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Nothing to See Here, Folks: Pentagon Standard Operating Procedure on Afghan Civilian Casualties

Posted by Derrick Crowe on August 9th, 2009

A few days ago I posted a blog about a U.S. airstrike killing three children in Afghanistan. It’s useful to examine the ISAF’s response to understand how the military’s propaganda apparatus works as the communications staff fights the “information war” against the Taliban.

Here’s the initial ISAF press release on the strike:

KABUL, Afghanistan – At 1:30 a.m. on 5 August, ISAF forces identified four insurgents in the Arghandab District in Kandahar Province. The insurgents were in open ground with no residential areas in the vicinity. The insurgents were carrying weapons and plastic jugs and were identified as possibly emplacing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in an area known for IED attacks.

ISAF engaged the insurgents with rockets and small arms fire from a helicopter, killing the insurgents. A large secondary explosion was observed at the point of impact indicating explosive material was in the insurgent’s possession. No bombs were dropped.

It is ISAF policy to take all measures possible to avoid civilian casualties. In this case, the insurgents that were targeted were in the possession of a large amount of weaponry and explosives that would be used against ISAF, ANSF and Afghan civilians.

ISAF is conducting a full investigation of this incident.

ISAF deplores the use of improvised explosive devices due to their indiscriminate nature causing death and injuries to innocent Afghan civilians.

There’s a couple of strange things in this release. Note the sections in bold. This press release is written defensively. It has a much more “cover your a**” tone than, say, this press release about another engagement where insurgents were killed. Of course, we now know why:

BBC reports that U.S. forces piloting helicopters killed three children last night in the Arghandab district of Afghanistan. Enraged locals took the bodies to Kandahar to display them to local officials…AFP reports the boys killed in the strike were ages 10-13, along with a 25-year-old man.

Faced with photos of dead young boys, the ISAF then issued this release:

KABUL, Afghanistan – International Security Assistance Force leaders and their Afghan counterparts are investigating allegations that ISAF actions caused civilian casualties earlier today in Arghandab District, Kandahar Province.

ISAF forces identified four insurgents in an open field with weapons and plastic jugs at 1:30 a.m. and engaged the insurgents with machine-gun fire and rockets. The helicopter observed a secondary explosion at the point of impact when the jugs exploded. No bombs were dropped during the incident. The area is known for frequent improvised explosive attacks.

There are also allegations that four civilians were killed in a compound in the vicinity.

It is ISAF policy to take all measures possible to avoid civilian casualties and to fully investigate all allegations that ISAF forces may have caused such casualties.

Note: This is an update to release 2009-08-[IA]-563. Initial reports may have been inaccurate.

Note that this release does not retract any assertions made in the prior release. It just notes that some have reported civilian casualties nearby, while retaining the description of the ISAF’s initial version of the events. What reports were inaccurate?

This is just the latest example of the typical response from the U.S. forces’ P.R. shop in Afghanistan to civilian casualty reports, and it shows how they manage the news cycle to mute outrage. The initial denial inserts doubt into reports of civilian deaths, and the press shop works to maintain any plausible story that vindicates our forces, stringing the story out until it sputters. If you want to see the most egregious examples, you’d need to check out the work of Col. Greg Julian (who makes a brief appearance in Rethink Afghanistan):

Col. Julian’s most transparent and notorious bit of flackery took place in response to the catastrophic Bala Baluk airstrike earlier this year. Same pattern: insert counter-narrative and disinformation, making it difficult to untangle the truth in press reports, and slow-walk retractions until the story sputters (hopefully) in the press.

Keep your eye on the ball, though. This sort of spin is intended to

  • protect the official storyline that our purpose in Afghanistan is to protect the civilian population; and
  • to aid policymakers pushing for further escalation under the rationale of “protecting Afghans.”

The truth, however, is that no past increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan prevented a subsequent yearly increase in a) civilian casualties generally or b) civilian casualties specifically caused by U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.

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