June 11, 2009

Chronicles of the Good War: the significance of civilian casualties

The following diary is from the Daily Kos: The State of the Nation. I think this does a good job of tracking everyone's responsibility for each civilian killed.

 (At the end he has a poll if you wish to participate)


Tue Jun 09, 2009 at 01:12:46 PM PDT

This diary completes a series regarding the significance of the constant infliction of civilian casualties by American and other Western forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  I chronicle the functioning of the Pentagon machinery of denial and obfuscation that kicks in after every instance of a mass civilian casualty attack that attracts Western media attention.  I also attempt to make clear that when civilian casualties are anticipated, planned for, and when entire departments exist to spin them away, then they can no longer be described away as "accidental." These casualties constitute an inevitable and planned for result of American policy.  

The truth is that thousands of civilian casualties a year from American actions may be regrettable but do not rise to the level of negative consequence necessary to motivate the Pentagon to change its tactics, or to motivate the Obama Administration to alter its strategy, or to motivate the American public to put any pressure on its leadership to change its policy. As such, they must be viewed as an accepted consequence of American actions, and anyone who still supports the "AfPak" war must admit that they too view this as a small price to pay to achieve America's goals in the region.

1.  Treatment of civilian casualties by the Pentagon

On May 3rd, a group of about 200-300 Taliban fighters entered two Afghan villages in the western province of Farah and then ambushed a police patrol sent to dislodge them.  Government reinforcements arrived the next day but were pinned down. Then the Americans pulled up, but quickly got pinned down themselves, with a Navy corpsman getting wounded.  By this time it was already dark, and the Taliban slipped out of the villages and departed for points unknown. The villagers, exhausted by two days of fighting, huddled into the sprawling compounds of the major village clans, where they could all be together and safer than in their individual homes.  Some others took refuge in the mosque.  Alas, modern warfare does not allow for safety in numbers or taking sanctuary in a place of worship. Not long after the Taliban departed and the exhausted villagers had gone to sleep, two F-18s and a B-1 bomber (because sometimes when you are confronted by guys fighting on foot with AKs and RPGs, a few jet fighters just won’t cut it) appeared overhead.  They proceeded to drop a total of 13 bombs on the two villages, with the B-1 making repeated bomb runs, targeting, you guessed it, the main clan compounds and the mosque. The warheads used for such occasions are designed to create a fireball that travels down hallways and around corners, killing every living thing inside the building and then causing the building itself to cave in, burying any horribly burned survivors. That's exactly what happened in this case.  

On the next morning, distraught villagers began streaming into the provincial capital, driving trucks loaded with dozens of bodies, because they knew that without such evidence, their stories would be dismissed by the Americans out of hand. Several investigative teams were sent to the site, with the International Red Cross being one of the first, confirming the estimate of the villagers, that 140 civilians, mostly women and children died.  However, the Americans were still dubious.  How could the most humane army in the world have done that much damage, especially after having done the exact same thing so many times before?  It seemed unlikely, and probably an enemy trick, unscrupulous Taliban playing on a gullible media.  

U.S. Deputy Ambassador Francis Ricciardone vowed to help the families of any civilians killed in the strikes, but said it is first important to try to establish what happened.

"The first reports are almost always wrong, one way or another," Ricciardone said. "We also know that the insurgents, the Taliban, exploit them and sometimes usually fabricate in very sophisticated ways. So I think we have to wait and see what the facts are."

Defense Secretary Gates continued in the Pentagon’s almost Cartesian exercise in universal doubt: ""We all know that the Taliban use civilian casualties and sometimes create them, to create problems for the United States and our coalition partners. We will have to wait and see what happened in this particular case."  Despite these official statements that basically, the Americans did not know what happened, an anonymous Pentagon official nevertheless put forward the following bold version of events:  "What we do have is strong evidence to support that a number of women and children were killed by the Taliban and their bodies were driven by locals as evidence of U.S. bombing."   Surprisingly, the Afghan villagers did not react well to this excretion of doubt and conjuncture about their eyewitness accounts, backed up by the bodies they were holding in their arms, and rioted in the provincial capital.  Afghan soldiers fired on the crowd, leaving several wounded.  Initial Pentagon reports on the incident implied that it was probably the Taliban who killed those civilians to make the US liberation forces look bad, such as by tossing grenades, but then toned that down to blaming the Taliban for putting the civilians at risk by making them into such alluring targets for American bombs. Afghan President Hamid Karzai and American Ambassador General Eikenberry came out to express their condolences and vowed to cut down on civilian casualties. General Eikenberry, who was commander of American occupation forces in Afghanistan under Bush before being promoted to ambassador by Obama, made a personal, solemn pledge to do, err, something.

After a few weeks, Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, who has become the most reliable tally keeper for America's latest atrocities, came out with a report that placed the casualties at 97 dead, including 65 children and 21 women. However, the Americans still felt the need to correct everybody, despite the fact that previous such denials and minimizations of body counts by the Pentagon have infuriated the Afghan population. On May 20, a preliminary Pentagon report, presented to journalists along with video footage taken by the bombing aircraft (because as we all know, those grainy attack videos really liven up a briefing), stated that no more than 30 civilians were killed along with about 60 Taliban. The estimate of 30 civilian deaths, which disregarded all evidence produced by the villagers themselves as well as by the Afghan government, the International Red Cross and the Independent Human Rights Commission, was evidently based on the fact that American soldiers reported seeing some 300 villagers fleeing before the fighting, and so no more than 30 would likely have remained.  I wonder if it has now occurred to somebody in retrospect, that those 300 fleeing guys might not have been villagers after all given in the initial estimate of 300 Taliban fighters involved in the battle and the fact that only 3 have been confirmed killed.

Finally, the final Pentagon report is in, although it still has not been made public, but instead is being leaked selectively by press secretary Geoff Morrell, in an effort to spread out the negative revelations and prevent an explosion of outrage in Afghanistan and to cause the few Westerners following the situation, other than the professional human rights organizations, to lose interest.  I don’t think it’s worthwhile waiting for the full report, I’m sure there were numerous irregularities but any major fuckup would have been leaked by now, and I don’t know how much longer they’ll delay it, so I’ll just cover it now and update you all if a real bombshell comes out later.  The key statement in Geoff Morrell’s retelling, in response to a question regarding what the Pentagon now believed the body count to be, was this:

The numbers in terms of Taliban killed and civilians who perished in this attack are very similar to those that the Afghan – some of the Afghan defense officials – believe are accurate.

Morell is trying to be maximally vague here employing the Sarah Palin grammatical structure, and did not state the actual numbers, but since he refers to the numbers of the Afghan defense officials, the tally arrived at by the Americans would seem to be closer to the 140 civilians and 3 Taliban killed numbers that the Afghan government announced than even the lower number estimated by the Human Rights Commission.  Despite making this fairly clear statement, Morrell then demonstrated why he makes the big bucks by immediately pointing out that the number of Taliban killed vastly exceeded the civilian loss.  It is impossible to reconcile these two statements in light of the Afghan defense figures Morrell had just admitted had been found to be correct, but, in a Pentagon briefing, it’s considered simple journalistic politeness to let such blatant lies pass, otherwise you’ll be there all day.   
Also, "There were some problems with some tactics, techniques and procedures or ... the way in which close air support was supposed to have been executed in this case." Morrell said.  For example, there was a short period during which the B-1 bomber pilot lost touch with ground control during his approach to the target, creating the risk that the bombing order could have been countermanded without the pilot realizing it.  But in this case, the order had not been countermanded so the pilot's error did not change the outcome of events. Everything proceeded as planned, as the bomber expertly guided several heavy thermobaric bombs precisely into the village mosque and the large residential compounds.  So the irregularities are simply being noted out of an abundance of honesty, which typifies Pentagon internal investigations.

"It was just noted as one of the problems associated with these events, not that it was the cause of the civilian casualties," Morrell said.

The investigation was "exhaustive" and it shows "the guys on the ground who are involved in this incident took great pains to limit civilian casualties, to target those who had attacked them," he said.

So in fact the irregularities in the exhaustive back and forth that precedes any strike of this type actually prove America’s commitment to protecting the Afghan population from itself, like the exception that proves the rule.

2.  The view from the future top commander for Afghanistan

Of course, the soon to be new Afghan commander, Lt. General Stanley McChrystal's is also well aware of the pesky civilian casualties issue, as evidenced by his recent testimony in his pro forma confirmation hearing (that little Tlllmansnafu not withstanding).  

This is a critical point. It may be the critical point. This is a struggle for the support of the Afghan people. Our willingness to operate in ways that minimize casualties or damage, even when doing so makes our task more difficult, is essential to our credibility.

Nothing that hasn’t been said dozens of times before, it’s probably in the Confirmation Prep handbook given to all generals before their hearings or press conferences. But this is the takeaway Orwellian quote:

The measure of effectiveness will not be enemy killed, it will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence.

Now that's a very positive way to look at it, General. Let's do the math for a moment.  The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported that 2,118 civilians were killed as a result of armed conflict in Afghanistan in 2008, the highest civilian death toll since the end of the initial 2001 invasion. This represents an increase of about 40 percent over UNAMA's figure of 1,523 civilians killed in 2007. Bummer. According to NATO forces only about 1,000 civilians were killed during the whole year. Better, but still disturbing. Now let's use McChrystal's math: The population of Afghanistan in 2008 was about 32 million, all but a thousand to three thousand of whom we shielded from violence. That’s a much more positive and American way to look at it, don’t you think?

3. View from the grunts on the ground

As Obama’s escalation gets underway, the major developments are going to be coming out of Helmland province, which is the Taliban stronghold and opium production hub in the south of Afghanistan.  It had been previously assigned to the British, who were only able to deploy a small and quickly overmatched force with dismal results.  So far about 10,000 Marines have arrived, with 7,300 of them now in the process of setting up a major base at a dusty outpost called, appropriately enough, Camp Leatherneck, with smaller units fanning out to forward operating bases deeper in the Helmland desert.  And these soldiers have also been made aware of the sensitive topic of civilian casualties, and know just what they’ll do to reduce them:

Several [soldiers told the reporter that] Marine commanders have drilled into them the need to respect the local culture and not barge into villages, kicking down doors and alienating residents whose support they need to win the war.

"They have told us to be more friendly with the locals," said Lance Cpl. John McCall, who was marching in full battle gear around the base with two buddies to get in shape. "We are not to shoot first and ask questions later."

After only 8 years into America’s 11th major war in its 230 year existence (not counting minor conflicts such as the Indian Wars/Genocide, the Philippine Insurrection, the Cuban Rebellion, the hundreds of Cold War conflicts, Panama, Somalia, and the recent attacks on Pakistan), the soldiers have finally been instructed "not to shoot first and ask questions later."  A bit troubling that they had to be instructed not to kill people first and then figure out who they were killing, one would have hoped that this is something that would have been obvious to them as moral human beings, but nevertheless, it’s good that somebody mentioned the concept to them.

4. Let’s cut the bullshit

I have been previously accused of trumping up the rare occasions (well, rarely publicized occasions) of American mass casualty attacks on occupied civilian populations simply to get people outraged at the carnage in order to advance my twisted anti-war agenda.  And this is fair, I am disgustingly, unpatriotically anti-war.  Sometimes I even read antiwar.com, even though I know it’s not a trusted progressive resource.  The tone of my diaries can also create the impression that I’m merely some anti-Pentagon, anti-American loon that’s only interested in making the military look bad.  So, to clarify, here is the point I’m trying to make with these diaries, in all seriousness:

When you as a belligerent power anticipate inflicting a certain number of civilian casualties as part of your airstrike, regardless of the fact that you anticipate that number to be closer to 30 and it turns out to be 130, they are no longer accidental or unintentional.  They are intended, though not wanted. The American commanders who authorized dropping 13 bombs on two villages on the night of May 5th knew, for a fact, undeniably, that some civilians would be killed, but approximated that number to be low enough that it would not rise to the level of an internationally reported incident as it turned out to be.   Once the actual body count turned out to be higher than estimated, the various denial, delusion, deception, justification, and obfuscation mechanisms at the Pentagon and at the White House kicked in, to create an appearance of contrition and corrective action, coupled with the total lack of any actual remorse or steps to prevent yet another repetition of this tragedy in the future.  

The truth is, the American military’s counterinsurgency strategy anticipates a certain number of civilian deaths at American hands, but considers that a fair tradeoff for hopefully higher number of militants killed.  In the Farah incident, that calculus did not pan out, but if you take the month of May as a whole, US tactics probably did yield more militants than civilians killed (though the real numbers will not be known for years, if ever), making May a successful month bringing us one step closer to completing the mission President Obama has given to the Pentagon.  The American war machine, with its reliance on airstrikes and high explosive and thermobaric munitions, is designed to create maximum carnage at the point of impact and thus inevitably to inflict a certain level of inevitable "collateral damage" during its operations, and everybody involved is aware and comfortable with that fact, like they are with the unfortunate fact that every bomb dropped costs millions of dollars.  

The unfortunate reality is that if you try to kill more militants, you will also kill more bystanders.  The two are inextricably connected, especially in the context of airstrikes and other bombardments.  This fact is obvious and it has been pointed out many times by many different organizations, that the Pentagon’s increasing reliance on airstrikes during the last couple of years, which trend continues under the new Administration with a record number of airstrikes occurring this year, means that a higher proportion of civilians than ever before is being consigned to death in order to increase our effectiveness of our operations in the region.  The US could certainly use weapons with a lower yield and lesser lethality, or switch to different tactics, but then, more of the targeted enemies would survive along with more bystanders and more American soldiers would be placed at risk.  It is a tradeoff we as Americans are not prepared to make, and instead, the Pentagon have entire departments devoted to the after the fact spin that is required to deal with the fallout from occasional and inevitable large scale incidents of civilian killings, and a set price that is paid out to the families of any civilians we kill ($2,000 per head is the going rate in Afghanistan, and more in Iraq where the standard of living is higher).  

The Obama Administration has been explicitly asked to renounce the practice of targeting villages with massive airstrikes and has made clear that this practice would continue, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. Given that commitment, every time President Obama gives one of his great speeches about his commitment to winning the war in Afghanistan, he is also making an unspoken commitment to kill thousands of innocent bystanders in the course of trying to win that war.  When the Democrats in Congress push though the new war supplemental to pay for all the bombs dropped on Afghan villages, they are accepting the fact that some of the people killed by those bombs will be civilians, will be women, will be children, and they will die in horrible pain from the burns inflicted by our top of the line munitions.  When we salute the soldiers departing on their deployment to Afghanistan and thank them for keeping us safe, we accept the fact that these soldiers will not only be killing terrorists in our names, but also civilians, in a proportion carefully calculated and passed up the chain of command.  

Of course everybody involved will be working to make that proportion as low as possible, given the preferred tactics and without tying "one hand behind our back," in the words Obama's national security adviser Retired Gen. James Jones, but nobody is under the illusion that it will ever be anywhere close to zero, and they are comfortable with that.  The reality is, and what Mr. Jones means by his comment is that we are not prepared to allow population centers to become safe havens for the enemy, and we are prepared to kill an unlimited number of civilians in order to demonstrate to the enemy our will and capacity for such killing.  

So what I’m trying to do in this series of diaries is to lay out this reality very carefully for all the good people here who support this war and its escalation, so that they might become comfortable with it as well, just as our leaders and our troops are.  Not only are you supporting the killing of the faceless evildoers who you believe would, if left unchecked, do America great harm, but you are also supporting, to an equal extent, the killing of thousands of people who may be those militants’ family members, or neighbors, or complete strangers who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.  It does no good to call their killings a tragedy, a mistake, or any other of the guilt reducing euphemisms perfected by the West in the long centuries of warfare on the distant battlefields where the white man has borne his heavy burden, and to pretend like they will stop any time soon as the glitches in the system are fixed.  These deaths is an anticipated and logical consequence of the actions which you support, and the high domestic support for this war and its current escalation directly makes them possible.  Moreover, the fact that the high casualty incidents which are, to be fair, reported on by Western media, cause almost no reverberations at home, no demonstrations, no real outrage even on sites like this one, means that there is not even any pressure on the Obama Administration to order the Pentagon to adjust its tactics and reevaluate its rules of engagement to at the very least forbid, once and for all, airstrikes on villages and other civilian clusters.  

That’s the simple truth.  I do not expect you to change your position on the war because of it.  In all likelihood you believe that the mere possibility that if the West withdrew its occupation force from Afghanistan, then various militants would acquire a safe haven and base of operations there, potentially leading to another attack on the US homeland like the one which occurred on 9/11.  It is human nature to consign many thousands of distant and unknown people to a certain death somewhere far away in order to prevent the possibility that some closer and better known people somewhere closer to us may die in the future.  What is really being prevented isn’t even the potential death of Americans at some point in the future at the hands of hypothetical terrorists trained in the camps that might potentially be set up in an Afghanistan free of American presence assuming it then falls to the Taliban who then continue their alliance with al Qaeda.  The real motivator here is the little sliver of fear Americans began to feel after 9/11 that one of the news reports about dead civilians might one day be about themselves or somebody they know.  And to prevent that possibility and to silence that fear, Americans are prepared to endure (regretfully of course, because we are all moral and compassionate people) hundreds of similar reports about civilians killed by Americans far far away.  

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