By Dan Froomkin
11:35 AM ET, 05/ 7/2009
The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed yesterday that "dozens of people, including women and children," were killed in U.S. air strikes on villages in Western Afghanistan Monday night.
You might think something like this would weigh heavily on President Obama's heart.
Yes, it's a war he inherited from George W. Bush, but it's one he has ardently advanced as his own. Air strikes in Afghanistan -- along with missiles fired from drones in Pakistan -- have continued to be a staple of the American approach to the region. And now, under his command, the U.S. military appears to have made a tragic mistake.
So far, however, Obama's public response has been muted. This could be because the military is refusing to confirm the reports from the ground.
But it makes me wonder: Have we all, including Obama, gotten so desensitized to the violent death of civilians at our hands, ostensibly in the name of fighting terror? Is this another tragic Bush legacy?
Where is Obama's anger, his sadness, his regret, his vow to find out what happened and make sure it never happens again?
Here's what the president had to say in public yesterday, flanked by the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan after their three-way meeting: "I...made it clear that the United States will work with our Afghan and international partners to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties as we help the Afghan government combat our common enemy."
National security adviser Jim Jones told reporters later that in private, Obama had been more expansive: "The President started out his meeting with [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai by commenting with great sympathy on the tragedies that have happened out in western Afghanistan, and indicating that we regret the loss of life, particularly of innocent people, and that the investigations underway will be pursued aggressively with full intent to discover what, in fact, did happen, how it happened, and how we can make sure that things like that do not happen again," Jones said. "And it was clear that President Karzai was moved by that -- by the President's statement, and he thanked the President for starting off the meeting with that expression of condolence."
And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton included an apology in her remarks at a public session earlier the in day, saying: "I wish to express my personal regret and certainly the sympathy of our Administration on the loss of civilian life in Afghanistan. We deeply regret it. We don’t know all of the circumstances or causes, and there will be a joint investigation by your government and ours. But any loss of life, any loss of innocent life, is particularly painful. And I want to convey to the people of both Afghanistan and Pakistan that we will work very hard with your governments and with your leaders to avoid the loss of innocent civilian life. And we deeply, deeply regret that loss."
But were these simply diplomatic niceties, intended to not let the attacks derail negotiations? Is there genuine angst under the surface? And what about a sincere commitment to stop the horror?
If nothing else, there should be a sense of urgency. There is widespread agreement, not just among human rights advocates but among government and even military officials that civilian casualties profoundly damage U.S. efforts in the region. In yesterday's post, I noted that no less than Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in February that "each civilian casualty for which we are even remotely responsible sets back our efforts to gain the confidence of the Afghan people months, if not years."
Carlotta Gall and Taimoor Shah write for the New York Times: "The depth of Afghan opposition to the strikes seemed evident on Thursday when police fired on rock-throwing demonstrators protesting the deaths they said had been caused by American bombing runs."
And they note that if, as Afghan officials and villagers maintain, more than 100 people were killed, "the bombardment, which took place late Monday, will almost certainly be the worst in terms of civilian deaths since the American intervention began in 2001."
What has the military's response been thus far? "The American military confirmed that it had conducted airstrikes aimed at the Taliban, but not the number of deaths or their cause," Gall and Shah write.
"'We have some other information that leads us to distinctly different conclusions about the cause of the civilian casualties,' said the senior American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David D. McKiernan. He would not elaborate but said American and Afghan investigators were already on the ground trying to sort out what had happened....
"Defense Department officials said late Wednesday that investigators were looking into witnesses’ reports that the Afghan civilians were killed by grenades hurled by Taliban militants, and that the militants then drove the bodies around the village claiming the dead were victims of an American airstrike.
"The initial examination of the site and of some of the bodies suggested the use of armaments more like grenades than the much larger bombs used by attack planes, said the military official, who requested anonymity because the investigation was continuing."
But there is a history of this sort of airstrike taking place -- and of the U.S. military trying to cover up the civilian casualties. After an attack this past September in Azizabad, also in western Afghanistan, the military initially rejected claims that dozens of civilians had died, saying that only five were killed. Faced with consistent reports of greater casualties from the Afghan government, the United Nations and the New York Times, the military reinvestigated. Central Command eventually announced that 33 civilians had died, including 12 children, yet still concluded "that U.S. forces acted in legitimate self-defense."
A few months later, the same Gen. McKiernan quoted above issued a directive saying that "all responses must be proportionate."
Diplomatic negotiations continue in Washington today, but there wasn't much to announce yesterday. Margaret Talev and Warren P. Strobel write for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Barack Obama Wednesday pledged a 'lasting commitment' by the U.S. to the democratic governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan after an unusual three-way meeting that ended with promises but no concrete agreements.
"Flanked by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama told reporters that both men 'fully appreciate the seriousness of the threat we face' from Islamic extremists. He didn't invite either visitor to speak, however, and both appeared ill at ease."
The biggest problem is with the Pakistanis: "U.S. officials and South Asian analysts said it isn't clear that Pakistan is willing to wage a long-term battle against Islamist militants, some of whom belong to groups that the country's intelligence services have funded in a long-running battle with India over the disputed area of Kashmir.
"'We've heard all this before,' a U.S. defense official said of Zardari's pledge to step up cooperation with the U.S. and Afghanistan."
Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times about all the things left unmentioned, including an apparently significant disconnect about the danger posed by the insurgency in the western part of Pakistan: "While Americans see this as an existential threat to the Pakistani government, Pakistanis look at things differently.
"'This situation has been going on for decades,' one Pakistani official explained on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity. 'These people have always tried to impose Shariah law in the tribal areas.'
"Pakistan is more concerned, he said, with getting the American government to stop the unmanned Predator strikes in the western part of the country, which he characterized as far more damaging to the survivability of the Pakistani government than Islamist insurgents in the Swat valley....
"His comments came just after a senior Obama administration official said that the administration believes the Pakistani government is finally starting to come around to the American way of thinking about the nature of the Islamist threat to the Pakistani government, further underscoring the disconnect between the two governments."
Meanwhile, Pamela Constable and Haq Nawaz Khan write in The Washington Post about Pakistan's "Swat Valley, where thousands of people are fleeing from the ravages of the Taliban and the imminent prospect of war with government forces."