Cover Ups and Collateral Damage

March 6, 2007

A few months ago president Karzai wept in public while talking about Afghans’ helplessness as they are attacked by the Taliban on the one hand, and the foreign troops on the other. Whether staged or genuine (we tend to think it was genuine) the emotional episode epitomized the weariness of those civilians who found themselves sandwiched between two blind forces.

That was then, in the aftermath of another incident with heavy civilian losses of life.

On March 4-5th, in a span of less than 24 hours, two more such incidents took place in Afghanistan. The first happened when a US troops convoy was attacked by a car bomb near Jalalabad, and subsequently started shooting at passers-by as it sped away. US army sources later confirmed that 8 civilians were killed and 35 more injured. Later, in a night-time artillary attack and air strike in Kapisa province, 9 more civilians were killed as 2000lb bombs were dropped on a house.

In a reminder of last spring’s demonstrations -following a similar convoy incident north of Kabul in which civilian bystanders were killed- after the Jalalabad highway incident thousands of people took to the streets protesting civilian deaths and shouting slogans against the foreign troops and the central government. In retrospect, observers see last spring’s protests as a milestone in post-Taliban Afghanistan, as they marked the beginning of a downward trajectory which lasted for the rest of the year 2006, and is yet to be turned about.

Whether the recent episode proves to be another steep drop in that downward trajectory remains to be seen. However, the involved troops’ response in the immediate aftermath of the civilian deaths is not anything to be too hopeful about. Most disturbingly, US soldiers on the scene confiscated cameras and deleted journalists’ photographs of civilian cars sprayed with bullets, threatening to also “delete” a journalist if he did not comply. Furthermore, the US military’s attempt to explain away the incident as some sort of a “complex ambush” does not seem either ingenuous or convincing, and should be independently confirmed through an investigation. President Karzai has called for just such an investigation, a call which the Human Rights Watch has strongly endorsed.

It seems that the US army has taken to heart the lessons of history as they pertain to a certain aspect of such incidents: that images have the power to win or lose wars: Vietnam. Mai Lai. Abu Ghraib. Iraq. But the lesson is only half learnt. The other half goes something like this: cover-ups usually end up doing more damage than damage control. The best way to deal with these tragic incidents is to confront them in their full ugliness. Just as with persons, so too with wars secrets have a habit of piling up on each other so that soon the whole effort seems like a sinister, secretive undertaking. And then the war is lost.

Tragic and heart rending as the episode was, the way that the US army dealt with Abu Ghraib probably came closest to the best way of dealing with something that difficult. Granted that many were forced to confront the truth -as by that time the images were already public- the fact that those responsible were held accountable, and the ugliness of the incident was publicly acknowledged, and decried, helped to distance it from the wider effort that is the war itself. Had they been swept under the rug, to date they would haunt all those who were involved, or knew about it, and did not do anything -needless to mention how the Iraqis themselves felt about it.

With civilian losses of life becoming so frequent in Afghanistan, it is time to ask why. When accidents become routine, then something is really wrong. Cover ups and information control may hide the symptoms, they may delay the inevitable, but they do not address the sources of the problem. The inevitable is that the sources of problem -which could, for all we know, be of a systematic nature- should be confronted soon.

The US army has said time and again that it is fighting an unconventional war with an unconventional adversary. Part of what that means is that the adversary -an irregular guerilla force- is not under the same international treaty obligations that the US army is -that is, among others, to ensure civilians’ safety. Unless measures are taken to prevent such episodes from happening again -and a good place to start doing that is to find out why they happened in the past- it seems only certain the war will be lost one incident at a time, and in the process, also bereft of its legitimacy.