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Any Remorse, Mr. President?

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."

That's it?

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."

By Dan Froomkin  |  May 7, 2009; 11:35 AM ET
Categories:  Afghanistan  
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Um, don't you mean "weigh" heavily?

Posted by: spmom1 | May 7, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Obama's error was that to look tough during the campaign he pledged to expand the war in Afghanistan. He has done so, and he is now part of the problem. Until he comes to grip with this simple fact, we will continue to kill innocent people in a misguided attempt to save them.

And so it goes.

Posted by: turkerm | May 7, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Obama is a trained lawyer. He is waiting for confirmation from our military before giving away the farm [I say this with much love & respect for the Red Cross, but their agenda can differ from that of America, even if I wish our aims were more often compatible with those of the RC].

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE the fact that you [Dan] are holding our new president to the same high standards you held Bush, and your question is a good one rhetorically, but I think Obama is right to leave it to Hillary & the ambassadors to express regret for now.

Posted by: mobedda | May 7, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

The Taliban use human shields. The Taliban may even be directly responsible for the deaths of these civilians. The president's apology is sufficient. The Taliban must be destroyed, and doing so will probably cause a lot of human suffering. But this pales in comparison to the amount of damage Islamic radicals are already causing to their fellow Muslims. God forbid they should get hold of a nuclear weapon.

Posted by: mannystones | May 7, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

The international committee of the red cross is known for its erring on the side of the largest possible casualty count, and sees only bodies, not the in-hand AK-47's clutched by rigor mortis.

Posted by: DoTheRightThing | May 7, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

@ spmom1: Maybe. I think he meant "woah" heavily, myself.

Posted by: mobedda | May 7, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Strange how American christianists get so choked up about the thought of some poor fetus being aborted, calling it a horrid murder, but they have no problems with killing innocents whose skin color and/or religion are different. I have yet to hear a christianist leader complaining about the deaths of children after they are born. Their politics triumphs their piety, or perhaps it is just that they remain true to their religious beliefs: worship of the holy dollar (perhaps a trinity of dollars, euros, and power?)

Posted by: jbcengel | May 7, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

I dunno, Dan. Obama and Clinton said more in the past 36 hours about innocent casualties than Bush & Co did in 8 years, don't you think?

At least it feels that way.

Posted by: tony_in_Durham_NC | May 7, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

There is nothing to win in Afghanistan and everything to lose.

Posted by: motorfriend | May 7, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Mullen seems to be aware of the problem. The question is why hasn't he stopped the air strikes in built up areas?

Every civilian killed turns a village against us. In a counter insurgency the army simply cannot use heavy weapons in built up areas except under extraordinary circumstances. It is a losing proposition to simply have a SF cowboy with a laser range finder dropping bombs on villages whenever he sees a guy with a beard and an AK. That's the description of every male in southern Afghanistan.

Did they spot a senior Taliban leader or was their some other extenuating circumstance?

Posted by: troyd2009 | May 7, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse

We should be respectful of the President. He has an extremely difficult job of protecting us from harm.

A growing number of Pakistanis who live in Swat, and are now under the brutal rule of the Taliban and al Qaeda, are actually welcoming the bombings. They see it as their only hope to get their lives and freedoms back.

Posted by: Captain_Universe | May 7, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Hey, guess what under international law those airstrikes in Pakistan are illegal. Sending Missiles into another country and killing their people is murder plain and simple.

Why are all of our liberal American Constitutional Scholars who are calling for the heads of Bush and Cheney not calling out Obama for his unlawfull conduct in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Guess what the answer is: They are absolute hypocrites who want to bring down one President for political purposes but prop another one up for doing the exact same thing.

Under international law Murder is just as unlawfull as torture, so please come out of the woodwork, be true to your principles and call for indictments agains Obama and various and sundry other administration officials.

Frankly I am shocked that Fan boy Froomkin had the balls to put this in his blog.

Posted by: DCDave11 | May 7, 2009 3:18 PM | Report abuse

"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?"
No, this goes back way before Bush. See Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, Hanoi.

Posted by: Gutavo | May 7, 2009 3:28 PM | Report abuse

"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."

Actually it is because our hyper-partisan press has no interest in criticizing Democrats.

Posted by: bobmoses | May 7, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

It's amazing to me how many stupid people there are out there posting.....

Posted by: eallman | May 7, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

My God, we're beginning to act like the

Israelis. No greater grounds for destation than thinking some "other" is not as
valuable as yourself.

Surely this will not continue.
Is the Pentagon free of the Israeli influence yet, that Feith set up? Surely.

Posted by: whistling | May 7, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

"Actually it is because our hyper-partisan press has no interest in criticizing Democrats."

I'd love to have some of what bobmoses is smoking.

Unless it's dehydrated Rush lard, that is.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | May 7, 2009 5:08 PM | Report abuse

At the moment, Obama is between "the rock and the hard place". Targeted strikes such as the one cited in todays column are the unfortunate harvest of years of misguided priorities by the Bush administration - the best window of opportunity in Afghanistan was back in 2002, when we had the Taliban and Al Queda on the defensive, then decided to pull out our military assets to assault (a la Don Quixote) windmills in Iraq. However, it does not excuse the latest lukewarm response by the President.

Until Obama can mobilize more military and humanitarian assets in Afghanistan, and somehow impart a sense of urgency to Pakistan President Zardari to effectively engage Taliban insurgents in his country, these "hearts and minds" catastrophes will continue to be a thorn in the side of our foreign policy in that region.

As regards Afghanistan, it will take decades of thoughtful and creative military, administrative and humanitarian efforts to convert a fractured, tribal culture (and one that is dependent upon poppy production as a cash crop) into a cohesive, functioning state - and it still may prove to be impossible to achieve.

Western governments (particularly the US) have a very short attention span as compared to older, mature societies - the Vietnam conflict is a classic example of one culture's stoic endurance trumping another's desire for quick, measurable results.

Posted by: MillPond2 | May 7, 2009 6:02 PM | Report abuse

Time to end the 'they use human shields' defense. Just a variation on the 'destroy the village in order to save it'...

Posted by: smallcage | May 7, 2009 7:37 PM | Report abuse

More agony over a "non war" using high technology weapons of "real war."

Of what do we say of the millions of civilians killed in WWII? That we should have held back the atomic bomb at the end and invaded with each soldier advancing with a daisy in the end of his rifle? That we should have put off limits defense plants in the Ruhr because the workers inside them were civilians? From those events we've proceeded down a road where the public expects every weapon used to be "smart" enough to discern which turban clad person is innocent, and engage only the guilty. And we ask of our military in the heat of battle perfect split second judgment at all times under all conditions.

Look, I don't know whether these people were "innocent civilians," or not. It will be pretty easy to determine whether bombs or hand grenades killed them by just examining the site (bombs make significant craters; hand grenades do not). We've seen PLENTY of claims so far in Afghanistan for wrongful death because we pay $$$ to the survivors. Most, if not all, are bogus.

It's either war, or it's not. If it's not war, let's just get the heck out of there and let Mr. Karzai fend for himself.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | May 7, 2009 8:20 PM | Report abuse

Aside from the terrible human price we pay for each misguided bomb, we are also paying a huge strategic price. Read yesterday's NYT interview with a Taliban fighter.( that discusses not just how porous the "border" between Afghanistan and Pakistan is but also why the Taliban are counting on US air strikes to kill civilians and further turn the populus against US forces. It's a terrible puzzle.

Posted by: gratianus | May 7, 2009 8:29 PM | Report abuse

Dan your attack on President Obama is right in line with the Party of NO. I notice you had no problem with Bush torturing men/woman/children. Yes you accept the fact that innocent detainees where tortured to death and the detail of how children were tortured doesn't seem to bother you. But our Military accidently killed citizens and well I guess you want Obama impeached now. Let's see if you remember the record of how many citizens Bush/Chney killed, we'll start with the 151,000 thousand Iraq citizens sleeping in March as the US killed them in their sleep. You must be proud that we tortured 7 detainees so much now their medically insane. Yes over 98 innocent detainees were murdered by the US and not a word or complant from you. Corrupt Judges were appointed by Bush with not a word or complaint. I really think if President Obama dropped his ink pen you would want him Impeached.

Posted by: qqbDEyZW | May 7, 2009 11:04 PM | Report abuse

CHANGE? Where is it? This is clearly the Bush War Plan!

BRING OUR TROOPS HOME NOW! Nothing good can come from continuing wars started over LIES and GREED!

And people thought Change meant an end to the Bush Economic Plan of "SPEND, SPEND, SPEND, Borrow and Spend some more" and the War Plan of "Kill em all and let GOD sort em out!" No such LUCK!

Only the Libertarian Party Candidate supported ending the wars immediately, yet all these Anti-War citizens ignored them and voted for a WARMONGER who continues to spend money we don't have on wars that should not of been started...JUST LIKE BUSH!

Only the Libertarian Party Candidate supported downsizing DC before it weight collapses the economy! These so-claimed "Fiscal Conservatives" supported BIGGER and BIGGER deficits, while claiming "deficits don't matter". Does that sound like fiscal responsibility?

Will someone please bury the GOP, the smell of the corpse is making me sick!

If Republicans were honest people, they should be celebrating the continuation of these BUSH MAJOR Policies and forget about the little policy differences, that these two parties use to make us think they are different.

If the Democrats were honest people they would be marching on DC to END THE WARs, like they did when the other guy was escalating war and killing innocent civilians!

Observing from the sidelines, this all appears quite crazy! We need to end this Two Party Madness!


Posted by: fixitj | May 7, 2009 11:43 PM | Report abuse

I'm terribly afraid that Obama bought a bill of goods in Afghanistan. All of a sudden Kharzai is a democratically elected leader, who stands for our values?

While his brother and brother-in-law are repeatedly named as narco-billionaires?

A meeting at the White House where the principals pledge to take actions which further our policies, not their own priorities? How many times did that happen during the Vietnam agony?

The saddest thing of all is that bombing, which is supposed to be "smart" and "surgical", is also a tool of terror, to convince the populace that the insurgents can't protect them from the power of the USA. And that tool of terror only works if locals are killed in the bombing runs. And if the insurgents are taking cover among the civilians, the dilemma is the same--innocents are still being killed by our bombs.

The way to catch the "fish in the water," as Mao described guerrilla fighters, is to boil off the water, by terrorizing the populace and setting up alternative places for them to live, sometimes called concentration camps, first used in South Africa during the Boer Wars, sometimes called "sunrise villages," as they were in 'Nam. Bottom line is you alienate the locals either way.

What are the strategic threats of Afghanistan and Pakistan? Worst thing is that they each allow radical madrassas to exist, where poverty-stricken families send their children, knowing that they'll be fed and clothed there.

I don't see military force solving that problem. With Iran as much against Sunni radical fundamentalism as is the USA, and with all of the 19 9-11 hijackers having been neither Afghani nor Pakistani, if we can't contain radical Islam in the Hindu Kush, and combat it with programs that bring education and medical care to that area, there's something terribly screwed up.

Obama, the first president since Truman not involved in decisions that involved Vietnam or fought in Vietnam, or came of age during the war in Vietnam, seems to be oblivious to the assurances that the military brass fed to LBJ, that clouded his judgment and led him to commit us to that horrible quagmire.

Obama should listen to the tapes of LBJ expressing his doubts about Vietnam, before the buildup that began in 1965. He sensed before sending in the first combat troops that Vietnam wasn't a place where the U.S. military could operate successfully, but hubris and the assurances of the military brass and the "defense intellectuals"--the Rostows, the Bundys. McNamara, led him to abandon his common sense.

I don't know what brought about Obama's conclusions after the 60 day review, but sometime in the future there will be another review. It should be sooner, much sooner, like tomorrow, rather than later.

Posted by: bfieldk | May 8, 2009 12:15 AM | Report abuse

Some people think that the Obama rationale for the Afghanistan-Pakistan war--the whole spiel about the huge threat that the world is supposedly under because of a few wild tribesmen, not to mention "mushroom clouds" in the capability of Al Qaeda--is vastly overblown. Take a look at this little piece in Foreign Affairs journal.

Posted by: cristca9 | May 8, 2009 3:17 PM | Report abuse

Bravo! The tingle we felt up our leg when Obama was elected has passed and we need to hold him accountable, just like any other President.

Obama is making serious errors in his foreign policy and seems remarkably timid when it comes to breaking with the conventional thinking of bombing your way to peace. One out of the box idea that might work even better than the Sunni Awakening did in Iraq: buy the entire Afghan poppy crop from the Afghan farmers for a fair price. That would do more to stabilize Afghanistan than all the bombs in the U.S. arsenal.

Posted by: johnsonc2 | May 9, 2009 2:31 PM | Report abuse

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