Kunduz massacre

Print edition : October 09, 2009

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP

THE magic cut-off is revealed to be about 30 to 40. Such revealed facts tell far more than mere words. Some years ago, Human Rights Watchs Marc Garlasco, when in the employ of the Defence Intelligence Agency as an air strike targeting decision-maker, would have had to seek high-level clearance for U.S. air strikes if the estimated Afghan civilian deaths (collateral damage) exceeded 30.1

In the past few years, U.S. officialdom and the mainstream press have been barely taking note of dead Afghans unless the number exceeds 30. On the other hand, when an improved explosive device of the Taliban kills innocent bystanders, metres of newsprint spews forth accompanied by the victims photos. For the U.S. press, Human Rights Watch, and U.S. citizenry, some bodies are worthy of mention whereas others are not. As I wrote sometime ago,

For the Pentagon and its many media boosters, there are good bodies (civilians killed by our enemy) and bad bodies (civilians killed by our militaries), respectively in the Western mainstream labelled accidental collateral damage and (Afghan civilians transformed by the click on a keyboard into) militants or insurgents. During the Yugoslav conflict, Human Rights Watch highlighted civilians killed by Serbs while neglecting civilians killed by non-Serbs. Today in Afghanistan, the U.S. mainstream media led by the Associated Press describe in detail the civilian victims of Taliban suicide attacks, often even providing photographs, while remaining far more circumspect about the victims of U.S./NATO air strikes and never printing photographs. 2

The slaughter in Kunduz on the night of September 3/4 of many Afghan civilians by a United States Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle dropping two 500-pound precision bombs upon a large group of people reveals (at least) two things: we know about this deadly attack because it took place in an area where the carnage could not be concealed (anymore); and we know about it because of the scale of the slaughter (too big to hide). But does anyone know about the young girl killed by a NATO missile and about her wounded sister when the precision missile struck their home on the night of September 1 in the village of Narizi in Tani district south-west of Khost city? Does anyone remember hearing about a massacre similar in its deadliness to that in Kunduz which occurred in Panjwayi district on October 24, 2006? Or the massacre in Haydarabad, Helmand, in June 2007?3

The context to understanding what took place in Kunduz is a long succession of such deadly U.S. attacks, many of which simply go unreported by the mainstream media but which I have reconstructed in the Afghan Victim Memorial Project (AVMP) website. Such callous killing is related to the very low value attached to an Afghan life.4 The AVMP website describes the attack upon Panjwayi, which involved similar numbers of civilian casualties to that in Kunduz.

General Stanley Mcchrystal (right), Commander of the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Colonel Georg Klein, Commander of the German base in Kunduz, at the site where villagers reportedly died when American jets bombed fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban on September 4.-ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS/AP

Why dont we hear anything about the estimated 65 Afghan and Pashtun civilians killed in U.S./NATO actions in August 2009? The answer is because the median number of deaths per incident in August 2009 where U.S./NATO actions led to civilian deaths was only four far below the threshold of notice (becoming mediagenic) and thus hardly worthy of mention by the U.S. officialdom and press (especially when General [Stanley] McChrystal is trying to sell his new Afghan strategy that the U.S. is in Afghanistan to protect civilians). Another lesser contributing explanatory variable could be the lack of access to the site of the attacks.

U.S. and NATO actions in August 2009, two months into McChrystals new Afghan strategy, killed approximately 65 civilians, a figure more than 25 per cent higher than the 52 recorded for July. The table demonstrates that the monthly average of civilians killed has decreased in the last two months relative to the first half of 2009 and to 2008. But the cost has been a sharply rising rate of U.S./NATO military deaths. For every military death during January-June 2009, about 3.7 civilians perished. By August 2009, for every occupation force soldier killed, only 0.93 civilians died.

The midnight bombing of a large group of people congregated around two fuel tanker trucks in the Chahar Dara area of Kunduz province on the night of September 3/4, however, generated immediate and prolific media coverage. It presents a case study of both how the Afghan war is being fought militarily on the ground and in the media.

The military dimension is quite clear. At about 10 p.m., a group of Taliban fighters hijacked two tanker trucks carrying fuel for NATO occupation forces some 10 kilometres south of Kunduz city. The incident was reported by German forces to the NATO air command. Soon after the hijacking, the trucks tried to cross a small river and one of the vehicles got stuck in the mud about 2 km from the village of Omar Khel. The Taliban fighters present tried to disengage the tanker but failed. In order to make it easier to move the truck, they drained the fuel. For reasons that remain unclear, word reached nearby villagers who rushed to the scene to get free fuel. At this point two U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles appeared and at 2:30 a.m. dropped two 500-pound bombs guided by a global positioning JDAM system.

The predictable took place: a huge explosion, which incinerated a large number of persons, killing and wounding many. Villagers said their relatives were siphoning off fuel from the hijacked trucks and were burnt alive in a giant fireball. Apparently, the American F-15E pilots and co-pilots dropped the two bombs upon the immobilised trucks, revealing an obvious lack of sensitivity as to who might actually be in the group of people around the trucks. The dearth of accurate ground intelligence possessed by U.S./NATO forces in Afghanistan is legendary. In other words, a deadly air strike was launched upon a target where the probability of civilians being present was high.

The mainstream media narrative about the attack followed the familiar news management pattern of damage control.5 The first reports took the Pentagon cue proclaiming that only the Taliban or militants had been killed in a precision strike. Then, when evidence mounted that civilians also were wounded and killed, most of the blame was put on the Taliban for the civilian deaths (as did John Burns, chief foreign correspondent of The New York Times). An important point here needs to be stressed: what were once Taliban have now become civilians. One suspects that many of the so-called Taliban killed elsewhere across Afghanistan and in the Pakistan borderlands by the U.S./NATO/Afghan Army were civilians. The next step is to announce that an investigation will be carried out by the U.S. or NATO in other words, the perpetrator will investigate himself (with predictable results).

On the other hand, the more independent-minded media, such as Reuters, Agence France Presse (AFP) and Pajhwok Afghan News, begin presenting detailed stories told by local people present or near to the scene of the massacre. Time passes; the investigation languishes or produces utterly laughable results (as in the case of Azizabad, Herat) and some token condolence payments are made to the victims family members. More likely than not, McChrystal or a simulacrum will then announce yet another new strategy with the incantation of protecting Afghan civilians.

Afghan policemen inspect the site of the air strike.-WAHDAT/REUTERS

The Associated Press and Yahoo!News began the reporting by noting that a pre-dawn NATO air strike had killed 90 people near the village of Omar Khel. They quoted the German military command, which unequivocally asserted that there were no civilian casualties, adding, however, that local people reported civilian casualties. Soon thereafter, Reuters headlined NATO strikes fuel tankers in Afghanistan, many dead. The wire service report said that while NATO believed all the casualties were Taliban fighters, angry residents in the northern Kunduz province said the villagers were collecting fuel from the hijacked trucks and were caught in the blast. Asked how U.S. pilots could know whether a crowd around the trucks included civilians, Navy Lt-Commander Christine Sidenstricker, press officer for U.S. and NATO forces, said, Based on the information available at the scene, the commanders believed they were insurgents. By mid-afternoon on September 4, the independent Afghan news service, Pajhwok Afghan News, was headlining Scores perish in Kunduz including dozens of civilians, citing local officials. Pajhwok quoted a security official who said the death toll was more than 200, adding that the warplanes struck the people who had gathered to receive free oil distributed by the hijackers. A couple of villagers quoted by name claimed that their relatives had died.

Pajhwok also noted that the director of Kunduz Hospital admitted receiving 15 wounded persons, many of whom were writhing in pain, their skin peeling off as a result of severe burns. Such aspects were not mentioned in Western newswire service feeds. The Deutsche Presse Agentur relied heavily upon the initial account provided by Kunduzs Governor, Mohammad Omar. Omar stated that around 90 people with around half of them civilians were killed in the explosions. The wire service noted that a German military spokesman said, There were presumably no uninvolved people, meaning no civilians had perished. A chastised Omar changed his story later on Friday saying that up to 60 people, mostly Taliban, were killed in the NATO air strike. Omar said, The problem is that all those people around the tankers were badly burned and cant be recognised, but they were mostly armed Taliban and the rest who went from the village at 2 a.m. cannot be other than Taliban. He even added that four Chechens and a senior Taliban commander were killed in the blast.

More details began emerging. The Telegraphs Ben Farmer in Kabul quoted a local man, Mohammad Daud, 32: Villagers rushed to the fuel tanker with any available container that they had, including water buckets and pots for cooking oil. There were 10-15 Taliban on top of the tanker. This was when they were bombed. Everyone around the fuel tanker died. Other accounts from the Kunduz hospital noted a large stream of wounded arriving with horrific burns, including a 10-year-old boy. A report by Frank Jordans of the Associated Press estimated 40 civilians had perished and quoted a member of the Kunduz provincial council and a native of the village where the attack took place (Omar Khel), who said some 500 people from surrounding villages had swarmed around the trucks. He said villagers told him the insurgents had invited them to help themselves to the fuel: The Taliban called to the villagers Come take free fuel, he said, and the prospect of free fuel must have been irresistible. The people are so hungry and poor. The official added that five people in a single family had been killed and a man he knew, named Haji Gul Bhuddin, lost three sons.

A report in the Los Angeles Times followed, adding new information. It started that there was a time lag of more than half an hour from when the decision was made and when it was carried out, which might have given more villagers time to arrive as word spread that there was fuel for the taking. We see the effort being made by Laura King, et al. to exonerate the U.S. bombing command. Contrast that with Maria Golovnina of Reuters who headlined a wire service report written three hours earlier, After Afghan strike, charred flesh and burning rage.

Golovnina provided vivid detail,

The desperately poor Afghan villagers heard that the Taliban had abandoned loaded fuel tankers by the river and thought it was their lucky day. Hundreds ran to fill jugs of the valuable stuff. Suddenly, a U.S. F-15 fighter jet roared over and opened fire. Mohammad Deen heard the explosion. When the flames died away by Friday morning, charred corpses were still strewn on the riverbank. Afghan officials say as many as 90 people died in the strike, which NATO forces say was called in by German troops to target Taliban fighters who had hijacked two fuel trucks. Villagers could scarcely conceal their rage. Its a tragedy, and people are angry, very angry. The international community came here to help, but they are not helping anymore, they are only dropping bombs on us, said Deen. Video footage filmed by Afghans at the scene the next morning showed piles of charred bodies lying by the river, beside chunks of twisted metal. The frame of one of the tanker trucks still smouldered. In the nearby provincial capital Kunduz, dozens of villagers, some visibly angry, gathered at a small regional hospital, a crumbling concrete building abuzz with frantic activity as doctors treated more than a dozen injured. Burn victims lay bandaged and groaning in the courtyard. Some waited to be airlifted to Kabul for more treatment with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). ICRC spokeswoman Jessica Barry, part of a team trying to help evacuate some of the wounded, said it was impossible to know how many people had died. One man, Wazir Gul, stood still as he watched his badly burned brother, Mohammad, lying motionless under a white cotton sheet in the back of a battered pick-up truck near the hospital. He is so burned and injured that he cannot move, Gul said. Many said they too did not know how many people had died, fearing many bodies may have been washed away by the river. Others did not know what the Taliban was doing in their area and what the fuel tanks were meant for. One village elder said anger at the foreign troops was mixed with resentment toward the Taliban fighters themselves, traditionally entrenched in the south but increasingly active in northern provinces such as Kunduz. The Taliban stole that fuel for themselves, said Haji Amanullah, the elder. They could not use it so they dumped it. Its not like they are helping any of us. We can only pick up things they abandon.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post (predictably) initiated the blame the Taliban for civilian deaths line of argument quoting the unrepentant German military officers who asserted that all those killed were insurgents or people conscripted by the Taliban to help with the theft of the trucks. Being well-connected to the foreign militaries, Chandrasekaran was able to provide some additional interesting technical details. A B-1B bomber was in the area when the trucks were hijacked and spotted the trucks bogged down while trying to cross a river. German commanders on the ground became concerned the trucks would be used as suicide bombs against their Provincial Reconstruction Team located about 10 km away. As a result, they declared an imminent threat and requested air support. Two F-15Es arrived at around 2 a.m. local time. Some 30 minutes later, upon receiving instructions from a German targeter, one of the U.S. planes dropped two 500-pound GBU-38 bombs, one on each truck.

A couple of hours later, veteran New York Times reporter John Burns expressed much more explicitly the blame the Taliban argument:

Fuller details of the Kunduz air strike will take some time to emerge, if they ever do, but early reports that the Taliban hijackers of the fuel trucks may have allowed or encouraged local civilians to gather around the trucks to siphon fuel suggest that that the men who seized the trucks may have been careless at best, cynical at worst, in allowing civilians to put themselves at fatal risk by assembling around a potential military target. This, too, is another ugly feature of the Afghan fighting, as it has been in Iraq an insurgency that recognises the propaganda value of America killing innocents, and doesnt care greatly, if at all, about the carnage that ensues.

By late on Friday, various newswire services reported that NATO was launching an inquiry into the bombing and by early Saturday NATO officials were on the scene near Kunduz seeking to calm Afghans after the deadly strike. McChrystal uttered the predictable: I take this possible loss of life or injury to innocent Afghans very seriously. Lynne ODonnell of the AFP struck a more sceptical note headlining, NATO strike hits heart of new Afghan strategy. She noted the atrocious timing of the U.S. attack as a foreign consultant in Kabul put it, It couldnt have come at a worse time for the Western powers trying to justify their presence in the country and reporting a chorus of interests demanding an investigation. No one dared raise the matter of a truly independent investigation.

An AFP report noted memorial prayers being made in nearly a dozen villages for those killed in northern Kunduz province, where the atmosphere was highly charged. Pajhwok Afghan News headlined on Saturday, 150 civilians dead in air raid: Villagers. The Pajhwok reporter, Abdul Matin Sarfaraz, wrote,

Residents of Chahar Dara district in northern Kunduz province say more than 150 civilians were killed and 20 others wounded in Fridays air strike by NATO-led forces. The bombing in Haji Aman village came as insurgents and residents emptied oil into jerry cans from tankers hijacked by Taliban militants from the Kunduz-Baghlan Highway. Inhabitants of the area told Pajhwok Afghan News all those killed in the bombardment were civilians and there were no Taliban at the site at the time the attack took place. Fighters had left the scene after they asked the people to take fuel for free. An elder from Sarak-i-Bala neighbourhood, Abdul Rahim, said 15 children were among the 50 people of Yaqubi village killed in the bombing raid. The man, who lost two sons in the incident, argued: Poverty brought us to this stage. No guerillas were among the dead, he said, explaining that the fighters had left well before the deadly assault. A 50-year-old woman bitterly cried while standing in front of her ruined house. She said her three sons, husband and a grandson perished in the bombardment. Locals showed this reporter as many as 50 graves of civilian victims. In Maulvi Naeem village, residents said 20 civilians were killed in the incident. Haji Najmuddin, a tribal elder, lost two nephews. He claimed chemical bombs were dropped on the villagers. Clothes of his nephews were not damaged but their bodies were badly charred, the man argued. This reporter saw the graves of those killed in the air strike. Seventy of the fatalities were from Yaqubi and Maulvi Naeem villages and the rest from three other areas.

By late Saturday even The New York Times Richard Oppel was conceding that at least 80 people had been killed, many of them civilians, but again fell back upon a NATO investigation to sort out the mix of militants and civilians. Julian Borger and Jon Boone of The Guardian headlined, The Afghan village devastated by NATO strike on Taliban. They wrote that the NATO missiles wiped out much of the village of Omar Khel and in so doing did critical damage to U.S. and NATO hopes of making a fresh start in Afghanistan. They quoted Moeen Marastial, a Member of Parliament from Kunduz:

Local people are telling me 130 people have been killed despite all the promises of NATO to do fewer bombardments and reduce civilian casualties. There will be a reaction to this. It is a very bad day for international forces in Afghanistan.

On Sunday morning, the well-connected Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post informed the world that a lone Afghan informant told a German commander that more than 100 Taliban insurgents were gathering around two hijacked fuel tankers stuck in the mud. In addition, the F-15Es video was grainy and could not distinguish whether the people gathered were carrying weapons. Nonetheless, the order to bomb was given. By late Saturday, the dead were being buried in villages around Omar Khel as Taliban fighters faces wrapped in black scarves and AK-47s sluing across their shoulders watched on according to Reuters. Reuters reporter Mohammad Hamed wrote,

A local resident injured in the air strike, at a regional hospital.-OMAR SOBHANI/REUTERS

Weeping and reciting prayers, villagers knelt in front of about 50 graves dug outside Yaqubi, a scattering of mud-brick huts near the site where Afghan officials say a NATO bombing killed scores of people, many of them civilians. They paid little attention to groups of Taliban men who watched the funeral service from afar. The fighters presence underlined the Talibans tightening grip in once-quiet parts of northern Afghanistan at a time when U.S.-led forces are battling to contain an increasingly aggressive insurgency mainly centred in the south and east. We will take revenge. A lot of innocent people were killed here, one of the Taliban fighters, only his eyes left uncovered by a thick scarf, said at the funeral.

An attack carried out by two jet bombers of the U.S. Air Force called in by the German military killed anywhere from 40-150 Afghan civilians. Locals say bombs hit the area when 200 people from five nearby villages had gathered to siphon off the fuel which they thought had been abandoned by the Taliban. Every family around here has victims, said Sahar Gul, a 54-year-old village elder from Yaqubi. There are entire families that have been destroyed. The luckier ones made it to the Kunduz hospital.

The dead villagers were buried in the presence of the Taliban. How many more recruits for or sympathisers of the Taliban have been created?

Media reporting in the aftermath of the Kunduz massacre borders on the psychedelic. Late Monday [September 7], the London Times reported that McChrystal had henceforth banned alcohol consumption by U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base. The Times reported that when McChrystal tried to contact his military commanders on Friday,

to find out what happened, however, he found, to his fury, that many of them were either drunk or too hung-over to respond.6

Lest one blame only the Americans, a coalition ally, a group of Macedonian guards was sent home during 2009 after being discovered drunk on duty while protecting the back gate to Bagram. The 3,500 German troops were labelled by their German officers as useless cake-eaters who consumed 1.7 million pints of beer and 90,000 bottles of wine a year.

A mass grave of the victims of the air strike in Kunduz. An AFP report noted memorial prayers being made "in nearly a dozen villages for those killed in northern Kunduz province, where the atmosphere was highly charged".-REUTERS

The tone in Washington was different. The Washington Posts Pamela Constable downplayed Afghan anger over the civilian deaths.7 She quoted some Kunduz officials who said the killed villagers were all relatives of insurgents and were equally guilty because they were looting fuel from the tankers when they died. In other words, for Pamela Constable, being a relative of an enemy soldier makes her/him a justified military target. She also replayed the Taliban-are-to-blame mantra that 20 Taliban fighters had pressured villagers to go get free fuel and, ipso facto, the Taliban militants were responsible for the civilian deaths.

For their part, the Taliban appealed to unnamed international human rights organisations for help in investigating what had happened, while publishing a list of the 79 victims.8 The liberal progressive Andrew Bacevich noted that under President Barack Obama, Afghanistan had become a Pentagon top priority and that Obama will have to persuade the American public that going for broke is correct. Bacevich counsels that before so committing, maybe a different question

Merits presidential consideration: what alternatives other than open-ended war might enable the United States to achieve its limited interests in Afghanistan?9

Question posed and unanswered. No mention by this progressive that the stated Obama goals in Afghanistan today are identical to those of George W. Bush in 2001-02. No mention that a rapid exit might be the preferred option given that Al Qaeda can best be countered through patient international police work as shown by the capture of major Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, not Afghanistan rather than occupying countries and bombing their inhabitants.

McChrystal bans alcohol consumption for his troops; Pamela Constable pronounces a new definition of enemy combatant, all the relatives of enemy combatants. The Taliban call for an international investigation of the Kunduz massacre and Andrew Bacevich pleads for a mirage to Obamas open-ended war.

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3. See my Bomber McNeill Reveals the Cheapness of Afghan Lives: the Massacre in Haydarabad, Helmand, Cursor.org (August 1, 2007) at https://cursor.org/stories/bomber.html

4. I explored this theme empirically in my essay, The value of a Dead Afghan: Revealed and Relative, Cursor.org (July 21, 2002) at https://cursor.org/stories/afghandead.htm

7. Pamela Constable, "Afghan Reaction to Strike Muted. Anger at Taliban, Apology by U.S. Deflect the Usual Outrage Over Civilian Deaths", The Washington Post (September 8, 2009).

9. Andrew Bacevich, "Should Obama Go All In on Afghanistan?", Los Angeles Times (September 7, 2009).

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