The quagmire of Afghanistan becomes clearer each day as reports filter out that the grand surge in Helmand is stymied and Afghan townspeople are not so pleased with their “liberation.”
Yet, while an uproar in the UK over their casualties this week – 15 dead in 10 days – grows, (see “renowned British military historian Correlli Barnett … in the pages of the very conservative Daily Mail” (h/t Steve Hynd of Newshoggers)) Gen McChrystal continues to up the expectation that he will be asking for more US troops and more billions when he completes his strategic review:
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Sunday that when he gives his assessment to the Obama administration next month of what is needed to defeat the Taliban , he won’t be deterred by administration statements that he cannot have more U.S. troops.
One of the central talking points justifying our ongoing war has always been talk about protecting or saving the women of Afghanistan. Both the right and the left have used this argument as a rationale for continuing – yet few ever listen to the wishes of actual Aghan women.
On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on the confirmation of Lt. General Stanley McChrystal to take over command of Afghanistan – but as Spencer has reported, the hearings are being stage managed to generate a swift confirmation by combining it with the hearings for two others.
While the media focuses on McChrystal’s involvement with the Tillman case (in which he was cleared of wrongdoing), there are other questions that need to be answered.
All too conveniently, the recent decision by President Obama to block the publication of the torture photos may also be a way to smooth his appointment.
At the least, an uproar caused by the release of those photos would likely lead the Senators to ask some pointed questions about actions under McChrystal’s earlier command – at most, those very photos might contain direct documentation of the abuses uncovered by Human Rights Watch and others at Camp Nama, the detention center he commanded in Iraq.
But even without that photographic evidence, there are serious grounds to question this appointment.
Dr Mohammad Aref Jalali, the head of an internationally funded burns hospital in Herat, said villagers taken to hospital after the incident had “highly unusual burns” on their hands and feet that he had not seen before. “We cannot be 100% sure what type of chemical it was and we do not have the equipment here to find out. One of the women who came here told us that 22 members of her family were totally burned. She said a bomb distributed white pow[d]er that caught fire and then set people’s clothes alight.”
Yesterday, while Sec. of State Clinton was expressing “deep regret” over Monday’s civilian deaths in Bala Baluk, US military spokespeople were telling a different story. After similar incidents, one of the usual claims made is that the civilian casualties are inevitable since villagers are “used as human shields by the Taliban” but this time, DOD is spinning at a whole new level, claiming that the Taliban rounded up civilians and killed them with grenades – then loaded the bodies into trucks to use are an anti-American photo op. CNN quickly had Barbara Starr on air repeating the DOD version within hours of the Clinton apology.
Unfortunately for the DOD spinmeisters, the International Committee of the Red Cross has detailed information from the scene – and given the ICRC’s normal reticence and careful neutrality, their credibility certainly beats that of a source that once before attempted to pass off a report from Ollie North that no civilians were killed in a similar attack as a report from a legitimate embedded journalist.
Remember all those promises from US commanders in Afghanistan, the promises made after each killing of large numbers of Afghan civilians, sometimes by air strikes, sometimes by ground forces during raids? After each incident – at least as far back as July 2007 – the commanders issue new pledges that US forces will change their rules of engagement, will take more care, will be more cautious to avoid more murders of Afghan civilians. In fact in April, Defense Secretary Gates said:
“General McKiernan has taken some significant steps in terms of changing the way we go about our operations in Afghanistan, including by the Special Forces, to try and take even further measures to avoid civilian casualties and to avoid antagonizing the local population. This is something I worry about a lot. If we lose the Afghan people, we have lost the war,” he said.
Of course, he made the same pledge back in September when he said that “While no military has ever done more to prevent civilian casualties, it is clear that we have to work even harder.”
If you’ve been reading along with us on Sunday nights, you’ll remember that over and over we’ve reported on Afghan civilians being killed by US forces – in air strikes and in night raids. Each report follows a very similar pattern – US forces report some number of militants killed, then a report from local authorities appears saying something like, “No, actually that was just a family in our village (or a wedding party, or a…), and we want answers.” Eventually, there’s a report that a US officer has visited the village, handed out a check… and expressed our deepest apologies – and then a commander in Kabul issues a very serious statement about how troubling the civilian casualties are, and how we are now going to change our approach and take all sorts of steps to protect civilians. The most recent of such statements included a promise to coordinate all raids with local Afghan forces.
During a recent visit to Afghanistan by Pierre Krähenbühl, Director of Operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, who had worked in Kabul during the 1990s, called for more protection of Afghan civilians. In his report, he notes:
I cannot sufficiently stress the unbearable levels of individual and collective suffering that Afghan men, women and children have had to endure over three decades, and that they continue to endure at levels that defy belief.
This brings me to the critical issue of civilians at risk in the current conflict. For the past three years the ICRC has repeatedly drawn attention to the increasingly severe impact of the conflict on the civilian population.
Never, however, has our concern been as acute as it is now. The conflict is intensifying and affecting wider parts of Afghanistan. Civilian casualties are significantly higher than a year ago…
This was a central issue during my visit. I raised the ICRC’s acute concerns about the protection of civilians with Generals McKiernan and Schloesser of the US armed forces and ISAF respectively. I emphasized in particular the constant obligation to make a distinction between those participating in hostilities and those who do not or, in the case of injured or captured fighters, who no longer directly participate in hostilities.
Mr. Krähenbühl also received assurances that the commanders shared his concern – but again, their assurances have not led to action.
Last week, the National Security Network – which describes itself as “the progressive national security community” – released a statement on Afghanistan. Our friend Spencer Ackerman reported on it’s release in the Washington Independent.
According to Spencer’s article, Heather Hurlburt of NSN described the goals of the statement as an attempt to come up with a progressive consensus. After two weeks of consultations, the statement was released – apparently to the press and then to those of us in the “advocacy community.”
Hurlburt said that she wanted to work out a sense from the “expert community” of what was achievable and realistic for Afghanistan before taking the document to “progressive advocacy” organizations like Get Afghanistan Right to secure buy in. She conceded that there would be disagreements that probably can’t be fully resolved.
This timing certainly raises a whole bunch of questions about the NSN’s interest in engaging in a genuine discussion. It also makes me wonder why those of us who oppose escalation are considered “advocates” and “activists” yet those who advocate sending more troops – as NSN itself does – are instead “experts.”
Twenty years ago this weekend the USSR left Afghanistan, after nine long and brutal years of trying to “win.” This weekend the new US envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke was in Kabul to discuss our seven year attempt to “win” but the definition of “victory” is a bit hard to pin down. (Oh, and General “PR” Petraeus was in Doha claiming Iran was aiding the Taliban! )
As the debate on Afghanistan has become more lively, some members of the progressive blogosphere have been cheering on plans to send another 30,000 troops but their positions are equally hard to pin down beyond support for yet another Petraeus “surge.” (And if you remember, that surge was no where near as successful as the PR General portrayed it) Brave New Foundation is hosting a series of video debates – Rethinking Afghanistan- which is very worth watching – and participating in.