 card heavily. As he was reported to have put it recently,
"he is not 'naive about how dangerous this world is' and [he] said he
wakes up every day and goes to bed every night thinking and worrying
'about how to keep the American people safe.'"

Personally, I always thought that we could have locked our plane doors
and gone home long ago. We were never in mortal danger from al-Qaeda in
the backlands of Afghanistan, despite the perfervid imagination of the
previous administration and the riotous fears of so many Americans. The
rag-tag group that attacked us in September 2001 was then capable of
committing acts of terror on a spectacular scale (two U.S. embassy buildings in Africa, a destroyer
in a Yemeni harbor, and of course those two towers in New York and the
Pentagon), but only every couple of years. In other words, al-Qaeda was
capable of stunning this country and of killing Americans, but was
never a threat to the nation itself.

All this, of course, was compounded by the fact that the Bush administration couldn't have cared less
about al-Qaeda at the time. The "Defense Department" imagined its job
to be "power projection" abroad, not protecting American shores (or air
space), and our 16 intelligence agencies were in chaos.

So those towers came down apocalyptically
and it was horrible -- and we couldn't live with it. In response, we
invaded a country ("no safe havens for terrorists"), rather than simply
going after the group that had acted against us. In the process, the
Bush administration went to extreme efforts to fetishize our own safety
and security (and while they were at it, in part through the new
Department of Homeland Security, they turned "security" into a lucrative endeavor).

Of course, elsewhere people have lived through remarkable paroxysms of
violence and terror without the sort of fuss and fear this nation
exhibited -- or the money-grubbing and money-making that went with it.
If you want to be reminded of just how fetishistic our focus on our own
safety was, consider a 2005 news article written for a Florida newspaper, "Weeki Wachee mermaids in terrorists' cross hairs?" It began:

"Who on earth would ever want to harm the Weeki Wachee
mermaids? It staggers the imagination. Still, the U.S. Department of
Homeland Security has named Weeki Wachee Springs as the potential
terror target of Hernando County, according to a theme park official.

"The Weeki Wachee staff is teaming up with the Hernando County
Sheriff's Office to 'harden the target' by keeping the mermaid theater
and the rest of the park safe from a potential terror attack, said
marketing and promotion manager John Athanason... Terror-prevention
plans for Weeki Wachee may include adding surveillance cameras,
installing lights in the parking lot and securing areas in the roadside
attraction where there may be 'security breaches,' he said. But
Athanason is also realistic. He said Walt Disney World is a bigger
attraction and is likely to receive more counterterrorism funds."

This was how, in deepest Florida, distant Utah, or on the Texas border,
all places about as likely to be hit by an al-Qaeda attack as by a
meteor, Americans were obsessing about keeping everything near and dear
to them safe and secure. At the same time, of course, the Bush
administration was breaking the bank
at the Pentagon and in its Global War on Terror, while preparing the
way for an America that would be plunged into startling insecurity.

Let's for a moment assume, however, that our safety really was, and
remains, at stake in a war halfway across the planet. If so, let me ask
you a question: What's your "safety" really worth? Are you truly
willing to trade the lives of Awal Khan's family for a blanket
guarantee of your safety -- and not just his family, but all those
Afghan one-year olds, all those wedding parties that are -- yes, they
really are -- going to be blown away in the years to come for you?

If, in 1979 as the Carter presidency was ending and our Afghan wars
were beginning, you had told any group of Americans that we would be
ever more disastrously involved in Afghanistan for 30 years, that, even
then, no end would be in sight, and that we would twice declare victory
(in 1989 after the Soviets withdrew, and again in 2001 when the Afghan
capital Kabul was taken from the Taliban) only to discover that
disaster followed, they undoubtedly would have thought you mad.
Afghanistan? Please. You might as well have said Mars.

Now, three decades later, it's possible to see that every step taken from the earliest support for Afghan jihadis
in their anti-Soviet war has only made things worse for us, and ever so
much worse for the Afghans. Unless somehow we can think our way out of
a strategy guaranteed to kill yet more civilians in expanding areas of
South Asia, it will only get worse still.

Maybe it's time to suck it up and put less value on the idea of
absolute American safety, since in many ways the Bush administration
definition of our safety and security, which did not go into retirement
with George and Dick, is now in the process of breaking us. Looked at
reasonably, even if Dick Cheney and his minions prevented another 9/11
(and there's no evidence he did), in doing so look what he brought down
around our ears. What a bad bargain it's been -- and all in the name of
our safety, and ours alone.

Ask yourself these questions in the dead of night: Do we really want
stories like Awal Khan's to float up out of the villages of
Afghanistan, Pakistan, and who knows where else for the next seven
years? Or the next 30 for that matter? Does that seem reasonable? Does
that seem right? Is your supposed safety worth that?

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