For USA Today, Good Intentions Excuse Civilian Deaths–Unless You’re the Taliban

USA Today had a piece yesterday (8/5/10) about new rules of engagement issued in Afghanistan by Afghan War commander Gen. David Petraeus. The new rules–much like the old rules–“are aimed at limiting civilian casualties,” the paper’s Jim Michaels reports in its own voice, explaining:

At the heart of counterinsurgency doctrine is the principle that winning over the population is the key to defeating insurgents. Civilian casualties can alienate the population.

That’s the surviving population, presumably.

USA Today doesn’t quote anyone skeptical of the Pentagon’s claim that not killing civilians is a top priority, instead reprinting the official assertion of good intentions without comment: “We must continue–indeed, redouble–our efforts to reduce the loss of innocent civilian life to an absolute minimum.”

Such deference is not, of course, extended to the official enemy, which as it happens recently released its own rules regarding protection of civilians:

The update comes as the Taliban’s top leader also issued guidance aimed at limiting civilian casualties. The allied command dismissed Mullah Mohammed Omar’s guidelines, surfacing last month, as propaganda.

“Mullah Omar’s new directive has done nothing to protect the Afghan people from further harm,” Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a military spokesman, was quoted in the statement.

“This is either a smoke screen to repair the Taliban’s well-earned reputation for brutality, or insurgent groups are simply ignoring their leader,” he said.

The United Nations has said insurgents in Afghanistan have caused more civilian casualties than international and Afghan government troops.

Since Omar’s document was released, insurgents have killed 43 Afghan civilians and wounded 65, according to the allied command in Kabul.

The article lacks any statistics on how many Afghan civilians have been killed by the U.S. and its allies. According to estimates made by the U.N., Human Rights Watch, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Watch and other observers, at least 5,568 noncombatants were directly killed in U.S.-led military actions in the first nine years of the war. In 2009, when Petraeus predecessor Gen. Stanley McChrystal issued the rules ostensibly protecting civilians, the U.N. reports that there were nevertheless 596 civilians killed by the U.S. and its allies, making it a more or less typical year. Since these figures did not appear in the USA Today report, there was no call for a quote wondering whether such rules were a “smoke screen” or whether they were simply being ignored by troops on the ground.

The lesson of USA Today‘s article is clear: The intentions of official enemies are to be judged by their actions, whereas the actions of one’s own government are to be judged on what it proclaims its intentions to be.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.