Nothing to See Here, Folks: Pentagon Standard Operating Procedure on Afghan Civilian Casualties

Posted: August 8, 2009 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

A few days ago I posted a blog about a U.S. airstrike killing three children in Afghanistan. It’s useful to examine the ISAF’s response to understand how the military’s propaganda apparatus works as the communications staff fights the “information war” against the Taliban.

Here’s the initial ISAF press release on the strike:

KABUL, Afghanistan – At 1:30 a.m. on 5 August, ISAF forces identified four insurgents in the Arghandab District in Kandahar Province. The insurgents were in open ground with no residential areas in the vicinity. The insurgents were carrying weapons and plastic jugs and were identified as possibly emplacing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in an area known for IED attacks.

ISAF engaged the insurgents with rockets and small arms fire from a helicopter, killing the insurgents. A large secondary explosion was observed at the point of impact indicating explosive material was in the insurgent’s possession. No bombs were dropped.

It is ISAF policy to take all measures possible to avoid civilian casualties. In this case, the insurgents that were targeted were in the possession of a large amount of weaponry and explosives that would be used against ISAF, ANSF and Afghan civilians.

ISAF is conducting a full investigation of this incident.

ISAF deplores the use of improvised explosive devices due to their indiscriminate nature causing death and injuries to innocent Afghan civilians.

There’s a couple of strange things in this release. Note the sections in bold. This press release is written defensively. It has a much more “cover your a**” tone than, say, this press release about another engagement where insurgents were killed. Of course, we now know why:

BBC reports that U.S. forces piloting helicopters killed three children last night in the Arghandab district of Afghanistan. Enraged locals took the bodies to Kandahar to display them to local officials…AFP reports the boys killed in the strike were ages 10-13, along with a 25-year-old man.

Faced with photos of dead young boys, the ISAF then issued this release:

KABUL, Afghanistan – International Security Assistance Force leaders and their Afghan counterparts are investigating allegations that ISAF actions caused civilian casualties earlier today in Arghandab District, Kandahar Province.

ISAF forces identified four insurgents in an open field with weapons and plastic jugs at 1:30 a.m. and engaged the insurgents with machine-gun fire and rockets. The helicopter observed a secondary explosion at the point of impact when the jugs exploded. No bombs were dropped during the incident. The area is known for frequent improvised explosive attacks.

There are also allegations that four civilians were killed in a compound in the vicinity.

It is ISAF policy to take all measures possible to avoid civilian casualties and to fully investigate all allegations that ISAF forces may have caused such casualties.

Note: This is an update to release 2009-08-[IA]-563. Initial reports may have been inaccurate.

Note that this release does not retract any assertions made in the prior release. It just notes that some have reported civilian casualties nearby, while retaining the description of the ISAF’s initial version of the events. What reports were inaccurate?

This is just the latest example of the typical response from the U.S. forces’ P.R. shop in Afghanistan to civilian casualty reports, and it shows how they manage the news cycle to mute outrage. The initial denial inserts doubt into reports of civilian deaths, and the press shop works to maintain any plausible story that vindicates our forces, stringing the story out until it sputters. If you want to see the most egregious examples, you’d need to check out the work of Col. Greg Julian (who makes a brief appearance in Rethink Afghanistan):

Col. Julian’s most transparent and notorious bit of flackery took place in response to the catastrophic Bala Baluk airstrike earlier this year. Same pattern: insert counter-narrative and disinformation, making it difficult to untangle the truth in press reports, and slow-walk retractions until the story sputters (hopefully) in the press.

Keep your eye on the ball, though. This sort of spin is intended to

  • protect the official storyline that our purpose in Afghanistan is to protect the civilian population; and
  • to aid policymakers pushing for further escalation under the rationale of “protecting Afghans.”

The truth, however, is that no past increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan prevented a subsequent yearly increase in a) civilian casualties generally or b) civilian casualties specifically caused by U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.

  1. sporkmaster says:

    Lately I am getting frustrated on this subject. That I am trying to view this in two ways. first from a military view and the other is how using non-violence exclusivity. It feels like trying to order kosher pork.

    For example with the video is one of the reasons that there is general distrust about these things. First of all what is with the music? Your trying to a verdict before the guy even starts? Also I would like to know where the enemy was aiming at from the reviving end? When we received mortar fire we did not know what they where aiming at just where it hit.

    Also I know this is not you but this is what I have been following recently.

    Stuff like this;

    “This man is a hero , stand up for your beliefs and lead others in doing the right thing . Victor Agosto , keep your chin up , it is too bad most soldiers lack your ability to think clearly and do what is right .”

    Once again this is not you but with stuff like this it becomes a challenge to become apathetic to legitimate concerns and criticisms. That is one of the reasons why I have not been commenting on the blog is that would not be fair to you.

    • dcrowe says:

      The criticism about the music is probably fair. I’ve followed some of the colonel’s more egregious attempts to spin civilian deaths, and I’ve been struck by how blatant some of his spin is. The reason I used this particular incident is because I wanted to contextualize a clip that’s in the documentary. Julian is doing his job–fighting an information war and trying to maintain control of the narrative vs. his opponents. The problem is that the requirements of that job push him to aggressively deny any potential embarrassment to the force, so he denies casualty events before the facts are known. So all that is to say that I put the music in because I’ve already passed judgement on what he’s up to, and I find it pretty distasteful. But perhaps you’re right, and I should let the viewers make their own judgements and not influence it with the creepy-negative-political-ad-type music.

      Re the “t is too bad most soldiers lack your ability to think clearly and do what is right” quote, I can easily see why you’d be really irritated by it. I don’t agree with the sentiments expressed in the quote.

      • sporkmaster says:

        The thing that we have to be careful of “yellow journalism” because how fast things can change it. It is the reason why I think that people were reluctant to believe what was happing to the Jews in the Camps. Because in WW1 a stray artillery round that killed a child turned into a whole German unit killing several families. Also think on how many times the phrase “remained unnamed because he/she was not authorized to speak to the press” comes up in news stories. So because of this sentence, it is really hard to come out with a official line of what happed.

        It the reason that when something happens all communication is halted from and to home because of all the potential rumors that could come up. Because the military is the master at the rumor mill. One rumor about me was that I had active TB from Iraq. One thing that was really bad was I got a call that someone in my unit that had a mole removed came back positive for skin cancer. The problem was they did not have any info all on the person. No name, social, birth date, nothing. Then the rumors begin and it was chaos. Because there was one person that I knew about that had a mole removed and he was very concerned. He even asked me what was going on and I had nothing to tell him. The other medic and I had to call around and ask different people to find out the person in question. Also turned out not to be cancer at all and not the person that had the mole removed. So I am cautious when people talk off the record.

        Also on the side I read this about Iraq.

        After six years of war and terrorist bombings, Iraq is moving against a different killer in its midst — smoking. Sweeping curbs unveiled by the government Thursday suggest that as the violence subsides, authorities have more time to worry about normal quality-of-life issues. The legislation to go before parliament would ban smoking in public buildings, outlaw sales to under-18s, prohibit advertising, limit tar content and mandate health warnings on cigarette packs.

        You would think that they would have other things to worry about. I mean I always thought of Iraq as a smokers paradise.

  2. […] in fact, insurgents. See a pattern? If not, maybe you should take a look at the statements of one Col. Greg Julian regarding an airstrike in Farah last year that killed more than 100 […]

  3. […] in fact, insurgents. See a pattern? If not, maybe you should take a look at the statements of one Col. Greg Julian regarding an airstrike in Farah last year that killed more than 100 […]

  4. […] in fact, insurgents. See a pattern? If not, maybe you should take a look at the statements of one Col. Greg Julian regarding an airstrike in Farah last year that killed more than 100 […]

  5. […] in fact, insurgents. See a pattern? If not, maybe you should take a look at the statements of one Col. Greg Julian regarding an airstrike in Farah last year that killed more than 100 […]

  6. […] under "War on Terror", Afghanistan Leave a Comment  Via John Schwartz, I find this post, dissecting the NATO spin that followed the deaths of three children in Afghanistan… This is […]

  7. […] down before NATO claimed they’d found their bodies long-since dead. Or the children who were bombed, then libelled as terrorists in their deaths. So, yes, I’m all for this trial but I suspect […]

  8. […] “insurgents“? Well, much the same as with the 10 poor youths massacred in Kunar. Or the three bombed in Arghandab. Or the three kids they said were “insurgents” on a “biometric database“. […]

  9. […] the Associated Press revealed the dead were mostly children of the ages 10 to 13. NATO grudgingly admitted there were “allegations” that the four had been civilians and that their reports […]

  10. […] insurgents; the pregnant women they mowed down and claimed had been deceased for hours; the children they bombed and duly libelled as guerrillas. If these and other cases, and the lies puffed out to […]

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