Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Foreign Troops: One Issue, Two Approaches

War is not nice. People get killed. Sometimes innocent people get killed.

Survivors get upset when innocent people get killed. For that matter, survivors get upset when not-so-innocent people get killed.

Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Some Background

Quite a few people are getting killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan these days. Not too long ago, it was the Taliban doing much of the killing of innocent civilians. Now that foreign troops, including Americans, are in those countries, the Taliban is doing much of the killing of innocent civilians, but foreign troops are killing some, too.

And that makes the news.

A few weeks ago, the United Nations claimed that an American-led raid in August killed 90 civilians. And videos prove it. Sort of.

The videos, probably taken with cell phones, show a mosque floor in the western village of Azizabad, with dozens of human bodies laid out. The quality is so bad that you can't tell how many. Whoever took the pictures made sure that the viewer saw a dead child curled in a fetal position and one child with "half its head blown off."

Shocking. Oddly, journalists embedded with the troops that presumably committed all that carnage only saw about 15 new graves dug after those 90 people were killed: including the 60 children and 15 women.

Given Muslim practices of timely burial, this seems odd. Maybe the locals had put an average of six bodies in each grave. Which would seem even more odd.

Another little detail is that an American cameraman said, "I saw an Afghan woman and her child — they were wounded and they were being given medical aid at the scene and then taken to the Special Force hospital, where they received treatment."

On the other hand, no new local civilians seemed to be looking for medical attention: but the numbers of claimed casualties grew. Sort of reminds me of the growth pattern of fish, after anglers catch and release them.

Meanwhile, a reporter for the Asia Times, Mustafa Qadri, wrote, "...A Taliban suicide attack on the Wah army munitions facility in August killed 70 and injured over 100 more. All those killed were ordinary, working Muslims, as were the people killed by a Taliban suicide bomber when he blew himself up at the casualty ward of a hospital in the city of Dera Ismail Khan on August 19. The Taliban said the attack was justified because the hospital was administering polio vaccinations, something it considers prohibited by Islam.

"The nearly weekly attacks on girls' schools - such as the more than 100 destroyed in Pakistan's northwestern and mountainous Swat district in the past 10 months - are justified in the same way...."

Civilians Getting Killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Two Responses

These two countries have responded in very different ways:
  • Afghanistan
    Remember that raid in Azizabad? 90 people getting killed? Possibly just 15 fresh graves?
    • A spokesman for the Afghan president, Humayun Hamidzada, says no Taliban fighters were killed
    • An Afghan government commission said that up to 90 civilians were killed, including 60 children
      • A U.N. report repeated the claim
    • Now, it looks like U.S. Special Forces and Afghan soldiers shot up Afghan employees of a British security firm and their family members
      • Which explains the return fire, and weapons found at the scene
    • Humayun Hamidzada says that a rival tribe lied about Taliban being in Azizabad, to settle a dispute
    • Humayun Hamidzada emphasized that Pakistan and America were still allies
  • Pakistan
    An American drone aircraft fired missiles this month.
    • 14 people in northwest Pakistan died as a result
    • Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said Pakistan would raise the issue with the United States at 'diplomatic level'
      • "We will try to convince the United States ... to respect (the) sovereignty of Pakistan -- and God willing, we will convince"
    • Pakistani troops now have orders to shoot American soldiers, if they enter Pakistan from Afghanistan
      • That actually is diplomacy, of a sort
This is over-simplifying a complex situation, but:
  • Afghanistan's leadership seems to have decided that, all things considered, it's better to protect their homicidal tribesmen from the Taliban, using foreign troops, than to refuse help in securing their own country.
  • Pakistan's leadership apparently has decided that American troops are a bigger threat than a bunch of self-proclaimed Muslims who blow up girls' schools
That's Pakistan's military leadership. Pakistan's civilian leaders, according to CNN, don't like Americans going after the Taliban in Pakistan either, but want to go through more conventional diplomatic channels to voice their grievances.

I think that Mustafa Qadri did a good job of explaining why leaders in these countries sometimes prefer the Taliban to foreigners: "Yet the Taliban manage to retain the sympathy of many Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A major reason for this is the presence of foreign troops that do not appear to understand the dynamics of local tribal politics. Another is the insecurity that most civilians exposed to the conflict face. When foreign forces kill civilians, the Taliban are able to avoid responsibility for the atrocities they commit."

In the case of Americans, I think it's quite fair to say that we "do not appear to understand the dynamics of local tribal politics." The Hatfields and the McCoys have long since buried the hatchet: and not, as one might have expected, in each other.

Americans simply aren't used to someone in one town arranging for soldiers to kill people in another town. Suing each other over broken umbrellas is more our style.

Seriously, I think that American forces in the Middle East must remember that they're dealing with an alternative set of values, and make allowances.

On the other hand, I'm not particularly upset that the days of feuding families are, for the most part, behind us, and that one of America's current social issues is frivolous lawsuits.

In the news:


Brigid said...

I find this line from an embedded news reporter telling.

"I find it very hard to believe that there were that large number of civilians that were killed on the scene and I missed it."

Brian H. Gill said...



There does seem to be a serious lack of fit, between the growing tally of "dead" and "wounded" - and the actual number of graves and people treated.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.