Matrix of Death

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A U.S. B1-B Lancer bomber drops cluster bombs during a live fire exercise. A file picture. Close air support (CAS) air strikes now account for about 80 per cent of all Afghan civilians who perish at the hands of the U.S. and NATO.

U.S. priorities are further revealed by the more than ten-to-one ratio of military-to-reconstruction aid since 2002. The Senlis Council in its report contrasted military spending with development spending in Afghanistan during 2002-06 (Figure 1). Another source, a report released by the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), an alliance of international aid agencies working in Afghanistan, echoes,
While the U.S. military is currently spending $100 million a day in Afghanistan, aid spent by all donors since 2001 is on average less than a tenth of that – just $7 million a day.5
In other words, what actually takes place in the realms of the economic and the social on-the-ground in Afghanistan is at best of marginal concern; furthermore, many point to the ineffectiveness of aid.6 I shall argue herein such marginal stress upon improving the everyday life of common Afghans is paralleled by a callous disregard for Afghan civilians in the carrying out of military operations (especially close air support strikes) and in the paltry compensation (when offered at all) for innocent Afghans killed by U.S. or NATO actions.When we assemble the different pieces of the media jigsaw puzzle, clear patterns emerge. Western victims are presented as real, important people with names, families, hopes and dreams. Iraqi and Afghan victims of British and American violence are anonymous, nameless. They are depicted as distant shadowy figures without personalities, feelings or families. The result is that Westerners are consistently humanised, while non-Westerners are portrayed as lesser versions of humanity (from “Militants and Mistakes,” Media Lens (July 22, 2008)). While Afghans killed by U.S./NATO forces are completely invisible as human beings in the U.S. mainstream media, contrast the efforts undertaken by the same media to give humanity to U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan, as for example in The Washington Post at
A major aim of this report is to provide real figures on Afghan civilians killed by U.S./NATO actions since 2006, thereby undermining the common claim that such numbers cannot be obtained. We often hear glib statements about the “fog of war” or “war is hell” or “we don’t do body counts”. My numbers are admittedly underestimates for reasons discussed herein (an incomplete universe of recorded deaths, a propensity of the Pentagon and its Afghan client to label as militants what were civilians, the injured who later die from wounds, censorship by omission, etc). Not counting or estimating means playing into the hands of those who market the U.S. war in Afghanistan as a “clean” war, a “precision” war and the like. The latter is routinely trotted out by the apologists of aerial bombing; “It’s sort of the immaculate conception to warfare,” was how Professor of Strategy, Col. (retired U.S. Marine) Mackubin Owens at the U.S. Naval War College (Newport, R.I.) described the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan in November 2001.

Ghulam Jan suffered shrapnel wounds in a strike by U.S. forces on a wedding celebration in Kakarak village in September 2002.

Two main subterfuges have been used by the U.S. and NATO militaries, the compliant corporate media and organisations like HRW to excuse the killing and wounding of innocent Afghan civilians. The first is to express self-righteous anger over “them” killing civilians intentionally whereas “we” never intentionally target civilians. The second is to assert that the dastardly Taliban and their Muslim or Arab associates employ civilians as human shields.
A third means examined elsewhere 13 has been simply to suppress whenever possible written reports and especially photos of the victims of U.S./NATO military actions (“bad” bodies) in Afghanistan, all the while amply publishing stories and photos of Afghan civilians killed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or suicide bombers (“good” bodies). Photos of civilians whose death was caused by U.S. or NATO bombs are virtually non-existent.14 One might call this censorship by omission.15 News magazine photo coverage of the “war on terrorism” in Afghanistan most often supports U.S. government narrative and versions of events.16 The policy of embedding reporters with U.S. or NATO occupation forces is an obvious attempt at removing independent reporting, which, sadly, most often succeeds.
U.S. human rights lawyers charged on July 20, 2008, that U.S. military prisons were “legal black holes” and that force was employed to “shut people up” about activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Many people in Afghanistan and in Iraq who have been targeted for detention are local journalists covering the conflict in their own country,” said another prominent U.S. human rights lawyer, Barbara J. Olshansky.The nature of the air war in Afghanistan has changed substantially between 2001 and 2006-08. During the last three months of 2001, the U.S. bombing was part of a traditional military campaign pitting two armies against each other. As such, the bombing involved large tonnages being dropped; whereas during 2006-08, the U.S. and NATO bombing involved CAS against a decentralised, highly fluid guerilla resistance. During the former campaign some 14,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped, or almost 12 times the tonnage dropped during the two and a half years (2006-mid-2008).
Of course, the killing of innocent civilians by U.S. bombing has a long history spanning the 20th century. For example, after 58 years, recently released classified documents tell the story of how 93 napalm canisters were dropped on the little island of Wolmi, South Korea, in September 1950, incinerating over a hundred residents.

An Afghan girl holds a poster with photographs of her dead family members, on September 9. They were killed on August 22 during a U.S.-led raid at Azizabad village in Shindand district of Herat province

Aerial bombing in the name of liberating Afghans will continue with little regard for Afghan civilians who for Western politico-military elites remain simply invisible in the empty space which is an “increasingly aerially occupied Afghanistan”.30 The compliant mainstream media perpetuate the myth by serving as the stenographer of the Pentagon’s virtual reality. Patrick Coburn of The Independent got it dead-on:
The reaction of the Pentagon to the killing of large numbers of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Pakistan has traditionally been first to deny that it ever happened. The denial is based on the old public relations principle that “first you say something is no news and didn’t happen. When it is proved some time later that it did happen, you yawn and say it is old news.”31
When details of Afghan civilian deaths finally leak through the U.S./NATO news management efforts, a Lt. Col. at the Bagram Air Base offers “sincere regrets” or the promise of an investigation and by the next day all is forgotten. They are, after all, just Afghans “we” killed. Theirs are bad bodies, not good bodies like those on “our” side that were killed

Senator Barack Obama has staked out a political position by claiming that he will increase United States’ troop strength in Afghanistan by at least one-third, will permit U.S./NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) forces to engage in hot pursuit into Pakistan’s tribal areas and increase U.S. bombing and Special Operations Forces raids into Pakistan. Caesar-like, he proclaims that Afghanistan is a “war on terror” we must and can win. He appears to be completely ignorant that Pashtun nationalism (Taliban) and Al Qaeda jehad are two very different things.1
In effect, Obama proposes to continue and escalate the military policies of the Bush administration if he can draw down the U.S. occupation forces in Iraq. I have argued that these actions are doomed to fail on their own terms, will cement a deadly alliance between the Taliban and radical Islamists, and will further destabilise a nuclear Pakistan.2 And whom did Obama visit on his very first day in Afghanistan in July 2008? He met none other than Gul Agha Sherzai, favourite of George Bush’s General Dan ‘Bomber’ McNeill and the ex-governor/warlord of Kandahar infamous for his cruelty, trafficking in drugs, corruption, and pederasty with young boys.3 On the following day, he spent time with the U.S. occupation forces and the “Mayor of Kabul” who was in his Kabul fortress (and not off mourning somewhere or on an international junket raising monies). Obama fails to admit that recent U.S./NATO aerial bombing has been extremely deadly to Afghan civilians, which when combined with the negligible value attached to Afghan lives reveals that U.S. politicians and military hold little interest in Afghanistan proper other than in a geopolitical


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