Tuesday, 20 January 2009
Last week's letter from Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch to outgoing US Secretary of Defense Robert M Gates will, I hope, be remembered for marking the end of a US military policy that has brought nothing but disrepute to the armed services of that country.
His letter concerns the US night air attack on the small town of Azizabad, near Shindand in the West of the country that took place on 21-22 August last year and which has been the subject of much controversy.
The US military authorities have been accused of a cover-up over the incident in which it is thought around 80 civilians were killed. Initial statements denied any civilians were killed and even after a senior USAF officer was brought in to conduct an inquiry, the military would only accept that around 30 civilians had been killed - as a result of the Taliban using them as 'human shields'. No-one else places any credibility on this story.
In his open letter Adams noted the recent statements from senior military figures that in order to minimise civilian casualties, various tactical directives have been issued that should ensure actions are called off if there is any danger of civilians being killed. Why that was not the case right from the beginning of the conflict is in itself hard to understand.
But leaving that point aside, it is to be welcomed that the Coalition forces have at long last acknowledged the enormous damage done by indiscriminate airstrikes on civilians. The use of airstrikes has grown enormously in the last two years. According to John A Nagl and Nathaniel C Fick, writing in Foreign Policy magazine recently, "In 2005 the Coalition conducted 176 close air support missions in Afghanistan. In 2007 it completed 3,572 such missions." That's a 20-fold increase.
However, HRW is "deeply dismayed" by the investigation by USAF Brig Gen Michael W Callan into the bombing at Azizabad, a summary of which was made public on 1 October 2008. HRW has now investigated that report. Its verdict? "Instead of being an exemplary US investigation derived from a new operational mandate, the Callan Report Summary (the report itself is still classified - Ed) appears to be little more than a return to the discredited inquiries of recent years."
HRW says Callan dismisses the methodology used in the three other investigations - by the UN, the government of Afghanistan and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. It also rejects information provided by villagers, exonerates the US forces of any wrongdoing and places the responsibility for preventable civilian deaths on the Taliban.
This is buck-passing of the worst kind. More to the point, it is the sort of denial that will strengthen the very forces the US military is fighting in Afghanistan. Nothing acts as a better recruitment sergeant than the deaths of innocent civilians.
Let us recall, very briefly, what happened at Azizabad on the night in question. US and Afghan forces entered the town to find a 'high value' target named as Mullah Sadiq. As they approached the village they were fired upon and responded with close air support, including an AC130H gunship (armed with M102 105mm howitzers and 40mm grenades) and an MQ-9 Reaper unmanned drone which at one point dropped a 500-lb bomb. Around 12-14 houses were completely destroyed. Five men were taken into custody, including three Afghan National police and two local residents. Four were released within a few days and the fifth spent three months in Bagram before he too was released without charge.
In the immediate aftermath the US military denied there had been any civilian casualties. A day later they admitted five deaths. The three investigations mentioned above came to very different conclusions: they said between 78 and 92 civilians had been killed, mostly children.
The military only began to change its story when video shot on a mobile phone by a local doctor clearly showed a large number of dead civilians lying in rows in the local mosque. A new inquiry, under Callan, was ordered.
Callan accepted that 33 civilians had been killed, but refused to confirm the higher figures found by the three other inquiries. His report failed to acknowledge an intelligence failure, suggested (without evidence) that the Taliban had used civilians as human shields and judged that the air attack was lawful.
The HRW report addresses all of these points. They note, for example, that five of the men killed were contractors working as security guards for the UK-based Armor Group. Only 15 weapons were found at the site by US forces, of which five were legally registered to the contractors. According to HRW: "The Callan Report Summary says that the presence of a small number of rifles, a box of mobile phones and some mines were evidence that all 22 men killed were 'Anti-government militia'." They strongly dispute this saying evidence on the presence of Taliban fighters is "problematic".
Brad Adams' letter states "The weaknesses in the Callan Report Summary call into question the depth of the Defense Department's commitment to institute reforms that would reduce civilian casualties. We are concerned that unless such reforms are urgently implemented, more unnecessary civilian deaths and injuries will result, generating greater public outrage and hostility towards the presence of international forces."
Azizabad was not the first time that large numbers of civilians have been killed in Afghanistan as a result of poor intelligence or (as may be the case on this occasion) internal Afghan rivalries.
Nothing could be more appropriate for attention by the new Secretary of Defense than he should publish the full Callan Report and take in hand the culture within sections of the military which appears to believe that dead civilians don't count. They do, Mr Secretary, they do.