Topic: War on Terror
Sec Def Robert Gates two weeks ago on a visit to Afghanistan said things in the forgotten war were "slowly, cautiously headed in the right direction." Now, I don't take Gates to be the self delusional type of the Rummy mold, he appears to have his feet planted firmly on the ground and to be a fairly competent civil servant of a bygone era, so I'm thinking perhaps he was slightly overcome by a certain nostalgia while in Afghanistan for the years he spent in the 80's dealing with the Mujahideen during their fight against the Soviets. (In fact, I hear he actually was reunited with a former Mujahideen leader he worked with back in the day while inspecting Afghan army recruits.)
So I guess I can forgive this rare lapse into la la land and figure that after soaking in the news from Afghanistan over the past few days he'll get back to reality; because, man, what's been going lately is pretty bleak. Just a few weeks ago Hamid Karzai once again escaped an attempt on his life, dodging Taliban rockets while addressing the security fears of residents of Andar district in Ghanzi province. Two days or so later there was the shoot out between US Special Forces and Afghan police, which left 8 of the police dead.
Apparently, the US forces didn't trust their Afghan allies enough to let them know they would be staging a raid on a suspected Talib hideout. The police saw trucks with their lights turned out approaching their check point and opened fire. The Special Forces, not knowing who they were fighting, called in helicopter gun ships and what wound up transpiring was "a tragic incident" according to president Karzai. He's presided over a lot of them lately.
The most recent events have been particularly tragic, including the worst suicide attack in Kabul probably ever, involving a bus full of police recruits that killed 35 and wounded another 30, and an air strike on a Madrassa that killed 7 young boys. That incident occurred at the same time fighting over the weekend and into this week rages between Talibs and NATO forces near the village of Chora in Uruzgan province. According to the head of the provincial council, Mullah Ahmidullah Khan, over 100 people been killed in the fighting, including 60 civilians, 70 Taliban and 16 Afghan police. [AP]
The NYT quotes Mullah Ahmidullah saying, "I have seen with my own eyes that woman and children were badly hit by bombing. The fighting is inside the villages, so that's why civilians are suffering casualties. I have met families who have lost almost everyone."
Of course, you can't really trust anyone who calls himself "Mullah" can you? A NATO spokesman, Maj. John Thomas, according to AP "Said he doubted that Afghan officials could tell the difference between militants and civilians, suggesting some of the wounded who claimed to be civilians were insurgents."
Yes, because NATO has such sparkling record when it comes to avoiding "collateral damage," right? Who would know better the difference between militants and civilians, a NATO spokesperson who's rotating in for a few months or someone who actually lives in the area? Hey, that's really the way to win hearts and minds!
In the today's NYT article on the killing of the 7 boys in the Madrassa, all between the ages of 10 and 16, Barry Bearak and Taimoor Shah report that the usual American and NATO assurances of going to "extraordinary lengths" to avoid civilian casualties aren't flying anymore. "Whatever the facts, Khalid Farouqi, a member of parliament from Patika, was angry at the coalition.' Nobody can accept the killing of women and children,' he said. 'It is not acceptable in either Islam or international law.' He added that apologies are no longer adequate."
Through the looking glass?
Obviously, the situation with collateral damage in Iraq is already way beyond apologies at this point. No one buys the "whoops we did it again" defense there any more. So this is probably why we're starting to adapt the same tactics in Iraq that have failed so spectacularly in Afghanistan. That old 'hearts and minds' chestnut is has become somewhat quaint in sovereign Iraq.
On June 6 the AP reported:
"In the first 4 1/2 months of 2007, U.S. aircraft dropped 237 bombs and missiles in support of ground forces in Iraq, already surpassing the 298 expended in all of 2006. At the same time, the number of civilian casualties from US air strikes appears to have risen sharply, according to Iraq Body Count." In this new big offensive launched yesterday in Diyala province,
"The military said in a statement yesterday that 'four precision-guided bombs' were dropped in support of 1,200 U.S. soldiers of the Third Infantry Division as they started moving on al-Qaeda targets."
We're back to that "precision-guided bombs" jazz again. We've seen how precise they are in Afghanistan, in largely deserted and remote areas. Clearly, dropping bombs from F-16s at high altitude into largely urban areas in Iraq is going to be much more likely to hit their intended targets.
[I wrote a while back about the ascension of Admiral Fallon as the head on CentCom being a sure sign that his expertise in commanding aircraft carriers would come in handy against Iran. Who would have thought anyone in their right mind would use the extra fire power of fixed-wing aircraft on the two carriers in the Gulf against targets in door to door urban warfare?]
It looks like there's this weird inversion going on between the tactics we use in Iraq and Afghanistan and the tactics the various insurgents and militants were fighting are employing to ever greater success in both countries. Whereas, they have transferred into Afghanistan what they've learned about the use of IEDs, suicide bombers and car bombings in Iraq, we've decided to adapt the all the mistakes we've made in Iraq and transfer it all to Afghanistan and visa versa.
A case in point is the error we keep making in Afghanistan of not getting a handle on US troops firing wildly into crowds after an IED attack. You'll recall, the incident a few months back in Jalalabad where US Marines fired indiscriminately into oncoming traffic and bystanders on the road as they sped down getting away from an IED attack on their convoy, killing 16 and wounding 30 Afghans in the process. That didn't go over too well in the area, leading to some rioting and condemnation from a weary Hamid Karzi.
That sort of thing was already a hallmark of our good friends in the Iraqi army who have for years fired into crowds of civilians when they're attacked. There's even a name for it, they call it the "death plume," or something like that.
Well, it must be a sign of the strain our soldiers are suffering after multiple tours and unrelenting violence, because now it's become a big problem for the usually much better trained and disciplined Americans in Iraq.
The LA Times reported this Monday that: "Since mid-February, Los Angles Times freelance journalists across Iraq have reported at least 18 incidents in which witnesses said troops had fired wildly or in areas crowded with civilians. The reports indicated at least 22 noncombatants died in those incidents. If antidotal evidence is an indication, such deaths often occur after troops are shaken by roadside bombs, as occurred when [a] Times employee's son was killed April 17 . . .
U.S. military officials say troops are trained to avoid civilian casualties and do not fire wildly. Iraqis, however, say the shootings happen frequently and that even if troops are firing at suspects, they often do so on streets where bystanders are likely to be hit." Of course, the worst incident so far as we know of this type of thing happening, was in Nov. of 2005 when Marines slaughtered 24 men, women and children in Haditha after one of their own was killed by an IED.
The resulting cover-up of the killings by Marine higher ups doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the pentagon's protestations that things like this don't happen. And since a recent survey of US grunts found that 40% of then wouldn't report such things, you have to figure it’s a much more common occurrence than the LA Times was able to prove.
This is not to say that such behavior isn't totally understandable. Our people over there are only human, and there's only so much a person can take. Far be it for me to sit here and try to tell anybody who is sweating their asses off over there dodging IEDs and sniper's bullets that they shouldn't be doing everything they can to get home in one piece. My beef is with the commanders over there making the crappy decisions and the brain's trust at the White House insisting that these poor bastards are going to have to keep going back to Iraq ad infinitum until their number is finally up or they die of old age.
Until our political system finally responds to the overwhelming will of the governed to get our folks the hell out of that disaster in Iraq, those who serve us all are stuck in an impossible situation. It would be nice, though, if there was some recognition by those charged with assuring all our people come back alive and whole that killing the people you're supposedly trying to liberate is counterproductive in the extreme and will lead to nothing more than more of the same.