The Subterfuges Employed by the U.S/NATO to Excuse Killing Innocent Afghan Civilians
When we assemble the different pieces of the media jigsaw puzzle, clear patterns emerge. Western victims are presented as real, important people with names, families, hopes and dreams. Iraqi and Afghan victims of British and American violence are anonymous, nameless. They are depicted as distant shadowy figures without personalities, feelings or families. The result is that Westerners are consistently humanized, while non-Westerners are portrayed as lesser versions of humanity (from “Militants and Mistakes,” Media Lens (July 22, 2008)). While Afghans killed by US/NATO forces are completely invisible as human beings in the U.S. mainstream media, contrast the efforts undertaken by the same media to give humanity to U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan, as for example in the Washington Post at http://projects.washingtonpost.com/fallen/
A major aim of this report is to provide real figures on Afghan civilians killed by U.S/NATO actions since 2006, thereby undermining the common claim that such numbers cannot be gotten. We often hear glib statement about the “fog of war” or “war is hell” or “we don’t do body counts.” My numbers are admittedly under-estimates for reasons discussed herein (an incomplete universe of recorded deaths, a propensity of the Pentagon and its Afghan client to label as militants what were civilians, the injured who later die from wounds, censorship by omission, etc). Not counting or estimating plays into the hands of those who market the U.S. war in Afghanistan as a “clean” war, a “precision” war and the like. The latter is routinely trotted out by the apologists of aerial bombing; “It’s sort of the immaculate conception to warfare,” was how Professor of Strategy, Col. (ret. U.S Marine) Mackubin Owens at the U.S. Naval War College (Newport, R.I.) described the U.S military campaign in Afghanistan in November 2001.
The acknowledging and counting of civilian deaths in modern wars has long been a highly politicized matter. One need only recall that it took close to sixty years for the civilian carnage caused in Germany by Allied bombing (1940-1945) to be openly written about. (13) It took over fifty years for the slaughter of innocent Korean civilians in the Korean War by U.S. warplanes to make the pages of mainstream American media. (14) More recently, an acrimonious debate has raged over the scale of Iraqi civilian deaths since the U.S. invasion of March 2003, for example pitting Iraq Body Count against the believers of estimates reported in the Lancet studies (as at the Media Lens website). (15)
The liberal British scholar of peace studies, Paul Rogers, wrote in a recent article about Afghanistan
…the impulses of sympathy with these radical forces (Taliban militias, Al Qaeda forces) are fuelled by the detailed reporting by al-Jazeera and other media outlets of the many civilian victims of western air-strikes and other calamities in Afghanistan. This ensures that Muslims across the rest of the world are becoming as aware of what is happening in Afghanistan as they have been regarding Iraq since 2003. (16)
A reader in the post-9/11 world might conclude that since reporting of “the many civilian victims of western air strikes” fuels the Muslim resistance, the next step is to ignore, disparage or silence such detailed reporting (which is of course precisely what the U.S. Government has been doing). Sadly, we have come to live in a post-9/11 culture where silencing the messenger is acceptable. One recalls the U.S. bombing of the Al Jazeera office in Kabul on November 12, 2001. For the Pentagon and its many media boosters, there are good bodies (civilians killed by “our enemy”) and bad bodies (civilians killed by “our” militaries), respectively in the western mainstream labeled accidental collateral damage and (Afghan civilians transformed by the click on a keyboard into) “militants” or “insurgents.” During the Yugoslav conflict, Human Rights Watch highlighted civilians killed by Serbs while neglecting civilians killed by non-Serbs. (17) Today in Afghanistan, the U.S. mainstream media led by the Associated Press describes in detail the civilian victims of “Taliban” suicide attacks often even providing photographs while remaining far more circumspect about the victims of US/NATO air strikes and never printing photographs. (18) Counting dead civilians remains a highly politicized exercise.
Two main subterfuges have been used by the U.S and NATO militaries, the compliant corporate media and organizations like Human Rights Watch to excuse the killing and wounding of innocent Afghan civilians. The first is to express self-righteous anger over “them” killing civilians intentionally whereas “we” never intentionally target civilians. The second is to assert that the dastardly Taliban and their Muslim or Arab associates employ civilians as human shields.
A third means examined elsewhere (19) has been to simply suppress whenever possible written reports and especially photos of the victims of U.S/NATO military actions (“bad” bodies) in Afghanistan, all the while amply publishing stories and photos of Afghan civilians killed by IED’s or suicide bombers (“good” bodies). Photos of civilians whose death was caused by U.S. or NATO bombs are virtually non-existent. (20) One might call this censorship by omission. (21) News-magazine photo coverage of the “war on terrorism” in Afghanistan most often supports U.S. government narrative and versions of events. (22) The policy of embedding reporters with U.S. or NATO occupation forces is an obvious attempt at removing independent reporting which, sadly, most often succeeds.
Survivor of Azizabad massacre
U.S human rights lawyers charged on July 20, 2008, that US military prisons are "legal black holes" and that force is employed to "shut people up" about activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Many people in Afghanistan and in Iraq who have been targeted for detention are local journalists covering the conflict in their own country," said another prominent US human rights lawyer, Barbara J. Olshansky.
"When the United States detains reporters, photographers, camera operators and holds them for long period without charge for any offence and without trials and without any evidence, we know that part of the goal is to just shut people up," she said. (23)
The mainstream U.S. corporate media led by Fox News largely has sought to present the Afghan invasion as a simple war of good versus evil. (24) Texts or images which might have raised questions have been censored. Fox News has gone far beyond-the-call-of-duty in parroting U.S. military interpretations (25) but others in the U.S. corporate media have followed suit, e.g., Laura King of the Associated Press has been a notorious under-counter of Afghan civilian deaths. (26)
A new twist in Pentagon/NATO news management has recently been introduced. As of August 2008, the U.S. Air Force no longer releases daily reports about missions over Afghanistan. On the British side, Britain is funding a surge in spin doctors in Afghanistan to construct and present pro-NATO/US media reports. (27)
The intentionality argument is often couched in the language of justifiable collateral damage, regrettable but necessary. Since the killing was collateral, it cannot be intentional goes the story. The overarching problem is the criminal nature of the offensive war first waged by the United States and Britain upon an entire sovereign country after 9/11. The collective group of “Afghans” has de facto been targeted for seven years as lives and countryside have been laid to waste; anyone who opposes the U.S/NATO occupation is by definition an “enemy” and can be justifiably killed collaterally. As pointed out by others, “[we] can’t possibly judge the morality of collateral damage while leaving out the question of the war itself… it is the immorality and illegality of a war that makes collateral damage a crime.” (28)
Least-cost considerations (in terms of U.S. military deaths and U.S. dollars) by the US and NATO militaries have directly translated into thousands of Afghan civilian casualties. How? During the initial phases of the U.S. bombing campaign but still today, U.S. warplanes dropped powerful bombs in civilian-rich areas with little concern for Afghan civilians. In effect, I am turning Michael Walzer's notion of 'due care' (29) upside down: that is, far from acknowledging a positive responsibility to protect innocent Afghans from the misery of war, U.S military strategists chose to impose levels of harm upon innocent Afghan civilians in order to reduce present and possible future dangers faced by U.S forces. As I wrote in late 2001,
The absolute need to avoid U.S. military casualties means fling high up in the sky, increasing the probability of killing civilians:
"……..better stand clear and fire away. Given this implicit decision, the slaughter of innocent people, as a statistical eventuality is not an accident but a priority -- in which Afghan civilian casualties are substituted for American military casualties." (30)
But, I believe the argument goes deeper and that race enters the calculation. The sacrificed Afghan civilians are not 'white' whereas the overwhelming number of U.S. pilots and elite ground troops are white. This 'reality' serves to amplify the positive benefit-cost ratio of certainly sacrificing darker Afghans today [and Indochinese, Panamanians and Iraqis] for the benefit of probably saving American soldier-citizens tomorrow. What I am saying is that when the "other" is non-white, the scale of violence used by the U.S. government to achieve its stated objectives at minimum cost knows no limits. A contrary case might be raised with Serbia which was also subjected to mass bombing in 1999. But, the Serbs were in the view of U.S. policymakers and the corporate media tainted ['darkened'] by their prior 'Communist' experience. No instance exists [except during World War II] where a foreign Caucasian state became the war target of the U.S. government. (31) The closest example might be that of the war waged by Britain upon Northern Ireland and, there, the British troops applied focused violence upon its Caucasian 'enemy.' When the "other" is a non-white foreigner, the state violence employed becomes amplified. (32)
Today, the aerial bombing in Afghanistan is more related to close air support called-in by ground forces as a means to defeat the enemy without having to fight him on the ground and likely suffer casualties. Both high-level bombing and midnight attack ground attacks served to shift the burden of casualties upon Afghan civilians. The doctrine that `war is hell' seeks to transfer any responsibility for the cruelty of war to the enemy. (33) The U.S/NATO war managers and their handmaidens in the defense and corporate media establishments dredge out the tired old “intent” argument. As Edward Herman noted,
…it is claimed by the war managers that these deaths and injuries are not deliberate, but are only “collateral” to another end, they are treated by the mainstream media, NGOs, new humanitarians, and others as a lesser evil than cases where civilians are openly targeted. But this differential treatment is a fraud, even if we accept the sometimes disputable claim of inadvertence (occasionally even acknowledged by officials to be false, as described below). Even if not the explicit target, if collateral civilian deaths are highly probable and statistically predictable they are clearly acceptable and intentional. If in 500 raids on Afghan villages alleged to harbor al Qaeda cadres it is likely that civilians will die in 450 of them, those deaths are an integral component of the plan and the clear responsibility of the planners and executioners. As law professor Michael Tonry has said, “In the criminal law, purpose and knowledge are equally culpable states of mind.” (34)