General Petraeus and his public relations team reportedly engaged in a scummy attempt to deflect blame for an alleged civilian casualty event on Sunday, suggesting that Afghan parents caught in the crossfire of a coalition raid burned their own children to incriminate international forces. International forces led by the U.S. are accused of killing as many as 60 civilians during a several-day operation in Ghaziabad district in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the U.S.-led coalition has a long history of blaming the victims when they get caught in potentially explosive civilian casualty incidents, making this vile accusation particularly hard to believe.
To the shock of President Hamid Karzai’s aides, Gen. David H. Petraeus suggested Sunday at the presidential palace that Afghans caught up in a coalition attack in northeastern Afghanistan might have burned their own children to exaggerate claims of civilian casualties, according to two participants at the meeting.
[Unnamed sources in the room for the conversation] said Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, dismissed allegations by Karzai’s office and the provincial governor that civilians were killed and said residents had invented stories, or even injured their children, to pin the blame on U.S. forces and force an end to the operation.
Has Petraeus lost his mind? One better have some pretty solid evidence before accusing people who may have lost children or seen them badly injured of lying of hurting their own kids. From what I can tell, there’s no evidence of parental abuse being responsible for the reported injuries of children. Petraeus and his spin shop are trying to get ahead of the story, throwing multiple possible accounts of what happened into the mix to blunt the outrage that will surely result when a story about an awful set of civilian killings hits the news. But lacking hard evidence, Petraeus’ hypothetical seems ugly and vicious, relying on pervasive notions of Afghans as backward and barbaric to escape accountability.
A Pattern of Blaming the Victim
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) press flak Rear Adm. Greg Smith claimed to have watched video of the attacks and said everything was just peachy:
During the next five hours, Smith said, surveillance drones tracked the fighters while the Apaches fired 30 mm Gatling guns, rockets and Hellfire missiles. “I have reviewed the footage and found no evidence women and children were among the fighters,” he said. “Again, no civilian structures were anywhere near where these engagements took place. It was at night and in very rugged terrain.”
On Saturday, Wahidi, the provincial governor, sent a three-person fact-finding team up the valley to the village of Helgal. They returned with seven injured people, including a woman and a man, both 22 years old, and five boys and girls 16 or younger. Smith said they had burns and shrapnel wounds, none of them life-threatening.
Now, wait a second. Smith says there’s no evidence women and children were among the fighters, yet also says that civilians had shrapnel wounds? Then Smith does what he tends to do when there’s a potentially attention-getting civilian casualty incident: He blames the Afghan families:
The U.S. military “did have initial reports that the feet and hands of the children appeared to have been burned,” Smith said. “We have observed increased reporting of children being disciplined by having their hands and feet dipped into boiling water. No one is claiming this is the case in this instance, but it may well be.”
Recall that Smith did the same thing when U.S. special forces killed several Afghan civilians, including pregnant women, in Gardez, whom he said had been discovered “tied up, gagged and killed,” presumably by the families of the women.
“[Smith] added, however, “I don’t know that there are any forensics that show bullet penetrations of the women or blood from the women.” He said they showed signs of puncture and slashing wounds from a knife, and appeared to have died several hours before the arrival of the assault force. In respect for Afghan customs, autopsies are not carried out on civilian victims, he said.
In the Gardez case, Smith was either inventing or conveying bald-faced lies. The women did not die “several hours before the arrival of the assault force.” They died after special forces team members shot them, and one of them died while special forces troops dug bullets out of her to cover their tracks.
ISAF flaks have a bad habit of claiming to have incontrovertible video evidence that U.S. forces did nothing wrong which often doesn’t pan out. Remember the Farah massacre? Dozens of civilians died, and Col. Greg Julian swore that our forces weren’t responsible.
The footage shows insurgents streaming into homes that were later bombed, said Col. Greg Julian, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan. He said ground troops observed some 300 villagers flee in advance of the fighting, indicating that not many could have been inside the bombed compounds… Investigators later reviewed hours of cockpit video from the fighter jets as well as audio recordings of the air crew’s conversation with the ground commander. Julian said the military would release the footage and other evidence in the coming days.
Despite Julian swearing he watched hours of cockpit video vindicating the bombers, the U.S. military later admitted (.pdf) that the pilots did in fact kill those civilians after the pilots lost contact with their intended targets before firing.
Pardon me for not jumping to ISAF’s defense, after they lied about the use of grenades at the Farah massacre, or claimed the Afghans they shot up at Gardez were “dead when they got there” with bodies stashed near food preparation areas. And pardon me also for not trusting a thing that comes out of Rear Adm. Greg Smith’s mouth, the ISAF flak that tried to smear journalist Jerome Starkey for accurately reporting the facts about the Gardez killings. The job of an ISAF public affairs officer is not to tell you the truth, no matter how much that observation provokes their pique. The job of an ISAF PAO is to aid in the war effort by spinning events to the advantage of their side of the conflict. Smith is not a credible source (as proved by the Gardez/Starkey affair, if nothing else) and should be contextualized and held at arms length by any serious journalist.
Enough Spin Already
When asked about reports of his ugly attempt to blame the victims in Ghaziabad: “Petraeus, through a spokesman, declined to comment.”
ISAF seems to be talking out of several sides of their mouth. Were there no civilians in the area, or did locals in the crossfire invent a story? Did the parents burn their own children, or was there shrapnel in them? And how would shrapnel get into the kids if there were no civilians nearby? This story is still developing, but it bears many of the hallmarks of ISAF’s past attempts to warp news coverage after attention-getting reports of mass civilian casualties surfaced.
Enough spin. If ISAF has video of the events in question, it should be made available to the public immediately. There should be an independent UN investigation into the killings and maimings in Ghaziabad, and, unless he has hard evidence, Petraeus should also publicly apologize for trying to deflect blame onto the families who lost loved ones or saw their children injured. Frankly, this kind of talk is tawdry and disgraceful.