Posts Tagged ‘airstrikes’

Military officials say that civilian casualties in Marjah, Afghanistan are “inevitable” as U.S. and allied forces launch Operation Moshtarak, the largest military action since the U.S-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Thanks in part to conflicting messages from ISAF and in part due to some residents’ inability to flee, many civilians remain in Marjah, in the crossfire.

Statements from Brig. Gen. Nicholson, commander of the operation, indicate that he feels he has leeway to use airstrikes in the civilian area, and that he intends to use fast, furious attacks to try to overwhelm the Taliban. The problem: airstrikes in support of troops in contact are the leading cause of U.S.-caused civilian deaths.

All of this is very, very bad news for civilians in Marjah. And it’s bad news for the troops in the fight as well.

Cross-posted at Rethink Afghanistan.

The media is buzzing in anticipation of the impending launch of Operation Moshtarak in Marja, Afghanistan. It will be the biggest military operation of the war so far, and, in many ways, the first fruit of President Obama’s repeated choices to add more troops and firepower to the mess that is the Afghanistan war. Marja is fairly densely populated area in Afghanistan: 85,000 in Marja proper and about 45,000 in the surrounding region. Missteps or neglegence on the part of the military could be tragic, to say the least. U.S. commanders are talking out of both sides of their mouths, promising the revelation of the oft-promised humane war while promising to rain death on our enemies.

What’s got me the most worried is the spadework being done for some sickeningly familiar hand-washing. One could announce one is about to attack a given location to reduce civilian casualties. One can also give said announcement if one plans on taking the gloves off–that way when innocent people die, you can say, “They were warned. They should have left when they had the chance.” The most vulnerable victims can fall into your trap of moral exculpation.

Marja. Fallujah. New Orleans.

Recall Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004:

Before the second Fallujah offensive, Willingham remembers seeing American planes drop flyers ordering citizens to leave the city.

“The flyers let them know we were getting ready to start bombing the city, (and) anyone who stayed we assumed was an insurgent,” Willingham said.

The Fallujah attacks created more than 200,000 internally displaced people and thousands of civilians were killed (predictable, considering that everyone remaining inside the city was treated as an insurgent). Estimates of the dead vary widely. Some exceed 6,000 people. Dispute the exact numbers if you like. The Fallujah operations were a fiasco. The coalition forces devastated the city. They killed many innocent people. Remember that. That’s what happens when you give an evacuation order to a populated area and then treat those left behind as if it’s their fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Remember New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Katrina. Remember that residents were warned to flee. Remember that despite notice of the oncoming storm, some couldn’t leave.

While some blamed public officials for not responding soon enough, others blamed the victims for not evacuating when they knew the hurricane’s arrival was imminent. One fundamental insight of social science is to understand the illogic of blaming the victim (Ryan 1976)…

New Orleans is a city in which 27.9 percent of residents live below the poverty line, 11.7 percent are age 65 or older, only 74.7 percent are high school graduates and 27.3 percent of households do not have cars. Furthermore, a larger than average percentage of residents have disabilities: 10.3 percent of 5-20 year olds, 23.6 percent of 21-64 year olds, and 50.1 percent of those age 65 and older have disabilities according to the 2000 U.S. census. In addition, 77.4 percent of New Orleans residents were born in Louisiana and have lived most of their lives there. These statistics alone go far to explain why tens of thousands of the 500,000 residents of New Orleans did not evacuate; in so many ways they were more rooted in place than the average American.

…New Orleanians’ plans for evacuation were strongly shaped by their income-level, age, access to information, access to private transportation, their physical mobility and health, their occupations and their social networks outside of the city. These social characteristics translated into distinct evacuation strategies for different sectors of the population.

Low-income residents had fewer choices with respect to how to prepare for the imminent arrival of Katrina. Since the storm was at the end of the month and many low-income residents of New Orleans live from paycheck to paycheck, economic resources for evacuating were particularly scarce. …[L]ow-income New Orleanians are those who are least likely to own vehicles, making voluntary evacuation more costly and logistically more difficult.

…Not everyone can evacuate the city, even in a mandatory evacuation. Doctors, nurses, hospital employees, police officers, and other essential city and state employees remained in the city to perform their jobs. …Accounts from this group of people are harrowing and heroic and go far to explain why a total evacuation of the city was impossible.

…People living in social isolation and poverty, especially the elderly, the disabled, and those with chronic diseases, have scarce economic resources and social networks that are more locally concentrated and connect them to people in similar socioeconomic circumstances. Therefore, they are less able to use these social networks to evacuate before a hurricane or recuperate their losses after such an event.

Now, consider the poverty and state of social networks in Afghanistan. The country is one of the ten poorest in the world. GDP per capita is about $425 per year, and more than a third of that meager sum is consumed by corrupt officials demanding bribes, to say nothing of the illicit taxes the Taliban levy on goods. The adult literacy rate is just over 28 percent. We like to say Afghanistan is a “tribal” society, but in reality it is an atomized society, with geographically isolated social networks having been pulverized by decades of war. If many in New Orleans found it hard to evacuate, the residents of Marja will find it doubly so.

Judging by the L.A. Times article on the upcoming operation in Marja, the U.S. commander is saying all the right words when it comes to the issue of insulating the non-combatants from the carnage:

…[I]n the weeks leading up to the imminent offensive to take the Helmand River Valley town of Marja in southern Afghanistan, the Marines’ commander, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, sat with dozens of Afghan tribal elders, drinking endless cups of sweet tea and offering reassurances that his top priority will be the safety of Afghan civilians.

“In counterinsurgency, the people are the prize,” Nicholson said

That would be reassuring if Nicholson weren’t talking out of both sides of his mouth:

US Second Marine Expeditionary Force commander Larry Nicholson said that the evacuation of most civilians would give commanders leeway to use air-to-ground missiles, declaring that he was “not looking for a fair fight.”

ABC News quotes Nicholson explaining some truly worrisome logic:

Nicholson underscored the point saying a heavy handed approach will reduce the chance for civilian casualties.

“Our feeling is if you go big, strong and fast, you lessen the possibility of civilian casualties as opposed to a slow methodical rolling assault. You go in and you dominate. You overwhelm the enemy,” he said.

Okay, let’s put these two things together. Nicholson is telegraphing he’s letting the air strikes off the chain and that he intends to use rapid, furious attacks in Marja, and somehow that is supposed to lead to reduced civilian casualties. Well, that would be great if we didn’t already know that the single greatest cause of U.S.-caused civilian casualties was airstrikes in support of troops involved in intense firefights.

Now, one should give people the benefit of the doubt. Nicholson is gearing up for a fight, and when he speaks, he’s got at least two audiences: the Afghan public and his troops. So, one could just write this off as (pardon my French) a little bit of dick-swinging machismo meant to get his troops fired up and his enemies scared. But the problem is that he’s talking trash about using the tactic most responsible for U.S.-caused civilian casualties in a densely populated area, and if he follows through on his swagger, lots of people not a party to the conflict will be torn to pieces by U.S. munitions.

Oh, and “leaflets have been dropped in the Marja district, urging residents to get out of the area.” In a country with 28 percent literacy rates.

As residents flee Marja in advance of this operation, some that remain behind will be members of armed opposition groups like the Taliban. They will be mixed, however, with the poor, the elderly, the sick and the heroic who stay behind to help them.

Members of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, for God’s sake, remember Fallujah. Remember New Orleans. Remember who is really in those buildings. Remember that many of them are trapped, and that many of the trapped got there through a life of misery. Love your neighbor as yourself. Remember the least of these. And as for your enemies, remember, with God watching you, that you must love them, too.

For those of us here in the United States – remember those who are in the path of the hurricane. And remember that the hurricane is us.

You might as well join in.

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.


At least six Afghan civilians have been killed and 14 more wounded as US helicopters attacked them overnight in the Kandahar Province. The strikes came after a US patrol came under fire, though it remains unclear if any militants were actually killed in the strike.

Airstrikes ordered in response to U.S. troops under fire cause most civilian deaths that can be attributed to U.S. and other pro-Afghan-government forces.

The New York Times again referenced the utility of drone strikes in Pakistan when they “avoid civilian casualties” while failing to mention that the overwhelming majority of people killed by U.S. drones in that country are civilians. Again, from a piece by Salman Masood with Pir Zubair Shah contributing:

Publicly, Pakistani officials have been critical of the drone strikes, calling them a breach of the country’s sovereignty. But privately, Pakistani officials acknowledge that the attacks are useful if they avoid civilian casualties and strike militants.

This is a copy-and-paste paragraph from yesterday’s story, which described a drone strike on a funeral in late June without mentioning that it killed 35 non-combatant local villagers, which included 10 children between the ages of 5 and 10 plus four local tribal elders.

Nowhere in this more recent story does Masood clarify that, copy-and-paste un-cited heresay notwithstanding, most people killed by U.S. drones in Pakistan are civilians: as of late May, drone strikes in Pakistan killed “780 civilians and about 50 alleged terrorists.”

I’ll repeat what I said yesterday: “news” stories that reference the utility of drone strikes that avoid civilian casualties–while failing to report that drones kill more than 15 civilians for every one suspected militant–are propaganda pieces. Times readers deserve better than this.

For more on the U.S. media’s inability to come to terms with the bloody costs of our country’s policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, see this excellent piece at TomDispatch.

The story in today’s New York Times by Salman Masood and Pir Zubair Shah on the latest drone strike in Pakistan whitewashes the killing of children and tribal elders in an earlier airstrike:

“The increased aerial strikes come as Pakistani military is gearing up for an ambitious offensive against Mr. Mehsud and his fighters, who number in the thousands. The mountainous region where they areentrenched is considered one of the most difficult terrains for conventional warfare.

“American drone strikes have recently focused on Mr. Mehsud, and he had a close call late last month when an aerial strike struck a village shortly after he had left a funeral.

“Publicly, Pakistani officials have been critical of the drone strikes, citing them as a breach of the country’s sovereignty. But privately, Pakistani officials acknowledge the utility of such attacks, especially when militants are targeted with few civilian casualties.”

This sloppy report’s characterization of the late-June drone strike on a funeral which targeted Meshud leaves out the fact that it killed 40 low-level militants, 35 local villagers, which included 10 children between the ages of 5 and 10 plus four local tribal elders. The omission is particularly glaring considering the next paragraph’s discussion of the attacks’ utility when they involve “few civilian casualties.”

The simple fact is that as of late May, drone strikes in Pakistan killed “780 civilians and about 50 alleged terrorists.”

Come on, New York Times. Get it together. Your readers need and expect news, not card-stacking propaganda.

UPDATE (7/7/09): Masood, Shah and the Times did it again today.