Obamas unspoken trade-off

Print edition : September 11, 2009

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA speaking at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Phoenix, Arizona, on August 17.-ALEX BRANDON/AP

BURIED in the public relations blather of United States Marine legions liberating Helmand and Afghan (sham) elections as democracy restored1 is an unspoken trade-off over who disproportionately dies in Americas modern wars in the Third World. Under President George W. Bush, U.S. politico-military elites chose to fight the Afghan war with minimal regard for so-called collateral casualties. But the soaring toll of killed Afghan civilians swayed world public opinion and stoked the Afghan resistance as grieved Afghan family members sought revenge.

Enter Barack Obama. Faced with the prospect of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces being withdrawn as restless NATO-country citizens mobilised against the war, the Obama war machine took the decision to trade off (mostly) lower-class U.S. volunteer soldiers from rural America2 for fewer rural Afghan civilians killed. The decision had nothing to do with valuing Afghan lives and everything to do with a careful political calculation. In outlying areas such as in the Pakistan borderlands or in isolated rural areas of Afghanistan, Obamas war machine cavalierly slaughters innocent civilians with the same impunity and at the same rate as his maligned predecessor did, as drone strikes in Pakistan and U.S. air strikes in Farah and Logar have demonstrated.

President George W. Bush, an October 2001 photograph.-KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

What has also changed is the public face of the war as one might expect from a President skilled in diction and possessing the persuasive skills of a well-trained lawyer. On the other hand, behind the soothing words, the rationales are identical: in Phoenix recently, Obama reiterated the Bush of September 2001:

This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which Al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. This is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defence of our people.3

So much for the current U.S. rationale for war. So much for Change We Can Believe In.

U.S. MARINES CROSS a makeshift bridge in the Garmsir district of Helmand Province on July 12.-AFP

The Obama approach finds strong support amongst U.S. liberals, the U.S. corporate media and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). As I have documented elsewhere, the UNAMA coughs up statistics on Afghan civilian deaths which cannot be fact-checked and which conveniently grossly underestimates the carnage caused by U.S./NATO actions. Sadly, the superficial impartiality of the U.N. gives such faith-based data credibility in the international media, which widely cite them. Former President Bush must look on with envy at how the U.S. media, including such liberal pillars as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (for example, the McNeill Lehrer News Hour) or MoveOn.org, now toe the Pentagon line on Obamas Afghan war.

Almost eight years ago, I pointed out a trade-off taken by the U.S. military in its original bombing and invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001:

From the point of view of U.S. policymakers and their mainstream media-boosters, the cost of a dead Afghan civilian is zero as long as these civilian deaths can be hidden from the general U.S. publics view. The benefits of saving future lives of U.S. military personnel are enormous, given the U.S. publics post-Vietnam aversion to returning body bags. But, I believe the argument goes deeper and that race enters the calculation. The sacrificed Afghan civilians are not white, whereas the overwhelming number of U.S. pilots and elite ground troops are white. This reality serves to amplify the positive benefit-cost ratio of certainly sacrificing darker Afghans today [and Indochinese, Iraqis yesterday] for the benefit of probably saving American soldier-citizens tomorrow. What I am saying is that when the other is non-white, the scale of violence used by the U.S. government to achieve its stated objectives at minimum cost knows no limits.4

Years have since gone by and bodies and destruction have multiplied. The Taliban and its allies now control vast swathes of Afghanistan. The Afghan post-conflict regime planned at the U.N.-sponsored Bonn conference (December 2001) has shown itself to be nothing more than a fig leaf for a collection of rapacious warlords, corruption and the violence of daily life know no bounds, the status of Afghan women, which was never a serious Western consideration, has remained as before, some schools have been built and then blown up, a non-governmental organisation mafia has descended upon Kabul pursuing its own agendas, palatial villas have sprouted up and luxury hotels have mushroomed, and so on.5

All these are asides: today, the politics of making war (in Afghanistan) has reversed the killing trade-off. The obvious military failure of Bushs seven-year Afghan war and the rising aversion amongst NATO countries public to what was increasingly perceived as an American-Afghan war, motivated the change. After 2004, the Bush administration very effectively pressured certain NATO countries to increasingly bear the costs in terms of human casualties of the Afghan war (Table 1).

LT. GEN. STANLEY A. McChrystal, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan.-MANUEL BALCE CENETA/AP

What needs first to be clearly understood is that Obamas Pentagon has been much more deadly for Afghan civilians than was Bushs in comparable months of 2008.6 During January-June 2008, some 278-343 Afghan civilian perished at the hands of U.S./NATO forces, but for comparable months under Team Obama the numbers were 520-630.

For the month of July, the respective figures were 134-155 versus 47-56. We see the Obama trade-off kicking in as U.S./NATO troop deaths in July 2008 were 30 versus 76 in July 2009. The ratio of Afghan civilians killed per occupation soldier death fell from 3.7 during January-June to 0.7 in July 2009 (Table 1).

Predictably, the mainstream media led by the Associated Press spinned the new Obama approach as new strategy restricting air power may be working.7 8 As I have pointed out, the new approach does not involve reducing overall Afghan civilian deaths but merely shifts who causes them: U.S./NATO ground forces instead of U.S./NATO air power.9 But such details escape the mainstream press as well as some critics of the U.S. war.10

In late July, a spate of articles in the mainstream press surfaced seeking to minimise the number of civilians killed by U.S./NATO actions. AP led the way (as usual) claiming that (no details provided naturally which could be fact-checked),

An Associated Press count of civilian deaths based on reports from Afghan and international officials shows that 453 civilians have been killed in insurgent attacks this year. The count also shows that 199 civilians have died from attacks by Afghan or international forces. An Afghan human rights group says an additional 69 civilians died during a U.S. attack in Farah in May, but the U.S. disputes those deaths.11

SEARCHING FOR BODIES under the rubble of destroyed houses in Garni village in Farah province on May 5. One hundred people were believed to have been killed in a series of U.S.-led coalition air strikes in western Afghanistan.-AFP

Other media with on-the-ground sources reported that 147 civilians had perished and provided names, gender and ages.

In other words, truth only comes from U.S sources.12 In my Afghan Victim Memorial Report database (and in Table 2), I report 567-686 Afghans killed by U.S./NATO actions during January-July 2009; in other words, AP reports less than a third of the actual civilians killed by the U.S. and NATO.

A woman casts her vote in the presidential and provincial elections at a polling station in Mazar-i-Sharif, northern Afghanistan, on August 20.-FARZANA WAHIDY/AP

For its part, the UNAMA stated that U.S and allied forces had killed 265 civilians in the first six months of 2009. When compared with my figures of 520-630 (midpoint at 575), the UNAMA undercounts by 54 per cent. In service to General Stanley McChrystal, the new U.S. military commander in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration has decided that the way to avoid outright defeat on the ground and to continue Americas Afghan war is to accept more U.S. military casualties in order to keep NATO in the fight. No exit strategy exists and the revealed preference of the Imperial City on the Potomac is for a long, low-burning conflict with tolerably low casualties and extremely high overhead.13

DEMONSTRATORS OUTSIDE THE prime ministerial residence on Downing Street in central London on July 13 after eight British soldiers fighting the war in Afghanistan were killed in 24 hours.-SHAUN CURRY/AFP

Should NATOs Canadian and European citizens support such a scenario?

3. From Christopher Dowd, "Where to Begin Rebutting the Afghan Blather?" Antiwar.com (August 18, 2009) at https://original.antiwar.com/christopher-dowd/2009/08/18/where-to-begin-rebutting/

7. "Airstrikes Kill Fewer Afghan Civilians. Six Killed in July; new strategy restricting air power may be working", Associated Press (August 10, 2009)

10. For instance, Dave Markland who believes that truth comes from compiling data from LexisNexis, see his blog "For Fans of CSI", rabble.ca (August 7, 2009) at https://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/davemarkland/2009/08/fans-csi

11. Alfred de Montesquiou, "Afghan, NATO Slam New Taliban Code of Conduct", Associated Press (July 30, 2009).

12. I have long been noting this. See my book chapter, "Truth about Afghan Civilian Casualties Comes Only Through American Lenses for the U.S. Corporate Media [our modern-day Didymus]", in Peter Phillips and Project Censored [eds], Censored 2003: the Years Top 25 Stories [New York: Seven Seas Publishing, 2002], pp. 265-294.

13. I paraphrase Christopher Dowd, op. cit.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×