Afghan men carry the body of a civilian allegedly killed by American forces. (Photo: Rahmat Gul)
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 innocent."
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?
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years. To catch a recent audio interview in which he discusses the CIA's drone war over Pakistan, click here.
[Note of thanks: Jason Ditz of the invaluable website Antiwar.com has, in almost daily reports, been covering the issue of civilian casualties in the Af-Pak War, among other matters, like a blanket. I've leaned on his work heavily and thank him for it. I also continue to rely, as ever, on that eagle-eyed newshound and analyst Juan Cole at his Informed Comment website.]