Global Policy Forum

Truth as Collateral Damage


By Marc Herold

October 22, 2008

Civilian deaths from US/Nato air strikes in Afghanistan are not accidents or mistakes – they are calculated and predicted. The "precision attack" levied by James Appathurai (October 17, 2008) upon Seumas Milne's column in the Guardian bears the usual trappings of Nato-speak and actions (truth as collateral damage). From 2006 to mid-2008, US/Nato aerial attacks killed 1,488 Afghan civilians with 1,458 tonnes of bombs, whereas between October 7 and December 10, 2001 US war planes dropped 14,000 tonnes of bombs resulting in 2,569-2,949 dead Afghan civilians (or 18-21 civilians killed per 100 tonnes of US bombs).

Notwithstanding Appathurai's righteous indignation neither Milne nor I are saying that Nato deliberately targets civilians. This is the old canard about intentionality. We are saying that Nato's aerial bombing in Afghanistan as an action reveals far more than Nato's pious words. The data (actions) belie Nato-speak. The relative lethality for Afghan civilians of Nato's close air support strikes far exceeds the lethality of the US strategic bombing of Laos and Cambodia. The lethality of close air support air strikes to Afghan civilians as measured by the ratio of civilians killed per 100 tonnes of bombs dropped is:


  • 2006: 125-148
  • 2007: 119-153
  • 2008: 29-36

In all three years, the lethality of US bombing in Afghanistan exceeded by far that recorded in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Iraq (2003) and Afghanistan (2001). By relying upon aerial close air support (CAS) attacks, US/Nato forces spare their pilots and ground troops but kill lots of innocent Afghan civilians. Air strikes are four to ten times as deadly for Afghan civilians as are ground attacks. And just for the record, so-called precision bombs were initially developed to save US pilots' lives and US taxpayers' dollars, not to spare civilian lives. If John McCain had been carrying JDAM munitions over North Vietnam he may not have had to make as many bombing runs and gotten shot down.

Predictably, Appathurai proffers the Nato-speak about "the Taliban's deliberate policy to use civilians as human shields". Evidence? None is necessary as years of bashing the Taliban has prepared most persons to accept such nonsense. This myth has circulated since the beginning of the US bombing campaign in Afghanistan in October 2001. It is endlessly repeated by the US occupation forces, corporate media, the Pentagon, defence intellectual pundits, Human Rights Watch, the Cruise Missile Left, the humanitarian interventionists, and even some in the United Nations: Afghan insurgents hide among civilians whom they use as human shields.

To begin with, the assertion is never empirically documented but merely stated as a self-evident truth. Second, the implication is that an insurgent or Taliban fighter, resisting the US/Nato invasion should stand alone on a mountain ridge, his AK-47 raised to the sky, and engage in a "fair" act of war with an Apache attack helicopter or A-10 Warthog and see who prevails. Should resistance fighters stand out in an open field or on a mountain ridge? Third, what is conveniently omitted is that the insurgents often live in the area, have friends and families in the communities, and that such a local support base is precisely what gives a guerrilla insurgency (along with knowledge of the local terrain) its classic advantage.

Such local connection means that the insurgents will (unlike the US/Nato occupation forces) go to great lengths to not put local people in danger. Purveyors of the line about the "Taliban's execrable tactic of using civilians as human shields" are either themselves unaware of classic guerrilla strategy or, more likely, seek to manipulate the general public's ignorance about the same. Using the language of guerrilla warfare, can a "fish" swim outside of the "sea"? One recalls the US military's campaign in Vietnam to drain the sea by creating strategic hamlets (translate, concentration camps), seeking to deny the Vietnamese resistance access to sympathetic villagers.

Rather than the "hiding among civilians" canard, what is happening is that civilians figure prominently in the vast numbers of "militants" or "insurgents" reported killed in US/Nato bombing, as I have documented countless times in the Afghan Victim Memorial Project. The latest egregious example involves the slaughter of over 90 Afghan civilians in Azizabad where for weeks the US military asserted that 30 "Taliban" had been killed and no civilians. In other words, civilians killed by US/Nato action are being falsely labelled by the US/Nato as "eliminated militants", which suggests that my overall count of civilians killed is a gross underestimate. In addition, no doubt many cases exist where civilians have been killed by US/Nato action simply are not reported (censorship by omission).

What needs to be made very clear is that Afghan civilian casualties are not accidents or mistakes. They result from careful calculation by US commanders and military attorneys who decide upon the benefits of an air strike versus the costs in innocent civilian lives lost. These are calculated predicted deaths made all the worse when US/Nato air or ground assaults are carried out in the middle of the night when the typical Afghan family numbering six to seven members is asleep. Are we surprised that 72% of the identifiable Afghan civilians killed by the US/Nato during the first eight months of 2008 are women and children?




FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.