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Rationalizing Civilian Dea-...Oops!...That's Collateral Damage
Posted: Monday, July 29, 2002

By Bruce S. Ticker,

It has been a week since I learned via The New York Times that American bombs killed at least 400, perhaps as many as 800, Afghan civilians because of intelligence foul-ups.

The shock and sense of shame as an American who has supported our war on terrorism still hasn't quite sunk in.

Reading between the lines, you need to wonder if military commanders knew they were about to kill civilians for no direct military reason except to satisfy the bloodlust of helpful Afghan warlords. And if this practice had the blessing of George W. Bush.

That would make our president a war criminal, if true.

To add insult to injury, it was sickening to read a follow-up Times story in which Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld rationalized the deaths of civilians in war during a news conference.

The Times reported on July 21 that reliance on mistaken information from local Afghans was among a series of factors that led to hundreds of civilian deaths.

Correspondent Dexter Filkins wrote, "The Pentagon often relies on information from warlords and other Afghans whose loyalties are unclear in a country riven by decades of war and tribal rivalries. That information may be incomplete or inaccurate, and sometimes even deliberately misleading. As a result, the Pentagon's critics say, the military has too often struck without a full understanding of what it was attacking.

The military claims it is careful to avoid civilian casualties, but do they really?

They don't even keep tallies of civilian deaths. Though it is probably impossible to determine an accurate figure, maintaining even those minimal figures is the kind of basic information which would help them learn from their mistakes.

Another clue about the military's attitude toward civilian deaths is provided by Jan Muhammad, the governor of Oruzgan Province in Afghanistan.

"The Americans are not from here and they don't know our traditions or our enemies and who has enemies," he told the Times. "So they should contact us first and check first.

"Every time they say that they will coordinate more. They killed my people in Oruzgan, and they said they would not make a mistake again and that they would contact us first. Then they did it again."

A bombing run last Dec. 20 raises questions as to whether the deaths of more than 42 civilians was intentional, or premeditated. We might even label it a contract killing.

The Times article attributed to Afghan military commanders a report that a local warlord, Padsha Khan Zadran, "ordered fighters at a checkpoint south of the city to halt a convoy of tribal elders from Khost who were heading to Kabul for the inauguration of the new interim government. They demanded that the elders pressure Mr. Karzai to appoint Mr. Zadran the governor of Paktia, Paktika and Khost provinces. The elders, Afghans in Gardez say, refused."

The article continues, "A few hours later, the convoy of elders was hit by a succession of American attacks, which killed most of the occupants. The survivors scrambled up a hill, toward the villages of Asmani and Pokharai, and the American planes, circling back, struck both villages, destroying about 20 homes.

"Rival warlords in Gardez say Mr. Zadran used his satellite phone to tell the Americans that the convoy was filled with Qaeda fighters. The Afghans insist, however, that the elders in the convoy supported Mr. Karzai's government."

I vaguely remember when the elders were killed. It did seem strange. If they were traveling to the inauguration, why would they plan something menacing? Couldn't the military intercept them with ground troops as they moved closer to Kabul and check them out then?

A friend speculated that military commanders probably knew that some raids would kill civilians for no military purpose but because they were given false information. That was the price to pay to eliminate the enemy.

Let's raise this to another level. Perhaps the military commanders were ordered from the top - namely the White House - to give cooperative warlords like Zadran whatever they wanted. Even if it meant bombing civilians that the Zadrans of Afghanistan wanted out of the way.

That would mean our president ordered the military to rub them out. In other words, Bush would have served as Zadran's personal hitman.

The day after the Times article appeared, Rumsfeld sounded downright obscene as he rationalized civilian deaths...

"It's an unfortunate fact of war that, inevitably, innocent civilians are killed. This has been true, true throughout the history of warfare, and it remains true even in this age of advanced technology and precision-guided munitions."

Which makes it okay.

"We can take some comfort in the knowledge that this war has seen fewer tragic losses of civilian life than perhaps any war in modern history. We can also take pride in the fact that coalition forces have gone to extraordinary lengths not only to avoid civilian deaths but to save civilian deaths but to save civilian lives."

If his wife and children among those "fewer tragic losses," how would Rumsfeld respond to crap like that?

Civilian deaths cannot be rationalized. Yes, civilian deaths are going to happen in any war, but why must wars be waged in the first place? Of course, wars cannot always be avoided if one side won't relent, but other wars could have been prevented or at least limited.

The vast majority of Americans have supported Bush in the war against terrorism. We are morally obligated to take personal responsibility for these deaths.

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