On Dec. 26, 2009, a U.S. Special Operations team flew from Kabul to Ghazi Khan village in the Narang district of Kunar province. They attacked three houses, where they killed two adults and eight children. Seven of the children were handcuffed before they were shot. The youngest was 11 or 12, three more were 12, and one was 15. Both the United Nations and the Afghan government conducted investigations and confirmed all the details of the attack.
U.S. officials conducted their own inquiry, but no report was published and no U.S. military or civilian officials were held accountable. Finally, more than five years later, a New York Times report on Joint Special Operations Command’s (JSOC) Seal Team 6 named it as the U.S. force involved. But JSOC operations are officially secret and, to all practical purposes, immune from accountability. As a senior U.S. officer told the Times, “JSOC investigates JSOC, that’s part of the problem.”
Accountability for the U.S. attack on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz on Saturday, killing at least 22 people, is likely to be just as elusive. The bilateral security agreement that President Karzai refused to sign, but which President Ghani signed in September 2014, provides total immunity from Afghan law for U.S. forces and officials. So whoever should be held legally responsible for the massacre at the hospital will only be subject to accountability under U.S. military and civilian legal systems, which routinely fail to prosecute anyone for similar war crimes.
What makes this attack unique is not that U.S.-led forces attacked a hospital or killed civilians, but that, for the first time in many years, a Western NGO found itself operating behind enemy lines in territory controlled by Anti-Coalition Forces (ACF) or Taliban. Doctors Without Borders (or MSF for its French initials) thus found itself subject to U.S. rules of engagement under which Afghans have lived and died in their thousands for the past 14 years, effectively excluded from the protections formally guaranteed to civilians, the wounded and medical facilities by the Geneva Conventions.
While UN officials have condemned the attack on MSF in Kunduz, the UN itself has been complicit in the under-reporting of civilian casualties in ACF-held territory in Afghanistan. The UN has issued reports on civilian casualties based only on the small number of civilian deaths that it has fully investigated. When Western officials and media have cited these numbers as estimates of total civilian deaths in Afghanistan, the UN has failed to correct that misleading and dangerous impression.
For instance, when the UN documented 80 civilian killings in U.S. night raids in 2010, this was based on completed investigations of only 13 of the 73 incidents reported to the UN that year. Nader Nadery of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, who worked on the UN report, estimated that 420 civilians were killed in all 73 incidents.
But Nadery still failed to make it clear that these 73 incidents were only the ones reported to the UN, which had little or no access to ACF-held areas that were targeted by thousands of U.S. night raids and the bulk of 5,100 U.S. air strikes in 2010. U.S. officials and the Western media have used these absurdly low estimates of civilian casualties in Afghanistan to whitewash the deadly effects of 60,000 U.S. air strikes and thousands of special forces night raids over the past 14 years.
“War Is Not Pretty”
As a former U.S. Navy Seal told the New York Times, “War is not this pretty thing the United States has come to believe it to be.” But it is not really “the United States” that has come to see war as a “pretty thing.” Rather it is our leaders who have targeted the American public with propaganda or “Stratcom” – “strategic communications” – to disguise the horrific reality of war, while providing JSOC and other U.S. forces with secrecy and legal cover to systematically violate the Geneva Conventions.
As retired Admiral James Stavridis told the Times, “If you want these forces to do things that occasionally bend the rules of international law, you certainly don’t want that out in public.”
While U.S. forces feel free to disregard the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law, the People On War survey conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) found that ordinary people in war-torn countries like Afghanistan hold strongly to the international legal conventions that are supposed to protect them.
This ICRC report did find the United States exceptional, not in believing war to be “pretty,” but in its failure to educate its people and its soldiers about the Geneva Conventions and the protections they guarantee to civilians in wartime.
While three-quarters of people in other developed countries knew that soldiers in war “must attack only other combatants and leave civilians alone,” only 52 percent of Americans were aware of this basic principle of military law. Twice as many Americans as people in other countries subscribed to an erroneous and lower legal standard that military operations should only “avoid civilians as much as possible.”
The ICRC concluded that, “Across a wide range of questions, in fact, American attitudes towards attacks on civilians were much more lax.”
U.S. officials claim that their air strikes are carefully designed and vetted by military lawyers and planners to ensure minimum “collateral damage,” but William Arkin discovered a dirty little secret about this process when he was invited to observe an attack on an alleged ACF leader in Afghanistan from the safety of the U.S. Combined Air and Space Operations Center in Qatar.
Arkin watched on a large TV screen as A-10 Warthog planes dropped two 500-pound bombs on a convoy of vehicles. U.S. officials explained that 1,000-pound bombs would have caused more casualties, while 150-pound Hellfire missiles might have missed their target, so the 500-pound bombs were carefully chosen to kill the target without causing unnecessary casualties.
But then one of the planes did something unexpected. It turned to make a second pass and blanketed the whole area with 30mm armor-piercing shells from its Gatling gun, which fires 65 shells per second. A “precision strike” had just turned into an indiscriminate massacre. A U.S. official quickly told Arkin that this was “not unauthorized.”
The dirty little secret Arkin had discovered was that, once such an operation is under way, special forces ground controllers in the area take full control, and the plans drawn up by lawyers and controllers far from the action no longer apply. Similar rules may have applied to the U.S. air strikes on the MSF hospital in Kunduz, making it difficult for anyone in Washington or Kabul to stop them once they were under way.
Senior U.S. military officers have told Dana Priest of the Washington Post that more than 50 percentof U.S. special forces night raids target the wrong person or house. But that didn’t stop President Obama making them a central tactic in his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, boosting the number of night raids from 20 raids in May 2009 to 1,000 per month a year later.
There is no reason to believe that U.S. air strikes are more accurate or based on better intelligence than night raids by special operations forces. British military adviser Kamal Alam explained to the BBC last Friday that Russian air strikes in Syria are likely to be more accurate than U.S. ones because they have the critical advantage of being guided by Syrian military intelligence on the ground.
Alam noted that even the Iraqi government depends on Syrian military intelligence in its campaign against the Islamic State, and added that this is a source of embarrassment to U.S. officials, who have no such human intelligence capabilities in Syria or Iraq.
Maybe the attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz will force more Americans to confront the ugly reality of the devastating air war our country has waged across half a dozen countries for 14 years. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “America’s Endless Air Wars.”]
Whether any institution can succeed in holding U.S. officials legally accountable for the bombing of the MSF hospital or not, it may finally bring home the horrors and the indiscriminate nature of our country’s endless air war to millions of Americans. U.S. propaganda will try to portray this as a tragic isolated incident. It is not. It is a war crime, and only the latest in a 14-year-long policy of systematic war crimes.