Prof. Marc W. Herold
In the past few years, U.S. officialdom and the mainstream press barely take note of dead Afghans unless the number exceeds thirty.
Victims’ remains from the U.S. air strike being buried in a mass grave (Reuters/Stringer photo)
In the past few years, U.S. officialdom and the mainstream press barely take note of dead Afghans unless the number exceeds thirty. On the other hand, when a Taliban’s improved explosive device kills innocent bystanders, meters of newsprint spews forth often accompanied with victims’ photos. For the U.S. press, Human Rights Watch, and U.S. citizenry clearly some bodies are worthy of mention whereas others are not. As I wrote some time ago,
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. 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. (2)
The slaughter in Kunduz during the night of September 3/4th of many Afghan civilians by a United States Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle dropping two 500-pound "precision" bombs upon a large group of people reveals (at least) two things: we know about this deadly attack because it took place in an area where the carnage could not be concealed (anymore); and we know about it because of the scale of the slaughter (too big to hide). But does anyone know about the young girl killed by a NATO missile and about her wounded sister, when the "precision" missile struck their home on the night of this September 1st in the village of Narizi in the Tani district southwest of Khost city? Does anyone remember hearing about a massacre similar in its deadliness to that in Kunduz which occurred in the Panjwayi district on October 24, 2006? Or the massacre in Haydarabad, Helmand in June 2007?(3)
The context to understanding what took place in Kunduz is a long succession of such deadly U.S. attacks, many of which simply go un-reported by the mainstream media but which I have reconstructed in the Afghan Victim Memorial Project (AVMP) website. Such callous killing is related to the very low value attached to an Afghan life. (4) I reproduce below the page in the AVMP which describes the attack upon Panjwayi which involved similar numbers of civilian casualties to that in Kunduz:
Why don’t we hear anything about the estimated 65 Afghan and Pashtun civilians killed in U.S/NATO actions during August 2009? The answer is because the median number of deaths per incident in August 2009 where US/NATO actions led to civilian deaths was "only" four – far below the threshold of notice (becoming "mediagenic"), and thus hardly worthy of mention by the U.S. officialdom and press (especially when General McChrystal is trying to sell his "new" Afghan strategy that the United States is in Afghanistan to "protect civilians"). What constitutes such a threshold of notice for media is a different matter from the more widely studied question of press and public reactions to civilian deaths in wartime. (5) Another lesser contributing explanatory variable affecting whether an attack gets reported or not could be the lack of access to the site of the attacks.
U.S. and NATO actions during August 2009, two months into McChrystal’s "new" Afghan strategy killed approximately 65 civilians, a figure more that 25% higher than the 52 recorded for July. The Table below demonstrates that the monthly average of civilians killed has decreased in the last two months relative to the first half of 2009 and to 2008. But, the "cost" has been a sharply rising rate of US/NATO military deaths. For every military death during January –June 2009, about 3.7 civilians perished. By August 2009, for every occupation force soldier killed, only 0.93 civilians died. This contrasts with a figure of 9.3-11.0 for 2001 through 2006. (6)
Table 1. The Relative Lethality of the U.S/NATO War in Afghanistan
The midnight bombing of a large group of people congregated around two fuel tanker trucks in the Chahar Dara area of Kunduz Province on the night of September 3/4th, however, generated immediate and prolific media coverage. It presents a case study of both how the Afghan war is being fought militarily on the ground and in the media.
The military dimension is quite clear. At about 10 P.M., a group of Taliban fighters high jacked two tanker trucks carrying fuel for NATO occupation forces some ten kilometers south of Kunduz city. The incident was reported by German forces to the NATO air command. Soon after the high jacking, the trucks tried to cross a small river and one of the vehicles got stuck in the mud about two kilometers from the village of Omar Khel. The Taliban present tried to disengage the tanker but failed. In order to make it easier to move the truck, they drained fuel. For reasons which remain unclear, word reached nearby villagers who rushed to the scene to get free fuel. At this point two United States Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles appeared and at 2:30 A.M. dropped two 500-pound bombs guided by a global positioning JDAM system. The predictable took place: a huge explosion which incinerated a large number of persons, killing and wounding many. Villagers said their relatives were siphoning fuel from the hijacked trucks and were burned alive in a giant fireball. Apparently, the American F-15E pilots and co-pilots dropped the two bombs upon the immobilized trucks, revealing an obvious lack of sensitivity as to who might actually be in the group of people around the trucks. The dearth of accurate ground intelligence possessed by U.S/NATO forces in Afghanistan is legendary. In other words, a deadly air strike was launched upon a target where the probability of civilians being present was high.
The mainstream media narrative about the attack followed the familiar news management pattern of damage control. (7) The first reports took the Pentagon cue proclaiming that only Taliban or militants had been killed in a "precision strike." Then when evidence mounted that civilians also were wounded and killed, put most of the blame on the Taliban for the civilian deaths (as did John Burns, chief foreign correspondent of the New York Times). An important point here needs to be stressed: what were once "Taliban" have now become "civilians." One suspects that many of the so-called Taliban killed elsewhere across Afghanistan and in the Pakistan borderlands by the U.S/NATO/Afghan Army were civilians. The next step is to announce that an investigation will be carried out by the U.S. or NATO – in other words, the perpetrator will investigate himself (with predictable results). On the other hand, the more independent-minded media like Reuters, Agence France Presse and Pahjwok Afghan News begin presenting detailed stories told by locals present or near to the scene of the massacre. Time passes; the investigation languishes or produces utterly laughable "results" (as in the case of Azizabad, Herat) and some token "condolence" payments are made to victims’ family members. More likely than not, McChrystal or a simulacrum will then announce a new strategy solemnly inveighing to protect Afghan civilians.
The Associated Press and Yahoo!News began the reporting by noting that a NATO airstrike had killed 90 people in a pre-dawn attack near the village of Omar Khel. They quoted the German military command which unequivocally asserted that "there were no civilian casualties," adding however that locals reported civilian casualties. Soon thereafter, Reuters headlined "NATO strikes fuel tankers in Afghanistan, many dead." The wire service report said while NATO believed all the casualties were Taliban fighters, angry residents in the northern Kunduz province said villagers were collecting fuel from the high jacked trucks and were caught in the blast. Asked how U.S pilots could know whether a crowd around the trucks included civilians, Navy Lt-Commander Christine Sidenstricker, press officer for the U.S and NATO forces said, "Based on the information available at the scene, the commanders believed they were insurgents." By mid-afternoon on September 4th, the independent Afghan news service, Pajhwok Afghan News, was headlining "Scores perish in Kunduz" including "dozens of civilians" citing local officials. Pajhwok quoted a security official who said the death toll was more than 200, adding that the warplanes struck the people who had gathered to receive free oil distributed by the high jackers. A couple villagers were quoted by name who claimed that relatives had died. Pajhwok also noted that the director of Kunduz Hospital admitted receiving 15 wounded persons many of whom were writhing in pain, their skin peeling off as a result of severe burns. Such aspects were not mentioned in western news wire service feeds. The Deutsche Press Agentur relied heavily upon the initial account provided by Kunduz’s governor, Mohammad Omar. Omar stated that "around 90 people with around half of them civilians were killed in the explosions." The wire service noted that a German military spokesman said, "There were presumably no uninvolved people," meaning no civilians had perished. Soon thereafter, a no doubt chastised Omar changed his story saying later on Friday that up to 60 people, mostly Taliban, were killed in the NATO airstrike. Omar said, "The problem is that all those people around the tankers were badly burned and can’t be recognized, but they were mostly armed Taliban and the rest who went from the village at 2 AM cannot be other than Taliban." He even added that four Chechens and a "senior Taliban commander" were killed in the blast.
More details began emerging. The Telegraph’s Ben Farmer in Kabul quoted a local, Mohammad Daud, 32, "Villagers rushed to the fuel tanker with any available container that they had, including water buckets and pots for cooking oil. There were 10-15 Taliban on top of the tanker. This was when they were bombed. Everyone around the fuel tanker died." Other accounts from the Kunduz hospital noted a large stream of wounded arriving with horrific burns including a ten year-old boy. A report by Frank Jordans of the Associated Press estimated 40 civilians had perished and quoted a member of the Kunduz provincial council and a native of the village where the attack took place (Omar Khel), who said some 500 people from surrounding villages had swarmed around the trucks. He said villagers told him the insurgents had invited them to help themselves to the fuel, "The Taliban called to the villagers 'Come take free fuel,’ he said, and the prospect of free fuel must have been irresistible. 'The people are so hungry and poor’." The official added that five people in a single family had been killed and a man he knows named Haji Gul Bhuddin lost three sons.
A report in the Los Angeles Times followed adding new information. It stated that there was a time lag of more than half an hour between when the decision was made and when it was carried out which "might have given more villagers time to arrive as word spread that there was fuel for the taking." We see the effort being made by Laura King et. al. to exonerate the U.S bombing command. Contrast that with Maria Golovnina of Reuters who headlined a wire service report written three hours earlier, "After Afghan strike, charred flesh and burning rage." Golovnina provided vivid detail,
The desperately poor Afghan villagers heard that the Taliban had abandoned loaded fuel tankers by the river and thought it was their lucky day. Hundreds ran to fill jugs of the valuable stuff. Suddenly, a U.S. F-15 fighter jet roared over and opened fire. Mohammad Deen heard the explosion. When the flames died away by Friday morning, charred corpses were still strewn on the riverbank. Afghan officials say as many as 90 people died in the strike, which NATO forces say was called in by German troops to target Taliban fighters who had hijacked two fuel trucks. Villagers could scarcely conceal their rage. "It's a tragedy, and people are angry, very angry. The international community came here to help, but they are not helping anymore, they are only dropping bombs on us," said Deen. Video footage filmed by Afghans at the scene the next morning showed piles of charred bodies lying by the river, beside chunks of twisted metal. The frame of one of the tanker trucks still smoldered. In the nearby provincial capital Kunduz, dozens of villagers, some visibly angry, gathered at a small regional hospital, a crumbling concrete building abuzz with frantic activity as doctors treated more than a dozen injured. Burn victims lay bandaged and groaning in the courtyard. Some waited to be airlifted to Kabul for more treatment with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). ICRC spokeswoman Jessica Barry, part of a team trying to help evacuate some of the wounded, said it was impossible to know how many people had died. One man, Wazir Gul, stood still as he watched his badly burned brother, Mohammad, lying motionless under a white cotton sheet in the back of a battered pick-up truck near the hospital. "He is so burned and injured that he cannot move," Gul said.Many said they too, did not know how many people had died, fearing many bodies may have been washed away by the river. Others did not know what the Taliban were doing in their area and what the fuel tanks were meant for. One village elder said anger at the foreign troops was mixed with resentment toward the Taliban themselves, traditionally entrenched in the south but increasingly active in northern provinces like Kunduz. "The Taliban stole that fuel for themselves," said Haji Amanullah, the elder. "They could not use it so they dumped it. It's not like they are helping any of us. We can only pick up things they abandon."
Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post (predictably) initiated the "blame the Taliban" for civilian deaths line of argument quoting the unrepentant German military officers who asserted that all those killed were insurgents or people conscripted by the Taliban to help with the theft of the trucks. Being well-connected to the foreign militaries, Chandrasekaran was able to provide some interesting additional technical details. A B-1B bomber had been in the area when the trucks were high jacked and spotted the trucks bogged down while trying to cross a river. German commanders on the ground became concerned the trucks would be used as suicide bombs against their Provincial Reconstruction Team located about 10 kilometers away. As a result, they declared an imminent threat and requested air support. Two F-15Es arrived at around 2 AM local time. Some thirty minutes later upon receiving instructions from a "German targeter" one of the U.S planes dropped two 500-pound GBU-38 bombs, one on each truck.
A couple hours later, veteran New York Times reporter John Burns expressed much more explicitly the "blame the Taliban" argument,
Fuller details of the Kunduz airstrike will take some time to emerge, if they ever do, but early reports that the Taliban hijackers of the fuel trucks may have allowed or encouraged local civilians to gather around the trucks to siphon fuel suggest that that the men who seized the trucks may have been careless at best, cynical at worst, in allowing civilians to put themselves at fatal risk by assembling around a potential military target. This, too, is another ugly feature of the Afghan fighting, as it has been in Iraq – an insurgency that recognizes the propaganda value of America killing innocents, and doesn’t care greatly, if at all, about the carnage that ensues.
By late on Friday, various news wire services reported that NATO was launching an inquiry into the bombing and by early Saturday NATO officials were on the scene near Kunduz seeking to calm Afghans after the deadly strike. McChrystal uttered the predicable, "I take this possible loss of life or injury to innocent Afghans very seriously." Lynne O’Donnell of the Agence France Press struck a more skeptical note headlining "NATO strike hits heart of new Afghan strategy." She noted the atrocious timing of the U.S attack – as a 'foreign consultant’ in Kabul put it, "It couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Western powers trying to justify their presence in the country" – and reporting a chorus of interests demanding an investigation. No one dared raise the matter of a truly independent investigation.
An Agence France Presse report noted memorial prayers being made "in nearly a dozen villages for those killed in northern Kunduz province, where the atmosphere was highly charged." Pajhwok Afghan News headlined on Saturday, "150 civilians dead in air raid: Villagers." The Pajhwok reporter, Abdul Matin Sarfaraz wrote,
Residents of Chahar Dara district in northern Kunduz province say more than 150 civilians were killed and 20 others wounded in Friday's air strike by NATO-led forces. The bombing in Haji Aman village came as insurgents and residents emptied oil into jerry canes from tankers hijacked by Taliban militants from the Kunduz-Baghlan Highway. Inhabitants of the area told Pajhwok Afghan News all those killed in the bombardment were civilians and there were no Taliban at the site at the time the attack took place. Fighters had left the scene after they asked the people to take fuel for free. An elder from Sarak-i-Bala neighbourhood, Abdul Rahim, said 15 children were among the 50 people of Yaqubi village killed in the bombing raid. The man, who lost two sons in the incident, argued: "Poverty brought us to this stage." No guerrillas were among the dead, he said, explaining the fighters well before the deadly assault. A 50-year-old woman bitterly cried while standing in front of her ruined house. She said her three sons, husband and a grandson perished in the bombardment. Locals showed this reporter as many as 50 graves of civilian victims. In the Maulvi Naeem village, residents said 20 civilians were killed in the incident. Haji Najmuddin, a tribal elder, lost two nephews. He claimed chemicals bombs were dropped on the villagers. Clothes of his nephews were not damaged but their bodies were badly charred, the man argued.This reporter saw the graves of those killed in the air strike. Seventy of the fatalities were from Yaqubi and Maulvi Naeem villages and the rest from three other areas.
By late Saturday even the New York Times’ Richard Oppel was conceding that at least 80 people had been killed, many of them civilians, but again fell back upon a NATO investigations to sort out the mix of militants and civilians. Julian Borger and Jon Boone of The Guardian headlined, "The Afghan village devastated by NATO strike on Taliban." They wrote that the NATO missiles wiped out much of the village of Omar Khel and in so doing did "critical damage to US and NATO hopes of making a fresh start in Afghanistan." They quoted Moeen Marastial, a member of parliament from Kunduz,
Local people are telling me 130 people have been killed despite all the promises of Nato to do fewer bombardments and reduce civilian casualties. There will be a reaction to this. It is a very bad day for international forces in Afghanistan.
On Sunday morning, the well-connected Rajiv Chandraseekaran of the Washington Post informed the world that a lone Afghan "informant" told a German commander that more than 100 Taliban insurgents were gathering around two high jacked fuel tankers stuck in the mud. In addition, the F-15E’s video was grainy and could not distinguish whether the people gathered were carrying weapons. None the less, the order to bomb was given. By late Saturday, the dead were being buried in villages around Omar Khel as Taliban fighters faces wrapped in black scarves and AK-47s sluing across their shoulders watched on according to Reuters. Reuters reporter Mohammad Hamed wrote,
Weeping and reciting prayers, villagers knelt in front of about 50 graves dug outside Yaqoubi, a scattering of mud-brick huts near the site where Afghan officials say a NATO bombing killed scores of people, many of them civilians. They paid little attention to groups of Taliban men who watched the funeral service from afar. The fighters' presence underlined the Taliban's tightening grip in once-quiet parts of northern Afghanistan at a time when U.S.-led forces are battling to contain an increasingly aggressive insurgency mainly centered in the south and east. "We will take revenge. A lot of innocent people were killed here," one of the Taliban fighters, only his eyes left uncovered by a thick scarf, said at the funeral.
An attack carried out by two jet bombers of the United States Air Force called-in by the German military killed anywhere from 40-150 Afghan civilians. Locals say bombs hit the area when 200 people from five nearby villages had gathered to siphon off the fuel which they thought had been abandoned by the Taliban. "Every family around here has victims," said Sahar Gul, a 54-year-old village elder from Yaqoubi. "There are entire families that have been destroyed." The luckier ones made it to the Kunduz Hospital:
The dead villagers were buried in the presence of the Taliban. How many more recruits for or sympathizers of the Taliban have been created?
Media reporting in the aftermath of the Kunduz massacre borders on the psychedelic. Late Monday, the London Times reported that McChrystal had henceforth banned alcohol consumption by U.S. troops on Bagram Air Base. The Times reported that when McChrystal tried to contact his military commanders on Friday,
…to find out what happened, however, he found, to his fury, that many of them were either drunk or too hung-over to respond. (8)
Lest one blame only the Americans, a "coalition" ally, a group of Macedonian guards was sent home during 2009 because they were discovered drunk on duty, while protecting the back gate to Bagram. The 3,500 German troops were labeled by their German officers as "useless cake-eaters" who consumed 1.7 million pints of beer and 90,000 bottles of wine a year.
The tone in Washington was different. The Washington Post’s Pamela Constable downplayed Afghan anger over the civilian deaths. (9) She quoted "some Kunduz officials" who said the killed villagers were all "relatives" of the insurgents and were "equally guilty" because they were looting fuel from the tankers when they died. In other words, for Ms. Constable being a "relative" of an enemy soldier makes her/him a justified military target. She also replayed the Taliban-are-to-blame mantra that 20 Taliban fighters had pressured villagers to go get free fuel and, ipso facto, the Taliban were responsible for the civilian deaths.
For their part, the Taliban appealed to un-named international human rights organizations for help in investigating what had happened, while publishing a list of the 79 victims. (10) The liberal progressive Andrew Bacevich noted that under Obama Afghanistan had become a Pentagon top priority and that Obama will have to persuade the American public that "going for broke" is correct. Bacevich counsels that before so committing, maybe a different question
Merits presidential consideration: what alternatives other than open-ended war might enable the United States to achieve its limited interests in Afghanistan? (11)
Question posed and unanswered. No mention by this "progressive" that the stated Obama goals in Afghanistan today are identical to those of George W. Bush in 2001-2. No mention that a rapid exit might be the preferred option given that Al Qaeda can best be countered through patient international police work – as shown by the capture of major Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, not Afghanistan - rather than occupying countries and bombing their inhabitants.
McChrystal bans alcohol consumption for his troops; Pamela Constable pronounces a new definition of enemy combatant, all the relatives of enemy combatants. The Taliban call for an international investigation of the Kunduz massacre and Andrew Bacevich pleads for a mirage to Obama’s open-ended war.
Related: American Apology Ameliorates Afghans