And then it happens all over again.
It’s very good to see new attention being paid to civilian casualties as the horrific murders of three Afghan women, two pregnant, comes to light – and the new Wikileaks videos are documenting incidents that passed virtually unnoticed at the time. But these incidents are not unique, not surprising, not news to the people of the countries we occupy. And neither are the “regrets” and promises of more careful behavior to come.
They have seen it all before:
Take the murders of 90 Afghan civilians in one airstrike – in September 2008. While local villagers reported the killings, the US military told the western press that only insurgents were killed – and assured everyone that they were certain of these “facts” because a journalist had been on the scene. It was only later, and not in the US press that we learned that that journalist was none other than Oliver North – and it was only after video taken by a doctor on the scene and a UN investigation that the US military admitted responsibility.
Or look at the 2005 Haditha massacre in Iraq: “A Naval Criminal Investigative Service report found that the Marines then killed five unarmed civilians whom they ordered out of a car — one Marine alleged that another got down on one knee and shot them one by one — before storming several houses and killing women and children, some of them still in their pajamas and lying in bed…
A report by Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell on Haditha, leaked to the Washington Post noted:
“All levels of command tended to view civilian casualties, even in significant numbers, as routine and as the natural and intended result of insurgent tactics … Statements made by the chain of command during interviews for this investigation, taken as a whole, suggest that Iraqi civilian lives are not as important as U.S. lives, their deaths are just the cost of doing business, and that the Marines need to get ‘the job done’ no matter what it takes.”
And the Post’s Josh White reported that Bargewell’s analysis shows that the chain of command consistently misrepresented or refused to investigate the massacre:
Then, no one asked any further questions, Bargewell wrote, despite gruesome photographs circulating among junior Marines that showed that women and children had been killed in their beds.
The attitudes towards civilians which lead to such easy killing have been well known to our military leaders. In 2007, the Pentagon studied the mental health of US troops in Iraq and found:
• Only 47 percent of the soldiers and 38 percent of Marines said noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect.
• About a third of troops said they had insulted or cursed at civilians in their presence.
• About 10 percent of soldiers and Marines reported mistreating civilians or damaging property when it was not necessary. Mistreatment includes hitting or kicking a civilian.
This report led Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant to say:
“I was a little bit disturbed by what I saw because, one, Marines were more likely to do those things than were soldiers,” he said. “I want to get after that because, again, those things are things that either incite the population or, conversely, help to win the fight if you do them right.” and then said that an Army commander in Afghanistan was wrong when he issued a public apology for an incident in March where Marines “killed and wounded innocent Afghan people.”
19 Afghans were killed and 50 injured in the incident the commandant referenced.
Then there’s this, from 10/19/2008:
On 1PM on Thursday General David McKiernan’s senior staff officers “were briefing reporters and Western aid groups in Kabul on the new measures McKiernan had ordered for the purpose of “protecting the civilian population” during combat operations.”
At the same time, a NATO air strike was killing “25 to 30 civilians” in the village of Nad Ali in the south of Afghanistan.
Local officials and residents of Nad Ali said Thursday that a bomb had hit three houses in a village in the Loy Bagh District where seven families were seeking refuge from fighting elsewhere. Mahboob Khan, the district chief, said in a telephone interview that 18 bodies had been retrieved, and that as many as 12 other bodies remained in the rubble.
People near Kandahar in Afghanistan were also celebrating last week, celebrating a wedding – and once again, US air strikes brought death and despair rather than joy to these innocents. 37 died, 35 more were wounded. Nine “insurgents” were also killed…
The U.S. military said Thursday that civilians attempted to leave during the battle in Shah Wali Kott, “but the insurgents forced them to remain as they continued to fire on the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) and Coalition forces along the highway.”
The Kandahar attack was followed on Thursday by another:
The latest incident happened Thursday morning in northwestern Afghanistan and left up to 30 civilians dead, according to officials in Badghis province.
There is one hopeful sign however:
“I’ve given direct guidance, and so has my boss to me, that if there’s any doubt at all that the enemy is firing from a house or building where there might be women and children, that we’ll just back off,” Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, the commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division, told CNN’s Barbara Starr.
“That potentially is something that we did not do before, but now because of this increased emphasis, we are doing,” he said…
Yet, a month later:
They came in the night and shot Saeed Alam in his bed. His three-year-old son was crying at his feet and his mother had leapt on top of him to try to block the bullets. Both of them were hurled out of the way and an American soldier opened fire…
Saeed Alam was shot four times in the chest in the raid last Saturday. His son landed in a fire pit, used for cooking. His mother died of shock the next day. The American soldiers left, taking 10 other Afghans with them. “We are not Taliban. We do not support al-Qa’ida but if these searches continue we will definitely join the anti-government elements,” said Mr. Janan, a senior member of the Gardeserai shura, or council…
“What laws allow them to kill him without an investigation?” Mr. Janan said. “There are no courts, there is no justice. We are Muslims. Maybe they are from another religion but there are international laws and customs. Who will tell me that killing this person was legal?”
Three recent U.S. Special Forces operations killed 50 people—the vast majority civilians…
Afghan officials say an overnight raid Jan. 7 in the village of Masmoot in Laghman killed 19 civilians. A raid in Kapisa on Jan. 19 killed 15 people, mostly civilians. And a second Laghman raid Jan. 23, in Guloch village, killed 16, they say.
In addition to the 50 listed above, three more civilians were killed by US forces Saturday, including two children in Helmand and a tribal elder in Paktia.
After each such incident, American military officials promise that more care will be taken—yet we still read accounts like these from Laghman:
An angry Afghan man with a thick black beard ranted wildly at the U.S. officials, shouting about how their overnight raid had killed 16 civilians in his village. An Afghan elder cried out in grief that his son and four grandsons were among the dead.
“One young boy said his whole family was killed, and now he wants to become a suicide bomber. This is a very negative message,” Mashal said. ”
These deaths occurred during nighttime raids by US Special Forces.
So many of these raids are tied to US Special Forces. Take the example of one SOF unit — the Fox Company of the Marine Special Operations Forces — “who have been responsible for all three of the largest civilian casualty events, two of which occurred after MSOC was removed from Afghanistan for acting like cowboys the first time around [but] the DOD is not worried: (h/t Cernig for link via email)”
The spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan, Colonel Greg Julian, denied reports that commanders had lost confidence in Marsoc and insisted the group was operating under the same rules as everyone else.
“They have the same rules of engagement that everyone has and there’s a tactical directive for all international forces,” he said. “Marsoc was involved in these incidents, but it’s not all the same guys. They get the lessons learned passed on from all of the rotations and experiences. Yet they are human.”
As Jerome Starkey reported a year ago about the same unit:
Troops from the US Marine Corps’ recently formed Special Operations Command, or Marsoc, were responsible for calling in air strikes in Bala Baluk, in Farah, last week which officials say left up to 147 people dead. The Red Cross confirmed that women and children – more than 90 – according to Afghan investigators, were among those killed.
In August last year a 20-man Marsoc unit, fighting alongside about 20 Afghan commandos, directed fire from unmanned drones, attack helicopters and a cannon-armed Spectre C-130 gunship into compounds in Azizabad, in Shindand district in Herat, leaving more than 90 dead – many of them children.
And in March 2007 a Marsoc convoy fired on civilians near Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, as they sped away from a suicide bomb attack close to the Pakistan border. Eyewitnesses said the marines fired indiscriminately at pedestrians and civilian cars, killing at least 19 people and injuring more than 50.
Their tour was cut short and they were flown out of Afghanistan on 3 April, but they were later spared criminal charges by marine General Samuel Helland, after a three-week “court of inquiry” in the United States.
It is worth remembering that Stanley McChrystal was commander of JSOC at the time of their 2007 removal.
This is just a sampling. These are the big events with many civilians killed but there are untold numbers of little events. Back in 2007, the ACLU released details they uncovered using FOIA of incidents in which civilians were killed by US forces. These accounts represented only those civilians killed in “non-combat” situations. And these are only the ones for which the military accepted some level of responsibility – or rather agreed to pay a condolence fee without accepting responsibility. At the time the New York Times reported that “the military has paid more than $32 million to Iraqi and Afghan civilians for noncombat-related killings, injuries and property damage, an Army spokeswoman said. That figure does not include condolence payments made at a unit commander’s discretion.” And given that the average payment for a dead adult civilian was $3,000, you begin to get some sense of the scale of devastation we have brought to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is good that we are taking notice – and that once again an attempted cover-up of a horrific crime has been revealed. Someday we may also face up to what these incidents say about our military and their “leadership,” and someday we may actually demand a stop to these war crimes.