Posts Tagged ‘Bala Baluk’

The “new” rules for the U.S. military in Afghanistan still allow the same kinds of airstrikes that cause most pro-Kabul-government-caused civilian deaths.  AP reports the rules as follows:

  • Airstrikes must be very limited and authorized but can be used in self-defense if troops’ lives are at risk.
  • Troops must be accompanied by Afghan forces before they enter residences.
  • Troops cannot go into or fire upon mosques or other religious sites. This is already U.S. policy.

Most civilians killed by U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan die when troops exchanging fire with enemy forces call for air support, as noted by Human Rights Watch in their report, Troops in Contact:

In our investigation, we found that civilian casualties rarely occur during planned airstrikes on suspected Taliban targets (one in each of 2006 and 2007). High civilian loss of life during airstrikes has almost always occurred during the fluid, rapid-response strikes, often carried out in support of ground troops after they came under insurgent attack. Such unplanned strikes included situations where US special forces units-normally small numbers of lightly armed personnel-came under insurgent attack; in US/NATO attacks in pursuit of insurgent forces that  had retreated to populated villages; and in air attacks where US “anticipatory self-defense” rules of engagement applied.

These airstrikes make of the majority of airstrikes that kill civilians, which themselves comprise 67 percent of pro-Afghan-government-caused civilian casualties.

Presumably, these rules would have allowed the order to be given for the May 4 bombing in Bala Baluk that killed the most civilians of any airstrike by U.S. forces in Afghanistan to date. NPR’s Tom Bowman reported that the captain who ordered the strike said “had he not called in those airstrikes, he definitely would have lost Marines.” The military argues the reason civilians were killed in this instance was not a deficiency in the rules, per se, but the fact that their rules at the time were not followed.  But that argument blatantly ignores the deficiency in a set of rules that allows dropping three-and-a-half tons of ordinance in a civilian-populated area. These new rules do not solve that deficiency, virtually guaranteeing that future mistakes like this one will kill masses of noncombatants. These measure also fail to include stricter guidelines to guarantee accountability when rules are broken.

An injured Afghan child from the Bala Baluk, district of Afghanistan, is seen on a bed at the hospital in Farah province of Afghanistan Tuesday, May 5, 2009. Abdul Basir Khan, a member of Farahs provincial council, said villagers brought some 30 bodies, including women and children, to Farah city to show the provinces governor, that they had been killed by coalition airstrikes. (Photo: AP)

An injured Afghan child from the Bala Baluk, district of Afghanistan, is seen on a bed at the hospital in Farah province of Afghanistan Tuesday, May 5, 2009. Abdul Basir Khan, a member of Farah's provincial council, said villagers brought some 30 bodies, including women and children, to Farah city to show the province's governor, that they had been killed by coalition airstrikes. (Photo: AP)

Restricting airstrikes to instances of self-defense without restricting their use among civilian-populated areas leaves the door open to more instances like Bala Baluk.

Remember that airstrike that killed 30-to-140 civilians in Afghanistan? Remember how the U.S. military said they weren’t to blame and they had video to prove it and that they were eager to release it? Here, let me remind you:

The footage shows insurgents streaming into homes that were later bombed, said Col. Greg Julian, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan. He said ground troops observed some 300 villagers flee in advance of the fighting, indicating that not many could have been inside the bombed compounds….Investigators later reviewed hours of cockpit video from the fighter jets as well as audio recordings of the air crew’s conversation with the ground commander. Julian said the military would release the footage and other evidence in the coming days.

Darn. The Defense Department really, really hoped you forgot.

…a senior defense official told McClatchy Monday: “The decision (about what to release) is now in limbo.”

Pentagon leaders are divided about whether releasing the report would reflect a renewed push for openness and transparency about civilian casualties or whether it would only fan Afghan outrage and become a Taliban recruiting tool just as Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal takes command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Two U.S. military officials told McClatchy that the video shows that no one checked to see whether any women or children were in the building before it was bombed. The report acknowledges that mistakes were made and that U.S. forces didn’t always follow proper procedures, but it does little to reassure Afghans that the U.S. has done enough to avoid repeating those mistakes.

A note to reporters covering Afghanistan: stop using information provided by Col. Greg Julian as a credible source of information on which to base your stories. His job is not to tell you the truth. As a function of his assignment in the Defense Department, his job is to win wars, and that includes the use of propaganda. Stop running stories leading with unverified information with him as the primary source, please. In other words, do your job.

While we’re on this topic, again, let me make a similar appeal to my fellow Christians who enthusiastically embraced the war in Afghanistan and then used the absurdity of “Christian” just war criteria to legitimize war’s blatant violation of Christ’s teachings and example.  (To be fair, this included me at the launch of the Afghanistan campaign.) Back in 2002:

Members of the Society of Christian Ethics have expressed cautious support of the military effort in Afghanistan. The consensus of 350 professional ethicists at an international conference was that the conflict fits the just war principles articulated by Augustine in the fifth century.

U.S. methods fit the just war principle of discrimination, said John Kelsay, professor of ethics at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Some have estimated that more than 4,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, but Kelsay said the U.S. has used smart bombs and avoided targeting civilians.

Things certainly have changed since then, with the pro-war movement arguing that we need more troops on the ground to reduce our reliance on airstrikes–precisely because airstrikes have been responsible for more than 60 percent of civilian deaths caused by pro-Afghanistan-government forces (that’s us). Christians buying the smart bombs sales pitch might have been operating under assumptions formed by propaganda about “smart bombs” from the Gulf War in the 1990s, but even that’s no excuse, given that we knew about the attack on “the Ameriyya civil-defense shelter …which killed between 200 and 300 civilians.” This should be a bright flashing warning to Christians who want to rely on military or munitions-maker assurances about civilian casualties in the future.

If these kinds of incidents militate against believing the propaganda of the pro-war movement, they should also dissuade Christians from relying on the “massive exercise in begging the question” that is just war theory. Halden recently posted a fantastic quote from Yoder on the competing revelatory claim made by just war tradition about the treatment of enemies that conflicts with that offered by Jesus:

[Just war theory assumes] that a great number of other moral values are solidly known and accepted, so that they can provide a perspective from which to evaluate a given war or the use of a given kind of weapon. It is said, for instance that war need be waged only by a legitimate authority; but where do we get the definition of legitimacy for political authority? It is said that only such weapons may be used that respect the nature of humans as rational and moral beings; but who is to define just what that nature is and what means of warfare respect it? The evil that is sure to be brought about by war must not be greater than the evil that it seeks to prevent, but how are we to measure the weight of one evil against another? A just war can only be waged when there is a clear offense; but what is an offense? In a host of ways, the total heritage of just war thought turns out to be a majestic construction whereby a case is made, on the grounds of self-evident values that seem to need no definition, for setting aside the examples and instruction of Jesus with regard to how to treat the enemy. In order thus to function, the other values, as well as the logic whereby they operate in the given case, must have a kind of authority for which the best word is ‘revelatory.’ Otherwise they could not be weighed against Jesus. (“Christ, the Light of the World, p. 190)

Don’t trust military propaganda, and don’t trust Christian traditions that can make Jesus say the opposite of what his words mean on their face. Jesus said, “love your enemies.” That’s what he meant.

The book is being closed on the massive civilian casualties caused by the airstrikes in Bala Baluk:

A military investigation has concluded that American personnel made significant errors in carrying out some of the airstrikes in western Afghanistan on May 4 that killed dozens of Afghan civilians, according to a senior American military official.

Final “story” from Afghan government and U.S. officials:

The Afghan government concluded that about 140 civilians had been killed in the attacks. An earlier American military inquiry said last month that 20 to 30 civilians had been killed. That inquiry also concluded that 60 to 65 Taliban militants had been killed in the fight.

Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission‘s final report differs somewhat, and given the tone and their independent stance, their report is probably the most credible:

AIHRC believes that as many as 97 persons may have been killed in the air strikes, the vast majority civilians. Available records suggest that 21 were women and 65 were children (31 of whom were girls and 34 boys.) This raises the presumption that as many as 86 civilians were killed. Witnesses and other sources reported that the 11 other adult males reported killed in these three compounds were also civilians.

Additionally, witnesses and government officials reported to AIHRC that anywhere between 25 and 30 insurgents were killed.

Some things to consider:

Even if the U.S.’s more conservative civilian casualty estimates are true, the U.S.’s own analysis now clearly shows that the incident violates the more permissive “Christian” violence-related ethic, just war theory:

But in “several cases,” the official said, General Thomas determined either that the airstrikes had not been the appropriate response to the threat because of the potential risk to civilians, or that American forces had failed to follow their own tactical rules in conducting the bombing runs.

Jus en bello requires discrimination between combatants and civilians and proportionality in responding to actions that justify your side’s use of violence. That means that even in a more permissive “Christian” analysis than I would use, this incident is a mass murder.

As I pointed out in an earlier post, these kinds of incidents should put the brakes on Christian endorsements of war as “just.” Back in 2002, a whole bunch of Christian ethicists gave the U.S. cover by claiming the action in Afghanistan would fit just war theory. Here’s what they said:

U.S. methods fit the just war principle of discrimination, said John Kelsay, professor of ethics at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Some have estimated that more than 4,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, but Kelsay said the U.S. has used smart bombs and avoided targeting civilians.

This incident and the larger trends show that these ethicists just bought hype and spin and used it to do give the U.S. cover for an action which they supported. As the New York Times reported in March:

…Afghan government forces and those of the American-led coalition killed 828 people last year, up sharply from the previous year. Most of those were killed in airstrikes and raids on villages, which are often conducted at night.

Source: NYT

Source: NYT

Bottom line: it’s laughable to call Afghanistan a “just” war and mean it in any way in which Christian thought has ever meant that phrase. Just because you feel justified doesn’t mean you satisfy just war requirements. Even a Christian doesn’t interpret Christ’s words as imposing a nonviolent ethic on Christians (which I firmly believe), continued experience in Afghanistan leaves such a Christian without a “Christian” doctrine to cling to in justifying continued military violence in Afghanistan.

Below the bottom line: Just war theory always seems to get us into war and abandon us once we’re there. It’s a farce to try to do the math to keep a violent exercise in line with the nonviolent teachings and life of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t work. Violence has its own spirituality and its own logic, and it does not fit with anything found in the Gospels.

P.S. Talk about having it both ways:

But Sidenstricker, the military spokesperson, takes a very different view. “There is nothing — in the story, or that we’ve seen or heard elsewhere — that says our actions led to additional collateral damage or civilian casualties,” she says.

A few weeks ago, the United States adopted a new policy for public response to U.S.-caused civilian deaths: apologize quickly. The administration took this step after repeatedly being shamed into admitting culpability for high-civilian-casualty events following initial denials of responsibilities. One could see this new policy at work at the State Department over the past two days after reports surfaced of massive casualties at Bala Baluk. But, over the last 24 hours, we’ve seen a new tactic over at the Defense Department: claiming we’d been framed.

[U.S. Army General David] McKiernan, however, hinted that the American airstrikes might not have been responsible for the deaths in Farah. “We have some other information that leads us to distinctly different conclusions about the cause of these civilian casualties,” McKiernan said. He declined to provide more detailed information until the U.S.-Afghan team was able to investigate further.

A U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that “the Taliban went to a concerted effort to make it look like the U.S. airstrikes caused this.” The official did not offer evidence to support the claim, and could not say what had caused the deaths.

Everyone knows that the Taliban are cunning opponents, and that they’ve been fantastic (in that really awful way) at using propaganda tactics and information warfare to recruit and turn the locals against the United States.   And, to be fair:

Accounts differed as to whether the villagers voluntarily took shelter in several walled compounds or were forced by Taliban fighters to congregate there. The insurgents have been accused of using civilians as human shields.

But the message from unnamed Defense officials that these casualties were caused by the Taliban and then blamed on us strains credulity for several reasons, not least of which is the U.S.’s record. Last August, for example:

Following an investigation by their Assistance Mission for Afghanistan, the United Nations has announced that it is convinced that a minimum of 90 civilians were killed in Friday’s US airstrike in Herat Province. This number, they reported, included 60 children, and stands as one of the largest incidents of US-inflicted civilian casualties since the 2001 invasion.

And, if this were a Taliban set-up, it would be a completely new tactic:

Meanwhile, according to the Associated Press, a senior Defense official who did not want to be identified “said late Wednesday that Marine special operations forces believe the Afghan civilians were killed by grenades hurled by Taliban militants, who then loaded some of the bodies into a vehicle and drove them around the village, claiming the dead were victims of an American airstrike. A second U.S. official said a senior Taliban commander is believed to have ordered the grenade attack.”

As the AP reported, “it would be the first time the Taliban has used grenades in this way.”

While the Pentagon spins its story, the International Committee of the Red Cross has stated bluntly that US airstrikes hit civilian houses and revealed that an ICRC counterpart in the Red Crescent was among the dead.

It should be fairly easy to determine whether the damage to a given structure was caused by a grenade or by a missile, so stay tuned.

More generally, we know that airstrikes tend to cause large numbers of civilian casualties vs. other military tactics. If it turns out that you’re heavily utilizing this tactic, it’s only a matter of time before you have an episode like this.  Well, guess what?

Air Force, Navy and other coalition warplanes dropped a record number of bombs in Afghanistan during April, Air Forces Central figures show.

In the past month, warplanes released 438 bombs, the most ever.

April also marked the fourth consecutive month that the number of bombs dropped rose, after a decline starting last July.

With a record-setting number of airstrikes capping off four months of escalating strikes, it’s absolutely reasonable to expect an event like this. Even if it turned out that the Taliban did frame the U.S. in this particular event, it’s only a matter of time until we do kill another huddling mass of non-combatants if we insist on using airstrikes in Afghanistan.

For that matter, choosing war from among several options with which to respond to the 9/11 attacks guarantees civilian deaths. Anyone who can read should know by now that modern warfare kills more civilians than combatants. Where officials who argue for this as “The Good War” get off acting sad and shocked when the inevitable happens is beyond me. Regardless of whether the Taliban or U.S. forces caused this particular mass casualty event, it’s past time to jettison the idea that it’s possible to fight a sterile, “combatants-only” war. If the United States is serious about the oft-stated desire to avoid responsibility for civilian casualties, they should stop dropping things that explode in other people’s countries.

[UPDATE: Siun has an excellent post available that offers a roundup of details that continue to argue against the military’s insinuation that they were framed: military officials were warned that civilians were in the area, but despite that the air strikes lasted for more than an hour and included two villages, and the International Committee of the Red Cross’s investigative team confirmed air strike casualties.]


Much has been made in the last few days about a video showing U.S. military chaplains in Afghanistan encouraging troops to use Pashto-language Bibles to evangelize the locals. For me, the shocking thing about this video is not the call to evangelism–most Christians believe they have an imperative for evangelism that transcends any military General Order. (Although from the counterinsurgency perspective, it should put paid to any notion that a military dominated by conservative evangelical Christians can perform anything remotely like textbook counterinsurgency. The fact that the military thinks a General Order will stop something like this is silly. Seriously, they’re evangelicals for Pete’s sake–they evangelize!) The shocking statement in this video comes at 4:56:

…Our mission [is] to eradicate insurgents, the Taliban and everyone else who’s bad…

This idea that there are people so evil that they must be eradicated absolutely infects modern Christianity, and it’s utterly opposed to the teachings of Jesus. But this idea lays the foundation for Christian participation in war, and it fits so well with our instinctual drive for safety that it enables our willingness as Christians to “regret” civilian deaths without stopping the activity that makes them inevitable.  This militarization of the faith helps enable the ongoing fight in Afghanistan, and it absolutely guarantees that we’ll trade the lives of civilians in pursuit of vengeance and safety, neither of which are of any value from the perspective of the gospels.

So long as Christians in this country continue to ignore Jesus’ rejection of violence and enmity and his call to display self-sacrificing, even suicidal love for opponents, we will continue to kill civilians in Afghanistan and other places around the world.

I wish these chaplains would pay more attention to the words of another chaplain, Father Zabelka, the priest who blessed the crew of the Enola Gay before they dropped the atomic bomb:

…I struggled. I argued. But yes, there it was in the Sermon on the Mount, very clearly: “Love your enemies. Return good for evil.” I went through a crisis of faith. Either accept what Christ said, as unpassable and silly as it may seem, or deny him completely.

…Today the world is on the brink of ruin because the church refuses to be the church, because we Christians have been deceiving ourselves and the non-Christian world about the truth of Christ. There is no way to follow Christ, to love as Christ loved, and simultaneously to kill other people. It is a lie to say that the spirit that moves the trigger of a flamethrower is the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. It is a lie to say that learning to kill is learning to be Christ-like. It is a lie to say that learning to drive a bayonet into the heart of another is motivated from having put on the mind of Christ. Militarized Christianity is a lie.

…All I can say today is that I was wrong. Christ would not be the instrument to unleash such horror on his people. Therefore no follower of Christ can legitimately unleash the horror of war on God’s people…The justification of war may be compatible with some religions and philosophies, but it is not compatible with the nonviolent teaching of Jesus.

Christians in Afghanistan, if you want to evangelize, and if you want to truly avoid civilian casualties, lay down your weapons.

I’m sure you know this as a married person yourself, but my wife tells me that sorry doesn’t cut it if you keep doing it.

From Wired’s Danger Room blog:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just apologized for the civilian deaths. “We deeply regret it. We don’t know all of the circumstances or causes. And there will be a joint investigation, by your government and ours,” she said. “But any loss of life, any loss of innocent life, is particularly painful. And I want to convey to the people of both Afghanistan and Pakistan that.. we will work very hard, with your governments and with your leaders, to avoid the loss of innocent civilian life. And we deeply, deeply regret that loss.”

Translation: we’re sorry that you feel badly about the loss, but we in no way apologize for undertaking the activity which guarantees this loss.

You: I am scared and want to be safe.

Devil: Sure, I can make you safe. I have the entire Kingdom of the Sword at my disposal. All I ask is that you accept the consequences…

Up to 100 civilians feared killed in US air raids in Afghanistan

The Pentagon yesterday promised to launch a joint investigation with the Afghan government into reports that ­dozens of civilians were killed in US air strikes on Monday night.

Afghan officials estimated that at least 30 and possibly more than 100 died in the attack on Bala Baluk, a Taliban-controlled area in Farah province near the border with Iran. If confirmed, it could be one of the highest civilian death tolls since the US-backed invasion in 2001.

Villagers brought truckloads of bodies, most of them women and children, to the provincial capital.


24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Would you give 100 Afghan lives in exchange for your life? Your government thinks you would. In fact, they just did.