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US Air Strikes in Afghanistan: A “Macabre Kind of Calculus”

Hamid KarzaiCBS 60 Minutes revealed last night that the US military in Afghanistan uses air strikes in situations it knows will kill innocent civilians, if the commanders also believe enough Taliban might be killed. The result has been a doubling of civilian casualties, such that we now kill as many civilians as the Taliban and al Qaeda kill.

And all Afghan President Karzai can do is plead with George Bush, so far unsuccessfully, that the US stop using air strikes against civilian targets.

In one of many such incidents this year, US forces announced they had carried out an air strike and had killed several suspected militants. However, the military declined to provide further information on who might have been killed, and when reports leaked out that most of the victims had been women and children — innocent civilians — 60 Minutes sent a team to find out what happened.

In interviews with 60 Minutes, US military acknowledged that field commanders had clearance to call in air strikes on civilian targets, knowing that innocent deaths would likely occur, provided they made what one official described as a “macabre kind of calculus” about whether the “target” was “worth” the likely number of civilian deaths.

We learned there are two kinds of targets: deliberate targets which are analyzed for days and watched for patterns of civilians coming and going, and immediate targets, such as when troops are in combat and need air support. In both cases, civilian casualties are estimated in advance and it’s up to the commander on the ground to decide whether the strike is worth the cost.

“We rely on those commanders to make the assessment at the time of what the requirement is. He assesses proportionality. He assesses the validity of the military target,” Crowder explains. . . .

“In some circumstances, we will bomb the house,” says Crowder. “It is entirely dependent upon the circumstances on the ground, and the ground commander’s assessment of that particular situation.”

“There’s this macabre kind of calculus that the military goes through on every air strike, where they try to figure out how many dead civilians is dead bad guy worth,” says Marc Garlasco, who knows the calculus of civilian casualties as well as anyone.

Until now, the official US position was that civilian deaths were regrettable accidents, “mistakes” based on faulty intelligence or missing the intended targets — just the unavoidable incidents of war or more the result of enemy tactics than ours. But apparently that was false, a cover for rules of engagement that assume that the lives of Afghani civilians have only relative value that gets weighed in the judgment of US field commanders.

Analysts have long predicted that the shortage of ground troops and poor on-the-ground intelligence created a strong temptation for US commanders to resort increasingly to less discriminate air strikes, and that increased civilian casualties were inevitable. But it’s even worse if there are deliberate tactics that are making Afghani civilian deaths acceptable if commanders believe the Taliban targets are “worth” the civilian casualties. [Note: I’ve seen “admissions” like this before, but they were quickly denied by Central Command. For analogous discussion about Iraq, and the military’s response, see this post].

One Afghani interviewed by 60 Minutes summed up the situation, noting that they used to hate the Russians far more than the Americans, but no more; now the Americans are seen as worse. Scott Pelley, the CBS correspondent noted that couldn’t be true, since the Soviets are believed to have killed a millions Afghanis. But it’s not just numbers that count; it’s perceptions and memories — and it appears we’re creating the same kinds that eventually forced the Soviets to leave in bitter defeat.

Speaking of moral relativism, we’re into week two waiting for Bush’s AG nominee, Judge Mukasey to acknowledge that waterboarding is torture, and thus both unconstitutional and a war crime. As Phoenix Woman noted recently, Mukasey apparently shares the same immoral mindset as Rudy Guiliani, who thinks torturing people and committing war crimes really isn’t so bad if it’s us doing it to other people. It’s still hard for me to understand how men like Giuliani and Mukasey — men without honor — are considered even remotely qualified to be in charge of upholding the Constitution and the rule of law, but I guess for some Senators it’s all relative.

Photo: Hamid Karzai (File) Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley

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