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How Many Innocents Will Die for Illusion of US Safety?
Almost like clockwork, the reports float up to us from thousands of miles away, as if from another universe. Every couple of days they seem to arrive from Afghan villages that few Americans will ever see without weapon in hand.
Every few days, they appear from a world almost beyond our imagining, and always they concern death -- so many lives snuffed out so regularly for more than seven years now. Unfortunately, those news stories are so unimportant in our world that they seldom make it onto, no less off of, the inside pages of our papers. They're so repetitive that, once you've started reading them, you could write them in your sleep from thousands of miles away.
Like obituaries, they follow a simple pattern. Often the news initially arrives buried in summary war reports based on U.S. military (or NATO) announcements of small triumphs -- so many "insurgents," or "terrorists," or "foreign militants," or "anti-Afghan forces" killed in an air strike or a raid on a house or a village. And these days, often remarkably quickly, even in the same piece, come the challenges. Some local official or provincial governor or police chief in the area hit insists that those dead "terrorists" or "militants" were actually so many women, children, old men, innocent civilians, members of a wedding party or a funeral.
In response -- no less part of this formula -- have been the denials issued by American military officials or coalition spokespeople that those killed were anything but insurgents, and the assurances of the accuracy of the intelligence information on which the strike or raid was based. In these years, American spokespeople have generally retreated from their initial claims only step by begrudging step, while doggedly waiting for any hubbub over the killings to die down. If that didn't happen, an "investigation" would be launched (the investigators being, of course, members of the same military that had done the killing) and then prolonged, clearly in hopes that the investigation would outlast coverage of the "incident" and both would be forgotten in a flood of other events.
Forgotten? It's true that we forget these killings easily -- often we don't notice them in the first place -- since they don't seem to impinge on our lives. Perhaps that's one of the benefits of fighting a war on the periphery of empire, halfway across the planet in the backlands of some impoverished country.
One problem, though: the forgetting doesn't work so well in those backlands. When your child, wife or husband, mother or father is killed, you don't forget.
Only this week, our media was filled with ceremonies and remembrances centered around the tenth anniversary of the slaughter at Columbine High School. Twelve kids and a teacher blown away in a mad rampage. Who has forgotten? On the other side of the planet, there are weekly Columbines.
Similarly, every December 7th, we Americans still remember the dead of Pearl Harbor, almost seven decades in the past. We still have ceremonies for, and mourn, the dead of September 11, 2001. We haven't forgotten. We're not likely to forget. Why, when death rains down on our distant battlefields, should they?
Admittedly, there's been a change in the assertion/repeated denial/investigation pattern instituted by American forces. Now, assertion and denial are sometimes followed relatively quickly by acknowledgement, apology, and payment. Now, when the irrefutable meets the unchallengeable, American spokespeople tend to own up to it. Yep, we killed them. Yep, they were women and kids. Nope, they had, as far as we know, nothing to do with terrorism. Yep, it was our fault and we'll pony up for our mistake.
This new tactic is a response to rising Afghan outrage over the repeated killing of civilians in U.S. raids and air strikes. But like the denials and the investigations, this, too, is intended to make everything go away, while our war itself -- those missiles loosed, those doors kicked down in the middle of the night -- just goes on.
Once again, evidently, everyone is supposed to forget (or perhaps simply forgive). It's war, after all. People die. Mistakes are made. As for those dead civilians, New York Times reporter Jane Perlez recently quoted a former Pakistani general on the hundreds of tribespeople killed in the Pakistani borderlands in air strikes by CIA-run drones: they are, he said, "likely hosting Qaeda militants and cannot be deemed entirely innocent."
All of this was little more than a shadow play against which the ongoing war continues to be relentlessly prosecuted. In Afghanistan (and increasingly in Pakistan), civilian deaths are inseparable from this war. Though they may be referred to as "collateral damage," increasingly in all wars, and certainly in counterinsurgency campaigns involving air power, the killing of civilians lies at the heart of the matter, while the killing of soldiers might be thought of as the collateral activity.
Pretending that these "mistakes" will cease or be ameliorated as long as the war is being prosecuted is little short of folly. After all, "mistake" after "mistake" continues to be made. That first Afghan wedding party was obliterated in late December 2001 when an American air strike killed up to 110 Afghan revelers with only two survivors. The fifth one on record was blown away last year. And count on it, there will be a sixth.
By now, we've filled up endless "towers" with dead Afghan civilians. And that's clearly not going to change, apologies or not, especially when U.S. forces are planning to "surge" into the southern and eastern parts of the country later this year, while the CIA's drone war on the Pakistani border expands.
And how exactly do we explain this ever rising pile of civilian dead to ourselves? It's being done, so we've been told, for our safety and security here in the U.S. The previous president regularly claimed that we were fighting over there, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, to keep Americans safe here; the former vice president has made clear that among the great achievements of the Bush administration was the prevention of a second 9/11; and when, on March 27th, President Obama announced his latest Afghan bailout plan, he, too, played the 9/11 card heavily. As he was reported to have put it recently, "he is not 'naive about how dangerous this world is' and [he] said he wakes up every day and goes to bed every night thinking and worrying 'about how to keep the American people safe.'"
Let's for a moment assume, however, that our safety really was, and remains, at stake in a war halfway across the planet. If so, let me ask you a question: What's your "safety" really worth? Are you truly willing to trade the lives of Awal Khan's family for a blanket guarantee of your safety -- and not just his family, but all those Afghan one-year olds, all those wedding parties that are -- yes, they really are -- going to be blown away in the years to come for you?
Maybe it's time to suck it up and put less value on the idea of absolute American safety, since in many ways the Bush administration definition of our safety and security, which did not go into retirement with George and Dick, is now in the process of breaking us. Looked at reasonably, even if Dick Cheney and his minions prevented another 9/11 (and there's no evidence he did), in doing so look what he brought down around our ears. What a bad bargain it's been -- and all in the name of our safety, and ours alone.
Ask yourself these questions in the dead of night: Do we really want stories like Awal Khan's to float up out of the villages of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and who knows where else for the next seven years? Or the next 30 for that matter? Does that seem reasonable? Does that seem right? Is your supposed safety worth that?