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AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH

10-02-2010

As NATO troops commence yet another major offensive in Afghanistan, the lives of innocent civilians will once again be put at risk. Steve Beauchampé calls for greater accountability when coalition forces screw up.

It was all too easy to condemn the recent plan by Anjem Choudary and the Islam4UK group to stage a protest in the Berkshire town of Wootton Bassett against the deaths of Afghan civilians at the hands of British forces. Too easy, too convenient and wholly inadequate.

How fortunate that Chaudrey and his al-Mujaharoun sect supporters so comfortably fitted the ‘Mad Mullah’ folk devil stereotype. With their Islam World Domination banners and slogans they appeared reminiscent of the caricature megalomaniacs traditionally faced down by the likes of James Bond and International Rescue.

In reality the group probably weren’t serious about staging a march, reasoning that the mere suggestion of protesting against the British armed forces in such a place would be sufficient to raise the blood pressure and inflame the patriotic sentiment of the flag waving masses for whom no praise for British troops can ever be too high and no criticism ever justified.

Yet somewhere amongst their delusional rhetoric, Choudary and his followers have a point; the statistics for civilian deaths caused by pro-Government forces in Afghanistan are simply appalling.

UN figures show that between January 2006-October 2009 2,139 civilians died in such circumstances (which is over 50% of the total killed by insurgents during the same period!). The number injured by NATO and its allies is not recorded, though it is likely to considerably outweigh the numbers of those killed.

That these are UN figures is telling; whilst fatalities and injuries amongst NATO forces are assiduously compiled and regularly reported in the British media, the coalition does not appear concerned enough to monitor the number of civilians they kill (for the purposes of this article, I’m including the victims of US Special Operations Forces, though they are technically not part of NATO).

Of course, by no means all of the 2,139 civilian deaths involved British forces (and not all are even attributable to NATO) whilst changes in coalition tactics since the arrival of new US commander General Stanley McChrystal last summer are understood to have reduced civilian casualty rates.

Yet whilst shortcomings in equipment are reckoned to have exacerbated casualty figures amongst British forces, the civilian Afghan victims of NATO had no protective equipment whatsoever, and unlike British soldiers, won’t be getting any.

Rarely are these civilians unfortunate victims caught in the crossfire as NATO troops defended themselves from Taliban attack, many are killed by missile strikes; weapons launched from fighter planes, or increasingly from unmanned ‘Drone’ aircraft, the person who terminated or shattered their lives safely ensconced in front of a computer screen in a US military base 8,000 miles away in Nevada, never seeing or hearing their mutilated victims or the effects of their actions, driving home to their family once their working day is over.

It is easy to blame government ministers for errors in executing the war, and no doubt the forthcoming general election campaign will be punctuated with instances of grieving relatives of dead British troops - perhaps egged on by newspaper editors - assailing Gordon Brown and his cabinet colleagues on the campaign trail, demanding apologies and explanations as to why their loved ones died.

But the narrative that damns government ministers as hapless and incompetent, while labelling military commanders and troops as farsighted, brave and heroic, is as absurdly clichéd as it is grossly over simplistic.

Nowhere is the description of the management of modern warfare better illustrated than in Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright’s account of his two months spent with US Marines during the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. Wright’s book, Generation Kill, adapted by David Simon and Ed Burn’s (of The Wire) for the TV series of the same name, and endorsed as accurate by many of the soldiers he was embedded with, shows graphically how there are both competent and incompetent soldiers at all levels of the military hierarchy.

Some were fearless and heroic, a credit to their country, some were way out of their depth, yet their judgments often meant the difference between life and death for those Iraqi civilians they encountered.

With British troops based in the relatively quiet Basra region, and taking a markedly less aggressive and confrontational approach than their US counterparts, the number of civilian deaths attributable to British forces was undoubtedly lower, but for Iraq as a whole, a substantial number of civilians (more than the current total for Afghanistan) perished at the hands of the very people who claimed to be their liberators.

Yet it seems few people of importance or influence in the west take the situation anything like seriously enough - certainly not politicians, newspaper editors nor radio or television news producers. Indeed one of the US’s first acts after invading Iraq was to arrange for the interim government they installed to grant immunity from prosecution for American military personnel.

Their cavalier attitude towards civilian wellbeing - allied to an effective immunity from prosecution - was immediately apparent; what were claimed to be surgically targeted strikes on Iraqi military installations, government and Ba’ath Party infrastructure, sometimes missed their targets, or involved liberal interpretations of what constituted a legitimate target (TV stations for instance).

A restaurant where some of Saddam Hussain’s associates were believed to be eating was struck, with the entire apartment block that surrounded it levelled and around 40 civilians killed. The targets had already left.

Things have been little better in Afghanistan; amongst many examples that could be cited, a bomb was dropped on a group of tribesmen spotted on a mountain range after satellite images appeared to show that the group’s leader was tall and it was felt he just might have been Osama bin Laden. He wasn’t, but everyone in the group was killed nonetheless.

To these atrocities can be added scores - possibly hundreds - of further examples; families executed in cars when the driver failed to stop quickly enough at checkpoints; wedding parties blown up following inaccurate intelligence reports, houses, bomb shelters, even educational establishments blasted to kingdom come by NATO and its allies.

Since 2008 the US has begun attacking suspected Taliban and al-Qa’ida targets in Pakistan. Militants have been hit, but so many civilians have also perished that the Pakistani government has strongly - and repeatedly - protested at the policy, seemingly to little or no avail. The CIA is understood to be behind many of these extra-judicial killings.

To diminish and dismiss these deaths and injuries as collateral damage, the inevitable consequences of war, as western political and military leaders do, is unacceptable. There must be a line of accountability, especially in a world where those responsible for the killings claim such technical superiority and absolute moral authority.

Following the deaths of 13 people, allegedly at the hands of Major Nidal Hasan at the Fort Worth army base in Texas last November, US Defense Department officials have called for those officers deemed responsible for errors of judgement relating to Major Hasan to be disciplined and prosecuted - a demand echoed by President Obama. Thus the will to act is there - at least when the casualties are American!

So when innocent civilians die because of the negligence, carelessness or stupidity of NATO personnel the response should be similar. The standard defence, that those responsible acted in good faith, believing their actions to be right, disgracefully ducks the issue, allowing the guilty to escape accountability, to disappear into a thicket where their victims’ families - all the weaker for living in a different culture and on another continent - cannot follow.

And history shows us that the armed forces, government and legal system nearly always close ranks in such circumstances. It is why atrocities such as Bloody Sunday, the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and the deaths of around 2,000 civilians from Israeli missile strikes during conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza in 2006 and 2008/9 respectively will forever go unpunished.

If further evidence were needed that this dereliction of duty by the self-proclaimed torchbearers of democracy and decency continues, look no further than the recent abandonment, on a technicality, of legal action against employees of the US security firm Blackwater over the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians.

Keeping America and Europe safe has a hollow ring when large numbers of Iraqis, Afghans and now Pakistani civilians are killed by western forces in the course of achieving this - and that’s before we even consider the thousands of security personnel from these countries that have died, in part to fulfil western objectives.

Perhaps those who so readily honour the British dead of the Afghanistan and Iraqi campaigns might also stop to remember the citizens of countries we have invaded who have been killed, either as victims of coalition errors or while fighting on our side.

Civilian casualties are always high in military conflicts (usually higher than those suffered by the armed forces) and NATO‘s record is no worse than that of other armies in this regard. But if we can hold inquiries and apportion blame over the deaths of British service personnel then the least we can do is seek accountability for the killings by NATO forces of those innocent men, women and children unwittingly caught up in wars that the west chose to fight.

Or do their lives count for less?

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