Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

Curated knowledge, trenchant insights & witty bon mots

Grovelling in Afghanistan and the Haditha parallel

In Afghanistan, an American commander apologized for the killing of Afghan civilians by U.S. Marines who had been ambushed (during their retreat, they shot up about 10 kilometres of highway).

Here's a question: Why haven't the Marines learned their lesson from Haditha?

First, an excerpt from the BBC story:

An American commander in Afghanistan has said that he is “deeply ashamed” by the killings of 19 Afghan civilians by US Marines in early March.

He said that the military had paid condolence payments to the families in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

Western forces have been accused of carelessness over civilian lives when attacking the Taleban and their allies.

It has become a major issue, with Nato recently saying that its biggest error last year was killing civilians.

In January, it promised to do better.

'Honour stain'

“I stand before you today, deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people,” US army spokesman Col John Nicholson told reporters in Washington by video conference from Afghanistan.


“The deaths and wounding of innocent Afghans at the hands of Americans is a stain on our honour and on the memory of the many Americans who have died defending Afghanistan and the Afghan people.

“We made official apologies on the part of the US government and payments of about $2,000 for each death,” he said, after US officials visited some of the families left bereaved by the incident.

US forces were accused of killing the civilians during shooting near the city of Jalalabad.

Journalists said at the time that US troops confiscated their photos and video footage of the aftermath of the violence.

Now, let's go back to an April 20 NYT story:

After it became clear last year that several marines had killed 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq, following an attack on their convoy of Humvees, the Marine Corps, which had initially played down the massacre, began an offensive of a different kind.

Last May, Gen. Michael W. Hagee, the commandant of the Marine Corps at the time, went to Iraq to express deep concern to his marines and to reinforce what he called the ''core values'' that required them to respond to danger with thoughtful precision.

But almost a year later, marines killed at least 10 civilians in Afghanistan in an episode that bore some striking similarities to the Haditha killings and suggested that the lesson had not taken, even in a platoon of combat veterans wearing the badge of the elite new Marine Corps Special Operations forces.

Marine Corps officials said the unit, whose members undergo at least four months of specialized military training, did not receive specific values training addressing the lessons of Haditha. The actions of the 30 marines on patrol in Afghanistan appeared to contradict many of the edicts General Hagee had implored the marines to remember.

''We use lethal force only when justified, proportional and, most importantly, lawful,'' General Hagee declared in a series of talks he gave at Marine bases around the world. ''We must regulate force and violence,'' he added. ''We protect the noncombatants we find on the battlefield.''

A preliminary military investigation found that the marines killed at least 10 civilians and wounded dozens along a stretch of road near Jalalabad on March 4, and no evidence that they were being fired upon.

The killings illustrate the difficulty American forces have encountered in fighting an enemy who often wears no uniform, uses civilians for cover and understands the limits of the American military's strict rules of engagement.

But they also show how hard it can be for officers to control the actions of heavily armed troops in the heat of battle.

As the marines did in Haditha, those on patrol in Afghanistan began shooting at civilians in reaction to an attack, in this case a suicide bomber who drove into their convoy as it traveled to Jalalabad from Torkham and detonated his explosives, said Lt. Col. Lou Leto, a spokesman for Army Maj. Gen. Frank Kearney, the commander of all American Special Operations forces in the region.

''When the marines recovered from the blast, they thought they were taking fire, so they returned fire,'' Colonel Leto said Wednesday, paraphrasing findings of the inquiry, in which the marines and civilian witnesses had been interviewed.

As the convoy sped away, several marines shot at people near the side of the road, in cars on the shoulders or working in fields nearby, Colonel Leto said. As they did in Haditha, the marines near Jalalabad overreacted to the initial attack, the investigation suggests, firing at unarmed civilians who happened to be nearby.

''The evidence that we found was that they just weren't fighters,'' Colonel Leto said. ''They saw people in the fields. They thought these people were carrying weapons, but they could have been tools.''

Colonel Leto said by telephone from the United Arab Emirates that the marines had fired on several cars. ''Some cars they thought were taking aggressive actions, another was not following directions,'' he said. ''You can imagine, you are hit with a pretty good blast, the air gets sucked out of you, you have to make judgment calls real quick.''

During the recent Hot Docs festival, I saw a film called The Devil Came On Horseback.

Featured in that was ex-marine Capt. Brian Steidle, who went to Darfur as an observer for the African Union, witnessed hell and decided to tell the world about it.

One of the points that he made in the film was that Marines, while fierce warriors, felt a duty to protect non-combatants.

But clearly, there was a breakdown in what is termed “fire discipline” on that Afghan highway by seasoned U.S. marines. These guys reportedly had seven years of military experience and an additional 15 months combat experience in Afghanistan or Iraq. Yet women and children ended up among the dead.

''You do ask, 'How did this happen?' '' said an officer familiar with the inquiry, speaking on condition of anonymity. ''And it's a fair question.''

A question to be pondered is how far are soldiers willing to go in protecting non-combatants in a counter-insurgency war? How much are they willing to put their own lives at risk?

Clearly the answer of those particular marines was, “not very.”

While they didn't receive specific training, the impression one gets from Steidle is that protecting non-combatants should be a core marine value.

I'm not a military expert, but it would seem to me that if you're killing civilians in a panic, you're working at cross purposes with any “hearts and minds” strategy.

Wed, May 9 2007 » * Big Picture Stuff, Main Page