Aug 1 2007

‘Accidents’ Will Happen

Excusing civilian deaths in Afghanistan

When they’re discussed at all by corporate media, civilian deaths in Afghanistan are often presented as a tactical or public relations problem for U.S. military and political officials, or labeled as “accidental” or “errant.” The civilian deaths are not accidents, however; they are the predictable result of a deliberate decision to protect American troops by putting Afghan noncombatants at risk.

A Chicago Tribune story on July 8 commented, “Such bombings and the allegations of civilian casualties, exaggerated or not, are now the biggest challenge facing foreign forces trying to prop up Afghanistan’s government.” This is an odd construction; U.S. media do not ordinarily portray the deaths of civilians as a “challenge” to the forces that killed them, at least when those forces aren’t American.

The Tribune went on to discuss the issue primarily as a political stumbling block: “More than any suicide bombing or insurgent offensive, this issue has the potential to undermine foreign troops and ultimately hurt the NATO mission in Afghanistan, Western diplomats and Afghan officials say.” A more direct concern might be for the deaths of innocents, but that seemed distinctly less important to the Tribune, as when the paper noted, “The anger against foreign troops has grown to the point that any report of civilian casualties, even by the notoriously unreliable Taliban, is treated as fact.” With humanitarian aid groups, Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission and an AP investigation (6/24/07) all agreeing that NATO-allied forces had killed more than 200 civilians so far this year, insinuations of Taliban fabrication are not needed to explain Afghan anger.

In May, Newsweek magazine reported (5/14/07) on several deadly incidents, including one in which a Marine convoy killed at least 12 innocent Afghan civilians after a single Marine was injured in an earlier bombing. The magazine seemed befuddled by the idea that Afghans are enraged by such killings. The headline of the report, “Collateral Disasters,” seemed to refer to the public relations fallout caused by the killings rather than the killings themselves, while the subhead was perhaps worse: “In Afghanistan’s lopsided ethos, every civilian death counts against the Americans.”

The magazine even labeled it “ironic” that some Afghans believed a Taliban attack happened because there was a U.S. base in their town; given that the Taliban are fighting U.S. soldiers, this would not seem to be ironic at all. The magazine nonetheless lamented that every U.S. air strike—even if “precision” in nature—is just “one more psy-war victory for the Taliban.”

U.S. News & World Report (7/16/07) noted that aerial bombing in Afghanistan “wins battles with the Taliban but is not helping with the elusive war for hearts and minds”—it’s “not helping,” specifically, because it’s killing hundreds of Afghan citizens, a phenomenon referred to by U.S. News as “a spate of civilian deaths.”

Such language is not uncommon in the mainstream media; a recent CNN report (6/18/07) announced the deaths of seven children this way: “A coalition airstrike, collateral damage—Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan were the target.” CNN correspondent Betty Nguyen added: “Innocent civilians used as human shields in Afghanistan. The U.S. military says that’s what happened when a coalition airstrike killed seven children at a compound where Al-Qaeda fighters were believed gathered.”

The phrase “human shields” is often used to suggest decreased culpability when the U.S. military targets combatants living in their homes with their families. It’s not uncommon for U.S. fighters based in their own country to live with their families as well, but it’s unlikely that CNN would describe their spouses and children as “human shields” if someone blew up their houses.

Other reports stress the inadvertent nature of the killings. A powerful July 6 report in the Los Angeles Times noted that several studies of casualties in Afghanistan found that NATO forces were responsible for more recent civilian deaths than the Taliban. But the story ran under the headline “Errant Afghan Civilian Deaths Surge.”

Weeks before, a New York Times report (5/13/07) began, “Scores of civilian deaths over the past months from heavy American and allied reliance on air strikes to battle Taliban insurgents are threatening popular support for the Afghan government and creating severe strains within the NATO alliance.” The Times added that the “anger is visible” in one Afghan town where air strikes killed dozens of civilians in April. The paper reported that “the accounts of villagers bore little resemblance to those of NATO and American officials—and suggested just how badly things could go astray in an unfamiliar land where cultural misunderstandings quickly turn violent.”

But a recent Reuters account (7/7/07) was more direct in explaining that “accidents” are a result of deliberate choices, not a cultural misunderstanding: “Western unwillingness to accept casualties among their own soldiers and a shortage of ground troops means commanders often turn to air power to beat the Taliban, and that almost inevitably leads to civilian deaths, military analysts say.”

The only problem with that account is the word “almost.” Relying heavily on aerial bombing is bound to kill civilians, and should be viewed as a conscious decision by military leaders to place the lives of their personnel ahead of the lives of innocent civilians. The media can describe this choice directly, or they can reach for euphemisms and excuses.