The Value of American -- and Afghan -- Lives
by Tom Engelhardt
“Do you do this in the United States? There is police action every day in the United States… They don’t call in airplanes to bomb the place.” — Afghan President Hamid Karzai denouncing U.S. air strikes on homes in his country, June 12, 2012
It was almost closing time when the siege began at a small Wells Fargo Bank branch in a suburb of San Diego, and it was a nightmare. The three gunmen entered with the intent to rob, but as they herded the 18 customers and bank employees toward a back room, they were spotted by a pedestrian outside who promptly called 911. Within minutes, police cars were pulling up, the bank was surrounded, and back-up was being called in from neighboring communities. The gunmen promptly barricaded themselves inside with their hostages, including women and small children, and refused to let anyone leave.
The police called on the gunmen to surrender, but before negotiations could even begin, shots were fired from within the bank, wounding a police officer. The events that followed — now known to everyone, thanks to 24/7 news coverage — shocked the nation. Declaring the bank robbers “terrorist suspects,” the police requested air support from the Pentagon and, soon after, an F-15 from Vandenberg Air Force Base dropped two GBU-38 bombs on the bank, leaving the building a pile of rubble.
All three gunmen died. Initially, a Pentagon spokesman, who took over messaging from the local police, insisted that “the incident” had ended “successfully” and that all the dead were “suspected terrorists.” The Pentagon press office issued a statement on other casualties, noting only that, “while conducting a follow-on assessment, the security force discovered two women who had sustained non-life-threatening injuries. The security force provided medical assistance and transported both women to a local medical facility for treatment.” It added that it was sending an “assessment team” to the site to investigate reports that others had died as well.
Of course, as Americans quickly learned, the dead actually included five women, seven children, and a visiting lawyer from Los Angeles. The aftermath was covered in staggering detail. Relatives of the dead besieged city hall, bitterly complaining about the attack and the deaths of their loved ones. At a news conference the next morning, while scenes of rescuers digging in the rubble were still being flashed across the country, President Obama said: “Such acts are simply unacceptable. They cannot be tolerated.” In response to a question, he added, “Nothing can justify any airstrike which causes harm to the lives and property of civilians.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey immediately flew to San Diego to meet with family members of the dead and offer apologies. Heads rolled in the local police department and in the Pentagon. Congress called for hearings as well as a Justice Department investigation of possible criminality, and quickly passed a bill offering millions of dollars to the grieving relatives as “solace.” San Diego began raising money for a memorial to the group already dubbed the Wells Fargo 18.
One week later, at the exact moment of the bombing, church bells rang throughout the San Diego area and Congress observed a minute of silence in honor of the dead.
The Meaning of “Precision”
It couldn’t have been more dramatic and, as you know perfectly well, it couldn’t have happened — not in the U.S. anyway. But just over a week ago, an analogous “incident” did happen in Afghanistan and it passed largely unnoticed here. A group of Taliban insurgents reportedly entered a house in a village in Logar Province, south of Kabul, where a wedding ceremony either was or would be in progress. American and Afghan forces surrounded the house, where 18 members of a single extended family had gathered for the celebration. When firing broke out (or a grenade was thrown) and both U.S. and Afghan troops were reportedly wounded, they did indeed call in a jet, which dropped a 500-pound bomb, obliterating the residence and everyone inside, including up to nine children.
This was neither an unheard of mistake, nor an aberration in America’s Afghan War. In late December 2001, according to reports, a B-52 and two B-1B bombers, using precision-guided weapons, wiped out 110 out of 112 wedding revelers in a small Afghan village. Over the decade-plus that followed, American air power, piloted and drone, has been wiping out Afghans (Pakistanis and, until relatively recently, Iraqis) in a similar fashion — usually in or near their homes, sometimes in striking numbers, always on the assumption that there are bad guys among them.
For more than a decade, incident after incident, any one of which, in the U.S., would have shaken Americans to their core, led to “investigations” that went nowhere, punishments to no one, rare apologies, and on occasion, the offering of modest “solatium” payments to grieving survivors and relatives. For such events, of course, 24/7 coverage, like future memorials, was out of the question.
Cumulatively, they indicate one thing: that, for Americans, the value of an Afghan life (or more often Afghan lives) obliterated in the backlands of the planet, thousands of miles from home, is next to nil and of no meaning whatsoever. Such deaths are just so much unavoidable “collateral damage” from the American way of war — from the post-9/11 approach we have agreed is crucial to make ourselves “safe” from terrorists.
By now, Afghans (and Pakistanis in tribal areas across the border) surely know the rules of the road of the American war: there is no sanctity in public or private rites. While funerals have been hit repeatedly and at least one baby-naming ceremony was taken out as well, weddings have been the rites of choice for obliteration for reasons the U.S. Air Force has, as far as we know, never taken a moment to consider, no less explain. This website counted five weddings blown away (one in Iraq and four in Afghanistan) by mid-2008, and another from that year not reported until 2009. The latest incident is at least the seventh that has managed, however modestly, to make the news here, but there is no way of knowing what other damage to wedding parties in rural Afghanistan has gone uncounted.
Imagine the uproar in this country if a jet took out a wedding party. Just consider the attention given every time some mad gunman shoots up a post office, a college campus, or simply an off-campus party, if you want to get an idea. You might think then that, given the U.S. record of wedding carnage in Afghanistan, which undoubtedly represents some kind of modern wedding-crasher record, there might have been a front-page story, or simply a story, somewhere, anywhere, indicating the repetitive nature of such events.
And yet, if U.S. carnage in that country gets attention at all, it’s usually only to point out, in self-congratulatory fashion, that the Taliban — with their indiscriminate roadside bombs and their generally undiscriminating suicide bombers — are far worse. If an American college campus is shot up, what are the odds that the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech won’t be mentioned? And yet not a single report on the recent deaths in Logar Province has even noted that this is not the first time part of an Afghan wedding party has been taken out by the U.S. Air Force.
Over the years, such incidents, when they rose individually to the level of news, almost invariably followed the same pattern: initial denials by U.S. military or NATO spokespeople that any civilian casualties had occurred and then, if outrage in Afghanistan ratcheted up or the news reports on the incident didn’t die down, a slow back-peddling under pressure, and the launching of an “investigation” or, as in the case of the Logar bombing, a “joint investigation” with Afghan authorities, that seldom led anywhere and often was never heard from or about again. In the end, in some circumstances, apologies were offered and modest “solatium” payments made to the survivors.
And yet, over the years, amid all the praise for the “precision” of American air power, for the ability of the Air Force to bring a bomb or a missile to its target in a fashion that we like to call “surgical,” it is no small thing — explain it as you will — to wipe out parts or all of seven weddings. You might almost think that our wars on the Eurasian continent had been launched as an assault on “family values.” At the very least, the Afghan War has given a different meaning to the ceremonial phrase “till death do us part.”
The Country Crasher
For years, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has bitterly complained about similar air strikes that kill and wound civilians in or near their homes and repeatedly demanded that they be stopped. In this particular case, he cut short a trip to China and returned to Afghanistan to denounce the attack as “unacceptable.” Ordinarily, this has meant remarkably little.
In this case, however, the Afghan president, who lacks much real power (hence his old nickname, “the mayor of Kabul”), seems to have the wind at his back. Perhaps because the Obama administration is on edge about its disintegrating relations with Pakistan (thanks, in part, to its unwillingness to offer an apology for cross-border U.S. air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November); perhaps because the list of recent U.S. blunders and disasters in Afghanistan has grown long and painful — the urinating on bodies of dead enemies, the killing of civilians “for sport,” the burning of Korans, the slaughter of 16 innocent villagers by one American soldier, the rise of green-on-blue violence (that is, Afghan army and police attacks on their American allies); perhaps because of its need to maintain a façade of — if not success, then at least — non-failure in Afghanistan as drawdowns begin there in an election year at home; or perhaps thanks to a combination of all of the above, Karzai’s angry initial response to the Logar wedding killings did not go unnoticed in Washington.
In fact, the initial denials that any civilian deaths had occurred were quickly dropped, the head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John Allen, promptly apologized to the president, and then, in what might have been a unique act in the Afghan War record, went to Logar Province to meet with the provincial governor and apologize directly to grieving relatives. (“The faces of the people were very sad,” said Mohammad Akbar Stanekzai, a parliamentarian member of a delegation Karzai appointed to investigate the incident. “They told [General Allen], ‘These incidents don’t just happen once, but two, three, four times and they keep happening.'”)
At the same time, it was announced that there would be a change in the American policy of calling in air strikes on homes and villages in support of U.S. operations. The Afghans promptly claimed that the Americans had agreed to stop calling in air power at all in their country. The Americans offered a far vaguer version of the policy change. Anonymous U.S. military officials in Kabul quickly suggested that it represented only “a subtle shift in the ground realities of the war against the Taliban.” In fact, it did contain loopholes big enough to slip a B-52 through. As General Allen put it, “What we have agreed is that we would not use aviation ordnance on civilian dwellings. Now that doesn’t obviate our inherent right to self-defense. We will always… do whatever we have to do to protect the force.”
It’s easy enough, however, to sense an urge in Washington to calm the waters, not to have one more thing go truly wrong anywhere. At this very moment, the president and his top officials are undoubtedly praying that the Eurozone doesn’t collapse and that the Af-Pak theater of operations doesn’t disintegrate into chaos or burst into flames in the early months of a planned drawdown of U.S. troops; that, in fact, nothing truly terrible happens — until at least November 7, 2012.
Karzai has clearly grasped the Obama administration’s present feeling of vulnerability and frustration in the region and, gambler that he is, he promptly upped the ante. While the Americans were speaking of those “subtle” changes, he branded American air strikes in Afghanistan an “illegitimate use of force” and demanded that, when it came to air attacks on Afghan homes, the planes simply be grounded, whatever the dangers to U.S. or Afghan troops.
Back in 2009, then war commander General Stanley McChrystal ordered a somewhat similar reining in of American air strikes, a position countermanded by the next commander, General David Petraeus, who called the planes back in force. Now, those air strikes will, to one degree or another, once again be a limited option. But realistically, air power remains essential to the American way of war, whatever Karzai may demand. So count on one thing: before this is all over, it will be called in again — and in Afghanistan, weddings will still be celebrated.
In the meantime, after more than a decade of our most recent Afghan War, the Obama administration and the U.S. military are clearly willing to hang out a temporary sign saying: “Washington at work. Afghans, thank you for your patience…” Just across the border in Pakistan, however, “kill lists” are in effect and the air campaign there is being ratcheted up.
In the process, one thing can be said about American firepower: it has been remarkably precise in the way it has destabilized the region. In December 2001, we first took on the role of wedding crashers. More than 10 years later, it couldn’t be clearer that we’ve been country crashers, too.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses drone warfare and the Obama administration, click here or download it to your iPod here.
[Note for Readers: For their remarkable usefulness (to me) in keeping track of American war-making in the Greater Middle East, I would like to offer a special bow of thanks to three invaluable websites: Antiwar.com, Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog, and Paul Woodward’s The War in Context. On military matters, I always keep an eye on Noah Shachtman’s provocative and informative Danger Room blog. For Afghanistan and Pakistan in particular, it’s well worth checking out Foreign Policy’s AfPak Daily Brief, a particularly useful summary of press reports on the region.]
Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt