After unplugging for two glorious days, I return to find my Google Mail Box filled with stories about American Airstrikes. Sort of like American Apparel, but without the great billboards.
Mostly we’re talking airstrikes in Afghanistan. The latest flare up concerns thirteen bombs dropped last week in the western part of that country during a firefight. The “local officials” (ie, untrustworthy dark hued people) claim that over 120 villagers might have been killed. U.S. military officials (ie, trustworthy pale people) say that just 50 were killed, “a majority are insurgents” and “only a small portion are civilians.”
The standard airstrike story formula. We bomb X village. X village angry. X village claims we killed N+1 civilians. We apologize, and say no it’s really N-1 civilians, with x/1 being bad guys. Investigation that everyone forgets about ensues.
It’s way too early in the week to get into the morality of airstrikes and all that crazy peacenik talk. It’s also too early to get at the often false distinctions that we make between civilian and insurgent. What do I mean by that? Maybe the majority killed are “insurgents” but that doesn’t mean the insurgents are not part of the local community, don’t have roots, with friends, homeboys etc. In other words, insurgents have feelings (and families) too. Meaning that the locals might be really pissed at us for killing both the insurgents and the civilians. But we like to present these kind of incidents as the black and white, who’s side are you on kind of deal, clearly drawing lines between good guys and bad guys, Taliban/non-Taliban when those clear demarcations don’t really exist.
One of the stories circulating was that after the strike, “local residents said that the Taliban had killed three families with grenade attacks on their homes and paraded them through town, claiming that Americans had killed them.”
President Hamid Karzai, when asked about that grenade attack on CNN, “dismissed the reports of a Taliban grenade attack and said the U.S. caused all the civilian deaths.”
Even, says McClatchy, “U.S. officials haven’t yet determined whether that [grenade] attack happened.”
So the grenade attack, as far as I can tell, is a bit on the flimsy side. Possibly true, but it’s just as likely to fall in the “rumor of war category,” one of those horribly strange war zone stories that people come up with to try to explain and understand the huge trauma they’ve just experienced. Not the strongest piece of evidence in the world.
Enter Dick Cheney on a Sunday Talk Show!
Former VP Cheney was asked about the Afghanistan strategy, and use of airstrikes, on CBS’s ‘Face The Nation’. He answered:
Air strikes are an important part of it. And a lot of times, the air strikes do generate controversy, but oftentimes we found in the past that these strikes are engineered by the Taliban. For example, a suggestion in the most recent case is that they used grenades to kill a lot of civilians, not American bombs.
This “suggestion” seems to have come from a wire report citing “local residents.” Our ally Hamid Karzai says that the report is b.s., and military officialdom won’t confirm or deny it. Yet that doesn’t stop Cheney from trotting it out as an example of why we need to keep up our airstrikes, despite the uh controversy of killing civilians.
Has Cheney ever heard a flimsy piece of evidence he hasn’t liked?
More interestingly, though, is how Cheney says these “airstrikes are engineered by the Taliban.” This makes it sound like the U.S. is a victim of kind of Taliban conspiracy. How exactly are the Taliban engineering anything here? Calling the airstrikes down on themselves to make us look bad? That they aren’t being easy targets, wearing neon green turbans picking poppies in an open field indicating what Laser Tag team they’re on? That they’re somehow “engineering” the scenarios where we end up killing civilians because they’re fighting in a place where they have the advantage, while making it difficult for us to use our advantage-giving airpower?
I’m reaching the 700 word count, so I’ll sum up now.
The Taliban are going to make outrageous claims saying we killed all sorts of civilians; it’s the way it goes in guerrilla conflicts against occupiers. (See, Israel/Palestine.) But does it do us any good to make outrageous counterclaims? Or does that just hurt our credibility? And who exactly are we trying to convince when we say that we don’t have much responsibility in these situations? Americans or Afghans?
Cheney’s out of power, yes, so why care? Here’s why: his dubiously sourced comments get at our larger P.R. strategy for this kind of event. That is, apologize, sort of, while making sure that the apology contains the very important conjunction “but.” As in this case: “Apologies locals, but it’s really the Taliban’s fault. They engineered the whole thing!”