Things are just going from bad to even worse in Afghanistan these days. I'd say the forgotten war there is really going to give Iraq a run for its money as far as fiascos go. Two incidents within 24 hours of each other on Sunday involving apparent over-reactions by the US military to attacks by Taliban militants is antagonizing the Afghan man on the street just as the annual summer battles are heating up. In the first instance, US Marines fired on Afghan civilians, killing 10 and wounding 25, along a six mile stretch of eastern Afghanistan's busiest highway after a suicide bomber attacked their convoy. The official US military explanation was that the Marines were caught in the cross-fire of a "complex" ambush. Witnesses on the scene, though, said there was no one firing on the Marines, they just lashed out. AP quotes one bystander, Tur Gul, saying: "They were firing everywhere. They opened fire on everybody, the ones inside the vehicles and the ones on foot." [NYT]
The "cross-fire" theory was further undermined by the fact that soldiers destroyed video evidence of the attack. AP reports: "A freelance photographer working for the Associated Press and a cameraman working for AP Televisions News said a US soldier deleted their photos and video showing a vehicle in which three people were shot to death about 100 yards from the suicide bombing. . . A reporter from the Afghan channel Ariana Television said the soldiers also deleted his footage."
That sort of thing doesn't look good, particularly when you're claiming the moral high ground as coalition spokesman Lt. Col. David Acetta tried to do. "We regret the death of innocent Afghan civilians as a result of the Taliban extremists' cowardly act," Acetta said. The problem with that formulation is that nobody was killed by the bomb. All the deaths and injuries were caused by bullet wounds.
If you're going to imply that every time the Taliban attacks we're going to react with overwhelming force no matter who's standing around, you'd better just tear up Gen. Patreaus' new counterinsurgency manual. To paraphrase Patreaus; the more force you use, the less effective it is, and for every civilian you kill ten more insurgents are born.
It might be added, too, that lying through your teeth about what happened and trying wipe out all the evidence isn't as effective as admitting mistakes were made and vowing to make sure such mistakes aren't repeated. If you won't even admit you made a mistake, the Taliban has already won.
What's really worrying about how the Marines reacted is how much it resembles the so called "death plume" phenomenon that usually follows suicide bombings in Baghdad. In those cases it's usually undisciplined Iraqi soldiers shooting at anything that moves, which always winds up increasing the body count. One would hope our guys are better trained and more judicious with their use of deadly force, but as recruiting standards are lowered and extended tours take their toll one has to wonder if our guys over there are starting to lose it. Unfortunately, this isn't he first time US soldiers fired indiscriminately at civilians in Afghanistan. Last May after traffic accident in Kabul, US troops firing into a crowd of angry demonstrators turned into a day long riot, which almost got out of hand when police abandoned their posts.
[It might be remembered also that on April 30, 2003, Fallujah was turned, overnight, into an insurgent hotbed after US soldiers fired into a crowd of protesters killing 13. . . and we all know how that ended up.]
Screw up # 2:
12 hours after the events in Jalalabad -- before you could even say 'absolutely we're winning' -- another US over-reaction occurred in Kapisa province northeast of Kabul when US fighters dropped a couple of 2-ton bombs on a house, killing nine members of one family including five women and three children. [AP]
In this case, the indefatigable Lt. Col. Acetta's said: "Coalition forces observed two men with AK-47s leaving the scene of a rocket attack and entering the compound. . . The men knowingly endangered civilians by retreating into a populated area while conducting attacks against coalition forces." One presumes the coalition forces knew these areas were populated, too, which begs the question: Why did they drop two 2-ton bombs on the house? Two guys with Ak-47s are such a danger to the most advanced military the world has ever known that 2-tons of high explosives had to be dropped on them? You'll forgive me if I think this might have been a slight over-reaction to the provocation. This is just type of disorientate use of force that the Israelis have made their trade mark and we all see how effective that's been for them.
Over a few weeks last summer they managed to level a third of Lebanon yet they still lost the war. If we're going to start taking pages from their playbook, it's going to be a long summer. If one is keeping score, by the way, it’s the Taliban 4 and the coalition 0, so far. Besides the two incidents described above, which are decidedly not our best moment, there's also the Taliban overrunning of Musa Qala in Helmand province a month ago and the purported takeover of "Nawzad district headquarters in Helmand and all srrounding villages."[Atimes Online] The start of the summer offensive, the Afghan national past-time, hasn't even got going yet and we're already two towns and two black eyes down. Something tells me those poor bastards in the 10th Mountain Division who are stuck in Afghanistan for another four months shouldn't bother sending their gear back any time soon because its going to wind up coming right back. (Just like before.)
Another drawback to these indiscriminate bombings by US forces on civilian targets -- as if we needed any more examples of why this sort of thing is counter productive -- is that our puppet president Hamid Karzai comes off looking even more impotent in the eyes of his own people than he already does. He's been decrying the coalition's use of aerial bombing on civilians targets for years but to no avail. No matter what he says, no matter how hard he tries (or cries); he just can't seem to convince NATO or US forces to stop killing women and children from 45,000 feet.
At a time when we're trying to reestablish government control over more of the country than just Kabul, these kinds of knuckle-headed over-reactions just undermine the entire program. The Afghanis are justifiably pissed off at the warlords in parliament, who are more concerned with avoiding war crimes prosecutions than the well-being of their constituents, and the Taliban who are making their lives a living hell. It would seem to be a no-brainer that we'd have an easier time convincing them that we're the lesser of those two evils, but as long as we show such low regard for civilian casualties, in their view, we're no better.
As Genera Patreaus says, "Lose moral legitimacy, lose the war."