In Afghanistan, U.S. Atrocities Continue

By William Van Wagenen

Yesterday, February 22, 2010 I noticed a strange story on the front page of the Wall Street Journal . It was entitled, “Civilians in Cross Hairs Slow Troops,” and began like this:

“As Capt. Anthony Zinni monitored a live video feed from a Predator drone circling overhead, he spotted four men planting a booby trap in the middle of the road here. For Capt. Zinni, one of the officers responsible for approving airstrikes in the nine-day-old battle for Marjah, it seemed like an easy call: The men were digging a hole alongside a road where a Marine supply convoy was scheduled to pass within hours. But just as he was about to give the order to strike, Capt. Zinni spotted even-smaller white figures on the video running along the path south of the canal. Children. Maybe 50 feet from the men planting the booby trap. “It’s not a good shot,” Capt. Zinni said, ordering the Predator drone to delay the strike. “It’s not a good shot.”

This moving scene of a Marine showing compassion and respect for Afghan life was followed by further assertions that the US military supposedly takes great care in Afghanistan to avoid killing civilians. Capt. Zinni is further quoted as saying, “The last thing I want to do is kill kids.”

I found it ironic that the paper would carry such a story given the fact that anyone who casually follows coverage of the war in Afghanistan knows that the U.S. has been “killing kids” and other Afghan civilians in airstrikes in Afghanistan fairly regularly (If Zinni is sincere about not wanting to kill kids, he probably needs to find a new job). So regularly in fact, that even Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whom the US hand-picked to lead the country after the US invasion in 2001, regularly condemns the U.S. for such airstrikes.

Take for example, the triple U.S. airstrike in the village of Granai in 2009. The New York Times reported on May 14 of that year that, “An independent Afghan organization, Afghanistan Rights Monitor, said Wednesday that at least 117 civilians were killed — including 26 women and 61 children — drawing on interviews with 21 villagers and relatives of the dead,” while the Afghan government stated that 147 civilians had been killed.

Determining the exact number was difficult because, as the Times explained further, “The bombs were so powerful that people were ripped to shreds. Survivors said they collected only pieces of bodies. Several villagers said that they could not distinguish all of the dead and that they never found some of their relatives.” (1)

Examples of this kind abound, and include the U.S. military bombing everything from individual homes, to weddings, to funerals.
Returning to the Wall Street Journal article from February 22, 2010, it was even more ironic that the Journal ran a story about how the U.S. military takes great pains to avoid killing civilians, because, as it turns out , the U.S. had done just that one day before, on February 21. This time a U.S. airstrike killed 27. Because it took a few days for news of the airstrike to hit the western press, nothing was reported about it until a few days later, on February 23.

Of course the Journal reported this too, but not on the front page, and they didn’t even devote a full article to it. Instead, the news of the airstrike, which directly contradicted the claims of the article the day before, was limited to one paragraph buried deep in an article entitled, “Government Administrator Arrives in Marjah.”

The article once again put a positive spin on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, stressing how British and American diplomats flew by Marine helicopter to Marjah, the region of a major U.S. military offensive, to “help oversee a flurry of aid projects” while passing out “food oil, rice, tea, sugar and blankets to hundreds of locals who gathered at a mosque in the center of town” along with the newly appointed Afghan governor of the region.

About halfway through the article, the author mentions the air strike, but only as a side note, reporting that General Stanley McChrystal went on Afghan television “Tuesday to apologize for a deadly weekend air strike, [in] an extraordinary attempt to regain Afghans’ trust in the south.”

The New York Times, which also felt that the brutal killing was not worthy of front page news, also reported the event in an article on February 23, this time, entitled, “NATO Airstrike Is Said to Have Killed 27 Civilians in Afghanistan.” The phrase “is said to have killed” is used to cast doubt on whether these people had actually been killed, as if the number of dead had come from an “unreliable” source such as the Taliban. Instead, actually reading the article reveals that the number of dead cited comes from the spokesman of the U.S.-backed Afghan Interior Ministry, and is accompanied by yet another statement from President Karzai, lamenting that, “The repeated killing of civilians by NATO forces is unjustifiable. We strongly condemn it.”

By actually reading the article we also learn that the airstrike, which targeted “two Land Cruisers and a pick-up truck carrying a total of 42 people” resulting in “27 dead, including 4 women and a child, and 12 people wounded,” all of whom were civilians, was launched by “United States Special Forces helicopters.” Apparently “NATO” is a more accurate way to describe US forces, hence its use in the headline.

So it turns out that just one day after the US military killed 27 civilians in an air strike, an event that requires General McChrystal to take the “extraordinary” step of going on Afghan national Television to do public relations damage control, the Wall Street Journal runs a front page story explaining how the US military takes great pains to avoid killing civilians.

There is only one way to describe this type of news coverage: Propaganda. Notice that everything that was reported was true. Capt. Zinni didn’t kill those children that day. The Journal did report the killing of those Afghan civilians from the day before. But the way in which the information is presented, and the way in which some information is emphasized more prominently, serves to paint a deliberately distorted picture of the conflict, and to deflect attention from U.S. atrocities, which have been regularly occurring for the nine years the U.S. has occupied Afghanistan. The U.S. government and media continually shine the spot light on the (very real) crimes of the Taliban, while casting a dark veil over the U.S. military’s equally brutal atrocities. U.S. atrocities are reported with little detail on the back pages, and then quickly forgotten, without denting the perception we have of the U.S. government as benevolent and humane. This perpetuates the false view among the American public that we are the “good guys,” and that we have no option but to continue the war against the “bad guys,” with the effect of propping up public support for the war.

But even if we don’t perceive the immoral nature of the atrocities our governments commits, Afghans certainly do, and for those whose wives or husbands or children or mothers have been butchered by U.S. bombs, apologies are not enough.
In the words of Mohammad Yassir, a shopkeeper in Kabul: “I want to ask McChrystal, if he had lost his family in such an incident, and if someone called to apologize, what would his reaction be? An apology doesn’t bring anyone back to life.” (2)

(1) “Afghan Villagers Describe Chaos of U.S. Strikes.” New York Times, May 14, 2009
(2) “Afghanistan war: As civilian deaths rise, NATO says, ‘Sorry.’” Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 2010.