Et Plus Ca Change...Patterns of Death and Deceit in Afghanistan
by Marc W. Herold
Departments of Economics and Women's Studies
Whittemore School of Business & Economics
University of New Hampshire
POSTED MARCH 10, 2003 --
In what must qualify as a stellar example of the old adage - those who fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it, a second time as farce - the U.S. military is once again romping around in the mountains and valleys of the upper Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Thirteen months ago, a large combined force of U.S. and Afghan troops was dispatched to Bahgran village, 250 kilometers northwest of Kandahar, "where intelligence reports said Mullah Omar had taken refuge with up to 1,500 of his religious militia's fighters."1 The expedition came up empty-handed. Mullah Omar outwitted hundreds of U.S. Special Forces, marines and surveillance aircraft, by reportedly speeding off into the hills on a motorcycle accompanied by four comrades!2
Transcribing the truth as spoken by Colonel King at Bagram in 2002.
A year later, more 'intelligence' indicated that a cabal of Taliban and associates had possibly taken refuge in villages in the Baghran valley. Again, U.S. troops were dispatched. More than 200 soldiers were deployed in Operation Eagle Fury for three weeks, only to come up with about 30 AK-47 rifles - that is, seven soldiers were needed to find one Kalashnikov - all the while abducting some 25 'suspects'. Back at the Bagram base, the U.S. spokesman, Colonel Roger King, trotted-out the usual litany about U.S. and allied aircraft bombing caves and targets which had fired upon U.S. troops. King noted, and U.S. reporters at Bagram dutifully recorded, that "battle damage assessment conducted in support of Operation Eagle Fury has not indicated any noncombatant casualties to date."
A civil affairs officer from the 82nd Airborne interviews Engran village elders. [Reuters photo/David Swanson]
In the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday, February 11th, 2003, a U.S. Special Forces convoy making its way up an isolated valley near the village of Baghran was hit with machine-gun and rifle fire from five persons located on two ridges above the valley.3 King said close air support was called-in, and Dutch and Norwegian F-16s dropped five GBU-12 500-pound laser-guided bombs [made by Lockheed Martin] and more than 100 rounds of 20mm ammunition was fired upon 'targets.'4 That day 25 fighters armed with RPG-7s and AK-47s were spotted by U.S. forces. As is customary, the Special Forces called-in air support and four days of intermittent U.S., Danish and Norwegian bombing followed, as well as searches of small villages. On Tuesday alone B-1s and B-52s dropped nearly 20 2,000-pound bombs, and Danish F-16s dropped 500-pound GBU-12 bombs on the area around Baghran village. Planes bombed for eight hours that day.5
A U.S. soldier frisks Afghan women in a village in the central part of the Baghran river valley. [AP photo/Aaron Favila]
Less than 48 hours after the initial skirmish, two reporters who have excelled in independent reporting from Afghanistan - Carlotta Gall of the New York Times and Rory McCarthy of The Guardian - filed stories citing Afghan officials in the Baghran area who said at least 17 civilians had been killed in the U.S., Danish and Norwegian onslaught.6 An aide to the governor of Helmand province said villagers had come to the provincial authorities to complain about the civilian deaths, which included women and children. Reuters quoted a local witness as saying that he had seen women and children killed by the bombing lying in a riverbed.7 A report on the 13th said that as many as 30 Afghan villagers might have been killed and scores injured in the intense U.S. and allied bombing.8 A BBC correspondent in Kandahar spoke to eyewitnesses who said 13 people had been killed after U.S. bombing targeted a civilian area, not caves, in the Baghran valley.9 On Wednesday, a B-52 dropped another 2,000-pound JDAM bomb and an AC-130 gunship allegedly fired 10 105mm cannon rounds into the ridges and caves.10 A villager from Shina Keli said that he had seen bodies of eight people, all members of one family, who he said had died in Wednesday's air attack carried out by a B-52 bomber and an AC-130 gunship.11 Village elders reported that three villages had been hit - Lejay, Robatak and Shina Keli.
Colonel King, on the other hand, affirmed that the U.S. bombing had not killed noncombatants.12 The Karzai regime was informed on Tuesday by the Helmand authorities of the bombing. Its response was that it preferred if no bombing took place during the three-day Islamic holiday, which began on Tuesday.13 On Saturday, Karzai was urging his fellow Pashtuns from Baghran to cooperate with the U.S. forces by giving information about 'terrorists' who were seen in villages.
King said that 12 hostile elements had been captured on Tuesday and another three on Wednesday near the village of Lejay and were whisked away to Bagram for 'questioning.' A spokesman for the provincial government of Helmand said U.S. and Afghan forces had arrested about 50 men suspected of Taliban ties.14
Despite protests from villagers in the region, more bombing and strafing by a B-1, an AC-130 gunship and A-10 aircraft occurred in the pre-dawn hours of Friday, February 14th, 2003.15 Col. King uttered another great profundity on Friday, when he noted that U.S. forces had found rocket-launcher tubes and empty weapons cases in the area's caves and the U.S. soldiers,
"did find evidence that somebody had opened up a lot of ammunition - taken the weapons out of the cases and left the cases empty, which to our mind means that they have taken their ammunition and gone somewhere where they expect to use it."
U.S. troops moved into the area on Wednesday arriving in noisy Chinook helicopters, carrying out searches of tiny hamlets and villages. A villager, Mohammad Gul, said Afghan soldiers who had accompanied the U.S. troops were looting homes.16
On Saturday, the U.S. military admitted an eight year-old boy was injured by wounds suffered from flying shrapnel, while the boy's father was abducted for questioning.17 But Colonel King remained steadfast in his stonewalling, saying
"There have been no reports of civilian or coalition casualties based upon the searches that were done yesterday."18
Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne search a house in a village of the Baghran valley on February 24, 2003 [AP photo/Aaron Favila]
He added that U.S. troops had 'routed the militants.' King is either oblivious or being deceitful by not recognizing that the mujahideen use the classic pattern of insurgent warfare: the enemy attacks, we retreat; the enemy camps, we attack; the enemy tires, we attack.19 U.S. troops proceeded to move up the Baghran valley searching village by village, raiding house by house.
By February 21st, 2003, the 200 U.S. soldiers had also succeeded confiscating 'almost 30 military rifles and machine guns'.20 Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne participating in Operation Eagle Fury expressed frustration insofar as enemy forces simply faded away into villages and hidden caves, which is quite a different interpretation from that offered by Colonel King. U.S. troops searched hamlets like that of Engran village at sunrise on Thursday, while armed snipers surrounded the village. They searched the empty clay-brick homes, sparsely furnished with thin carpets and shelves filled with plates, pots and cooking oil. Nothing was found in Engran. Through the rest of Thursday, the 200 U.S. troops searched four other villages, but found nothing other that two AK-47 rifles in an orchard under a burlap sack. On the 20/21st, another seven persons were detained and abducted.22
Scott Baldauf triumphantly proclaimed "US Close to Cornering Taliban Forces," but this turned out to be wishful thinking [at best]. Other sources mention as many as 100 civilians being killed.23 A local, Ghulam Jilani, said Americans had blocked the area after the intense bombing to prevent information leaking out. He also reported seeing 50-60 bodies. Not even the Red Cross is allowed into the area. The story sounds plausible insofar as it parallels completely that of one about a year ago, when Doug Struck [of the Washington Post] tried to independently investigate what the CIA called 'the killing of three tall men' in the Zhawar region [Struck was forced to lie on the ground at gunpoint by U.S. forces displeased with his presence there].
By Friday, February 21st, the balance sheet of Operation Eagle Fury was: 30 rifles and nine rockets found, 50 Afghans detained and abducted, and from 17-30 [-100] civilians killed.24 While Bagram's Colonel King insists there were no civilian casualties, the gossip stretching from military attaches of various embassies, up to the Kabul marketplace, refers to casualties ranging from 17 to 30.
"while the official reports from Bagram make global news, it is the indigenously circulated gossip that tends to inform the average Afghan."
Saeed Naqvi notes in The Indian Express what Americans are loathe to admit: "The popularity of the Americans and Pakistanis, indeed anyone who has been enmeshed in Afghanistan, is abysmally low." Anti-U.S. sentiment has been building in Afghanistan."25 Veteran Times of London reporter Catherine Philp observes that America is readying for war in Iraq, but it has yet to pacify Afghanistan.26
Baghran has proved to be a vexing place for American troops: Mullah Omar escaped on a motorcycle, 200 heliborne troops are able to only find 30 guns, 17-30 Afghan civilians are killed, and more than 50 Afghans were abducted. Those reporters assembled at Bagram air base would not hear this from Colonel Roger King.
Over the past year of U.S. attacks, a predictable pattern has emerged:
Et plus ca change.
-- 30 --
1. Ben Fenton, "Americans Close in for Last Stand of Mullah Omar," Telegraph [January 1, 2002]
3. "Coalition Warplanes Bomb Afghan Caves After Ambush," Sydney Morning Herald [February 12, 2003] citing a report by Agence France-Presse
5. Carlotta Gall, "U.S. Bombs Kill at Least 17 Civilians, Afghans Say," New York Times [February 13, 2003]
6. Gall, op. cit., and Rory McCarthy, "17 Afghan Villagers 'Killed in American Bombing Raids'," The Guardian [February 13, 2003]
7. Gall, op. cit.
11. Mirwais Afghan, "Afghans Say More Civilians Die in U.S.-led Raids," Reuters [February 13, 2003 at 11:43 AM ET]
12. "L'armee americaine dement toute perte civile en Afghanistan," Agence France-Presse [February 13, 2003 at 11:04]
13. McCarthy, op.cit.
14. Noor Khan, "Civilians Reportedly Killed in U.S. Bombing in Southern Afghanistan," Associated Press [February 12, 2003 at 10:32 AM ET]
16. Mirwais, op. cit.
20. "Troops Find Weapons in Afghan Valley. U.S. Troops Hunt Taliban Leaders in Southern Afghan Valley, Find Handful of Weapons Instead," Associated Press [February 22, 2003]
21. "US Army Detains Seven in Central Afghanistan," Agence France-Presse [February 21, 2003 at 4:00 AM]
23. "Latest American Bombing in Afghanistan Yields High Civilian Casualties," Jihad Unspun [February 17, 2003]
24. Saeed Naqvi, "On a Splitting Stage," The Indian Express [February 21, 2003]
25. Juliette Terzieff, "Anti-U.S. Sentiment Builds in Afghanistan. Stepped-up Attacks and a New Call for Holy War," San Francisco Chronicle [February 10, 2003]