Slaughter, Lies, and Video in Afghanistan

Posted on

The Value of One, the Value of None
An Anatomy of Collateral Damage in the Bush Era

By Tom Engelhardt

In a little noted passage in her bestselling book, The Dark Side, Jane Mayer offers us a vision, just post-9/11, of the value of one. In October 2001, shaken by a nerve-gas false alarm at the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney, reports Mayer, went underground. He literally embunkered himself in “a secure, undisclosed location,” which she describes as “one of several Cold War-era nuclear-hardened subterranean bunkers built during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, the nearest of which were located hundreds of feet below bedrock” That bunker would be dubbed, perhaps only half-sardonically, “the Commander in Chief’s Suite.”

Oh, and in that period, if Cheney had to be in transit, “he was chauffeured in an armored motorcade that varied its route to foil possible attackers.” In the backseat of his car (just in case), adds Mayer, “rested a duffel bag stocked with a gas mask and a biochemical survival suit.” And lest danger rear its head, “rarely did he travel without a medical doctor in tow.”

When it came to leadership in troubled times, this wasn’t exactly a profile in courage. Perhaps it was closer to a profile in paranoia, or simply in fear, but whatever else it might have been, it was also a strange kind of statement of self-worth. Has any wartime president — forget the vice-president — including Abraham Lincoln when southern armies might have marched on Washington, or Franklin D. Roosevelt at the height of World War II, ever been so bizarrely overprotected in the nation’s capital? Has any administration ever placed such value on the preservation of the life of a single official?

On the other hand, the well-armored Vice President and his aide David Addington played a leading role, as Mayer documents in grim detail, in loosing a Global War on Terror that was also a global war of terror on lands thousands of miles distant. In this new war, “the gloves came off,” “the shackles were removed” — images much loved within the administration and, in the case of those “shackles,” by George Tenet’s CIA. In the process, no price in human abasement or human life proved too high to pay — as long as it was paid by someone else.

Recently, it was paid by up to 60 Afghan children.

The Value of None

If no level of protection was too much for this White House, then no protection was what it offered civilians who happened to be living in the ever expanding “war zones” of the planet. In the Middle East, in Somalia, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, the war to be fought — in part from the air, sometimes via pilotless unmanned aerial vehicles or drones — would, in crucial ways, be aimed at civilians (though this could never be admitted). “Collateral damage,” the sterile, self-exculpating phrase the Pentagon chose to use for the anything-but-secondary death and destruction visited on civilians, would be the name of the game in the President’s chosen war almost from the moment the Vice President disappeared into his bunker.

In a world where death came suddenly in that vast swath of the planet the neoconservatives once called “the arc of instability” (before they made it one), civilians had few doctors on hand, no less full chemical body suits or gas masks, when disaster struck. Often they were asleep, or going about their daily business, when death made its appearance unannounced. Throughout these years, the stories of these deaths, when they appeared at all, normally were to be found on the inside pages of our newspapers in summary war reports. Regularly, they had “women and children” buried somewhere in them.

We have no idea just how many civilians have been blown away by the U.S. military (and allies) in these years, only that the “collateral damage” has been widespread and far more central to the President’s War on Terror than anyone here generally cares to acknowledge. Collateral damage has come in myriad ways — from artillery fire in the initial invasion of Iraq; from repeated shootings of civilians in vehicles at checkpoints, and from troops (or even private mercenaries) blasting away from convoys; during raids on private homes; in village operations; and, significantly, from the air.

In Afghanistan, in particular, as the Taliban insurgency grew more quickly than U.S. and NATO troop strength, so did the use of air power. From 2004 to 2007, air strikes increased tenfold. Over the past year, civilian deaths from those air strikes have nearly tripled. According to Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon official and military analyst at Human Rights Watch, 317,000 pounds of bombs were dropped this June and 270,000 this July, equaling “the total tonnage dropped in 2006.”

As with all figures relating to casualties, the actual counts you get on Afghan civilian dead are approximations and probably undercounts, especially since the war against the Taliban has been taking place largely in the backlands of one (or, if you count Pakistan, two) of the poorest, most remote regions on the planet. And yet we do know something. For instance, although the media have seldom attended to the subject, we know that one subset of innocent civilians has been slaughtered repeatedly. While, for instance, Americans spent days in October 2006 riveted to TV screens following the murders of five Amish girls by a madman in a one-room schoolhouse in Pennsylvania, and weeks following the mass slaughter of 32 college students by a mad boy at Virginia Tech in April 2007, between 2001 and this year, three Afghan and one Iraqi wedding parties were largely wiped out from the air by American planes, the latest only months ago, to hardly any news coverage at all.

The message of these slaughters — an estimated 47 people, mostly from “the bride’s party,” including the bride herself, died in the latest such “incident” — is that if you live in areas where the Taliban exists, which is now much of the country, you’d better not gather.

Each of these events was marked by something else — the uniformity of the U.S. response: initial claims that U.S. forces had been fired on first and that those killed were the enemy; a dismissal of the slaughters as the unavoidable “collateral damage” of wartime; and, above all, an unwillingness to genuinely apologize for, or take real responsibility for, having wiped out groups of celebrating locals.

And keep in mind that such disasters are just subsets of a far larger, barely covered story. In July alone, for example, the U.S. military and NATO officials launched investigations into three air strikes in Afghanistan in which 78 Afghan civilians (including that wedding party) were killed.

Since the Afghan War began in 2001, such “incidents” have occurred again and again. Not surprisingly, the Bush administration, in combination with the Pentagon, has devised a method for dealing with such happenings. After all, the Global War on Terror is premised on an unspoken belief that the lives of others — civilians going about their business in distant lands — are essentially of no importance when placed against American needs and desires. That, you might say, is the value of none.

Incident in Azizabad

Another gathering of Afghans recently ended with the slaughter of civilians on a startling scale. For once, it’s gotten far more than minimal coverage and hasn’t (yet) gone away. Remaining in the news, it has also opened a window into just how the U.S. military and the Bush administration have dealt with most incidents of “collateral damage” that made it into the news over these last years.

Here are the basic facts as best we know them. On the night of August 21st, a memorial service was held in Azizabad, a village in the Shindand District of Afghanistan’s Herat Province, for a tribal leader killed the previous year, who had been, villagers reported, anti-Taliban. Hundreds had attended, including “extended families from two tribes.”

That night, a combined party of U.S. Special Forces and Afghan army troops attacked the village. They claimed they were “ambushed” and came under “intense fire.” What we know is that they called in repeated air strikes. According to several investigations and the on-the-spot reporting of New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall, at least 90 civilians, including perhaps 15 women and up to 60 children, died that night. As many as 76 members of a single extended family were killed, along with its head, Reza Khan. His compound seems to have been specially targeted.

Khan, it turns out, was no Taliban “militant,” but a “wealthy businessman with construction and security contracts with the nearby American base at Shindand airport.” He reportedly had a private security company that worked for the U.S. military at the airport and also owned a cell phone business in the town of Herat. He had a card “issued by an American Special Forces officer that designated [him] as a ‘coordinator for the U.S.S.F.'” Eight of the other men killed that night, according to Gall, worked as guards for a private American security firm. At least two dead men had served in the Afghan police and fought against the Taliban.

The incident in Azizabad may represent the single deadliest media-verified attack on civilians by U.S. forces since the invasion of 2001. Numerous buildings were damaged. Many bodies, including those of children, had to be dug out of the rubble. There may have been as many as 60 children among the dead. The U.S. military evidently attacked after being given false information by another tribal leader/businessman in the area with a grudge against Khan and his brother. As one tribal elder, who helped bury the dead, put it: “It is quite obvious, the Americans bombed the area due to wrong information. I am 100 percent confident that someone gave the information due to a tribal dispute. The Americans are foreigners and they do not understand. These people they killed were enemies of the Taliban.”

Repeated U.S. air attacks resulting in civilian deaths have proven a disaster for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He promptly denounced the strikes against Azizabad, fired two Afghan commanders, including the top ranking officer in western Afghanistan, for “negligence and concealing facts,” and ordered his own investigation of the incident. His team of investigators concluded that more than 90 Afghan civilians had indeed died. Along with the Afghan Council of Ministers, Karzai also demanded a “review” of “the presence of international forces and agreements with foreign allies, including NATO and the United States.”

Ahmad Nader Nadery, commissioner of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, similarly reported that one of the group’s researchers had “found that 88 people had been killed, including 20 women.” The U.N. mission in Afghanistan then dispatched its own investigative team from Herat to interview survivors. Its investigation “found convincing evidence, based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, and others, that some 90 civilians were killed, including 60 children, 15 women and 15 men.” (The 60 children were reportedly “3 months old to 16 years old, all killed as they slept.”)

The American Response

Given the weight of evidence at Azizabad, the on-site investigations, the many graves, the destroyed houses, the specificity of survivor accounts, and so on, this might have seemed like a cut-and-dried case of mistaken intelligence followed by an errant assault with disastrous consequences. But accepting such a conclusion simply isn’t in the playbook of the U.S. military or the Bush administration.

Instead, in such cases what you regularly get is a predictable U.S. narrative about what happened made up of outlandish claims (or simply bald-faced lies), followed by a strategy of stonewalling, including a blame-the-victims approach in which civilian deaths are regularly dismissed as enemy-inspired “propaganda,” followed — if the pressure doesn’t ease up — by the announcement of an “investigation” (whose results will rarely be released), followed by an expression of “regrets” or “sorrow” for the loss of life — both weasel words that can be uttered without taking actual responsibility for what happened — never to be followed by a genuine apology.

Now, let’s consider the American response to Azizabad.

The Numbers

Initially, the U.S. military flatly denied that any civilians had been killed in the village. In the operation, they claimed, exactly 30 Taliban “militants” had died. (“Insurgents engaged the soldiers from multiple points within the compound using small-arms and RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] fire. The joint forces responded with small-arms fire and an air strike killing 30 militants.”)

Targeted, they said, had been a single compound holding a local Taliban commander, later identified as Mullah Sadiq, who was killed. (Sadiq would subsequently call Radio Liberty to indicate that he was still very much alive and deny that he had been in the village that night.) Quickly enough, however, military spokespeople began backing off. Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, a NATO spokesman, said that “investigators sent to the site immediately after the bombing” had, in fact, verified the deaths of three women and two children, who were suspected of being relatives of the dead Taliban commander.

After President Karzai’s angry denunciation, and the results of his team’s investigation was released, the U.S. military altered its account slightly, admitting that only 25 Taliban fighters had actually died as well as five Afghans identified as “noncombatants,” including a woman and two children. The U.S. command, however, remained “very confident” that only 30 Afghans had been killed.

Later, after a military investigation had been launched, the U.S. command in Afghanistan issued a vague statement indicating that “[c]oalition forces are aware of allegations that the engagement in the Shindand district of Herat Province, Friday, may have resulted in civilian casualties apart from those already reported.”

On August 28th, the U.S. military “investigation” released its results, confirming that only 30 Afghans had died.

On August 29th, however, Gen. David D. McKiernan, American commander of NATO forces, raised the number, suggesting that “up to 40” Afghans might have died, though still insisting that only five of them had been civilians, the rest being “men of military age.”

These revised numbers were still being touted on September 2nd when, according to the Washington Post, “U.S. military officials flatly rejected” the Afghan and U.N. figures.

On September 4th, the Los Angeles Times reported that the U.S. military was now “acknowledging” 35 militants and seven civilians — 42 Afghans — had died in the attack.

This is where the American numbers remain today. Think of all this as a strange (and callous) kind of informal negotiation process under pressure. Over a span of two weeks, the Americans slowly gave way on those previously definitive figures, moving modestly closer to the ones offered by the Karzai and U.N. teams, without ever giving way on their version of what had happened.

The Investigations

The first investigation, according to U.S. military spokespeople, occurred the morning after the attack when investigators from the attacking force supposedly went house to house “assessing damage and casualties” and “taking photos.” Combat photographers were said to have “documented the scene.” According to New York Times reporter Gall, the U.S. military claimed its forces had made a “thorough sweep of this small western hamlet, a building-by-building search a few hours after the air strikes, and a return visit on Aug. 26, which villagers insist never occurred.”

As claims of civilian deaths mounted and Karzai denounced the attacks, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, ordered an “investigation” into the episode. (“All allegations of civilian casualties are taken very seriously. Coalition forces make every effort to prevent the injury or loss of innocent lives. An investigation has been directed.”)

On August 29th, the conclusions of the investigation, completed in near record time, were released. The casualty count — only 30 Afghans, 25 of them Taliban militants — had been definitively confirmed. A future “joint investigation” with the Afghan government was, however, proposed. On the 29th, General McKiernan suggested that the U.N., too, should be part of the joint investigation.

On September 3rd, the Afghans accepted the U.S. proposal for what was now a “tripartite investigation.”

On September 7th, “emerging evidence” — a grainy video taken on a cell phone by a doctor in Azizabad, “showing dozens of civilian bodies, including those of numerous children, prepared for burial” — led Gen. McKiernan to ask that the U.S. investigation be reopened. The U.S. Central Command is now preparing to “send a senior team, headed by a general and including a legal affairs officer, to reinvestigate.”

Normally, such investigations, whose results usually remain classified, are no more than sops, meant to quiet matters until attention dies away. In this case, the minimalist military investigation, which merely backed up the initial cover-up about the assault on Azizabad, was forced into the open and, as protest in Aghanistan widened, has now essentially been consigned to the trash heap of history.

The Words

Initially, according to the Washington Post, “a U.S. military spokeswoman dismissed as ‘outrageous’ the Afghan government’s assertions that scores of civilians had been killed in the attack A U.S. official in Washington, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Taliban has become adept at spreading false intelligence to draw U.S. strikes on civilians.” In not-for-attribution comments, U.S. military officials would later suggest “that the villagers fabricated such evidence as grave sites.”

Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military, insisted: “We’re confident that we struck the right compound.”

On August 24th, as protests over the deaths at Azizabad mounted in Afghanistan, White House Spokesman Tony Fratto said at a press gaggle: “We regret the loss of life among the innocent Afghanis who we are committed to protect Coalition forces take precautions to prevent the loss of civilians, unlike the Taliban and militants who target civilians and place civilians in harm’s way.”

On August 25th, Fratto added: “We believe from what we’ve heard from officials at the Department of Defense that they believe it was a good strike I should tell you, though, first of all, we obviously mourn the loss of any innocent civilians that may lose their lives in these attacks in — whether they’re in Afghanistan or in Iraq, in any of these conflict areas.” On that same day, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said: “We continue at this point to believe that this was a legitimate strike against the Taliban. Unfortunately there were some civilian casualties, although that figure is in dispute, I would say. But this is why it is being investigated.”

On August 27th at a Pentagon press conference, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Conway said: “If the reports of the Afghan civilian casualties are accurate — and sometimes that is a big ‘if’ because I think we all understand the Taliban capabilities with regard to information operations — but if that proves out, that will be truly an unfortunate incident. And we need to avoid that, certainly, at every cost

“You know, air power is the premiere asymmetric advantage that we hold over both the Taliban and, for that matter, the al Qaeda in Iraq And when we find that you’re up against hardened people in a hardened type of compound, before we throw our Marines or soldiers against that, we’re going to take advantage of our asymmetric advantage You don’t always know what’s in that compound, unfortunately. And sometimes we think there’s been overt efforts on the part of the Taliban, in particular, to surround themselves with civilians so as to, at a minimum, reap an IO [information operations] advantage if civilians are killed.”

On August 29th, Gen. McKiernan reiterated the American position, while expressing regrets for any loss of civilian life: “This was a legitimate insurgent target. We regret the loss of civilian life, but the numbers that we find on this target area are nowhere near the number reported in the media, and that we believe there was a very deliberate information operation orchestrated by the insurgency, by the Taliban.” He also complained about the U.N. investigation, saying: “I am very disappointed in the United Nations because they have not talked to this headquarters before they made that release” and he suggested that President Karzai had been the victim of bad information.

On September 3rd, with pressure growing, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Zalmay Khalilzad put the disparities in numbers down to the “fog of war,” while urging a new joint investigation: “I believe that there is a bit of a fog of war involved in some of these initial reports. Sometimes initial reports can be wrong. And the best way to deal with it is to have the kind of investigation that we have proposed, which is U.S., coalition, plus the Afghan government, plus the United Nations.”

On the same day, Karzai’s office issued a statement indicating that President Bush had phoned the Afghan president: “The President of America has expressed his regret and sympathy for the occurrence of Shindand incident.” They quoted him as saying, “I am a partner in your loss and that of the Afghan people.”

On September 3rd, General McKiernan said: “Every death of a civilian in wartime is a terrible tragedy. Even one death is too many I wish to again express my sincere condolences and apologies to the families whose loved ones were inadvertently killed in the cross fire with the insurgents in Azizabad.” Though the Afghans seem to have largely died due to U.S. air strikes, not in a crossfire, this was as close to an apology as anyone related to the U.S. government or military has come.

On September 7th, as he was reopening the military investigation, Gen. McKiernan said: “The people of Afghanistan have our commitment to get to the truth.”

Playing with Fire

Let me mention a small irony of history. The U.S. military claimed that its now discredited findings at Azizabad “were corroborated by an independent journalist embedded with the U.S. force.” That man turned out to be none other than Oliver North, working for FOX News. North had not only gained notoriety as an official of, a defender of, and a shredder of papers for the Reagan administration in the Iran-Contra scandal, but had earlier fought in Vietnam. He actually appeared as a witness for the defense in the case of one of the Marines accused of carrying out a massacre of Vietnamese at Son Thang in February 1970.

As now, so in Vietnam, were “hearts and minds” being hunted both from the air and on the ground; so, too, civilians were repeatedly blown away there; and so, too, as in the case of the infamous My Lai massacre, cover stories were fabricated to explain how civilians — Vietnamese peasants — had died and those stories were publicized by the U.S. military, even though they bore little or no relation to what had actually happened.

Today, “hearts and minds” are being similarly hunted across large stretches of the planet, and people in surprising numbers continue to die while simply trying to lead their lives. This summer was, in fact, dotted with “incidents” that often barely reached the news, in which civilians died in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the tribal areas of Pakistan: At a checkpoint in Iraq’s Diyala Province, American soldiers killed Dr. Abdul-Salam al-Shimari, the chief internist at the Baaquba Public Hospital, while he was driving to work as other American soldiers in a convoy had gunned down the manager and two female employees of a bank branch at Baghdad International Airport on the Airport road. (The unarmed, dead Iraqis would then be declared armed “criminals” before protests forced the U.S. military to withdraw the charge.) Similarly, an Afghan woman and two children were killed recently at a German checkpoint in Kunduz Province, as were two Afghan civilians by an errant NATO bomb.

In the tribal areas of Pakistan, a U.S. assault by helicopter on a village killed 20 civilians, according to the outraged provincial governor; and Pakistanis, mainly the relatives of a man identified as a Taliban commander, including one of his several wives, “his sister-in-law, a sister, two nieces, eight grandchildren and a male relative,” were killed by missiles from a U.S. Predator drone.

This sort of “collateral damage” is an ongoing modern nightmare, which, unlike dead Amish girls or school shootings, does not fascinate either our media or, evidently, Americans generally. It seems we largely don’t want to know about what happened, and generally speaking, that’s lucky because the media isn’t particularly interested in telling us. This is one reason the often absurd accounts sometimes offered by the U.S. military go relatively unchallenged — as, fortunately, they did not in the case of the incident at Azizabad. Nonetheless, the Bush administration has been more than willing to accept “collateral damage” as an everyday matter in pursuing its Global War on Terror.

Of course, it matters what you value and what you dismiss as valueless. When you overvalue yourself and undervalue others, you naturally overestimate your own power and are remarkably blind to the potential power of others — you underestimate them, that is. This might be said to be a reasonable summary of the short, bitter history of the Bush era.

In this way, not just Vice President Cheney but the President and his top officials have remained self-protectively embunkered throughout their years in office. The 60 or so children slaughtered in Azizabad, each of whom belonged to some family, don’t matter to them. But they do matter. And when you kill them, and so many others like them, you surely play with fire.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site, has just been published. Focusing on what the mainstream media hasn’t covered, it is an alternative history of the mad Bush years.

[Note to TomDispatch Readers: It has been rare enough for American reporters to reach the scenes of such incidents. In this case, Carlotta Gall did and her report from Azizabad made the front page of the New York Times, which mattered. Don’t miss it. In addition, Human Rights Watch has just released a new report on civilian casualties and air power in Afghanistan. Check it out here. has done its usual fine job of covering casualties in the Global War on Terror, while that website’s Jason Ditz has provided regular, valuable summaries of news about such events. Finally, Juan Cole’s Informed Comment website offers almost daily summaries of the violence still at something just below fever pitch levels in Iraq.]

Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt