McChrystal Looks to Spin Afghan Civilian Deaths Problem

WASHINGTON — At his confirmation hearings two weeks ago, Gen. Stanley McChrystal said reducing civilian deaths from air strikes in Afghanistan was “strategically decisive” and declared his “willingness to operate in ways that minimize casualties or damage, even when it makes our task more difficult.”

Some McChrystal supporters hope he will rein in the main source of civilian casualties: Special Operations Forces (SOF) units that carry out targeted strikes against suspected “Taliban” on the basis of doubtful intelligence and raids that require air strikes when they get into trouble.

But there are growing indications that his command is preparing to deal with the issue primarily by seeking to shift the blame to the Taliban through more and better propaganda operations and by using more high-tech drone intelligence aircraft to increase battlefield surveillance rather than by curbing the main direct cause of civilian casualties.

U.S. officials at a NATO conference in Brussels last Friday were telling reporters that “public relations” are now considered “crucial” to “turning the tide” in Afghanistan, according to an AFP story on Jun 12.

CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus also referred to the importance of taking the propaganda offensive in a presentation to the pro-military think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Jun. 11. “When you’re dealing the press,” he said, “when you’re dealing the tribal leaders, when you’re dealing with host nations… you got to beat the bad guys to the headlines.”

The new emphasis on more aggressive public relations appears to respond to demands from U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan to wrest control of the issue of civilian casualties from the Taliban. In a discussion of that issue at the same conference, Gen. David Barno, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, said, “We’ve got to be careful about who controls the narrative on civilian casualties.”

U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan “see the enemy seeking to take airstrikes off the table” by exaggerating civilian casualties, Barno said. He objected to making civilian casualties an indicator of success or failure, as a CNAS paper has recommended.

The U.S. command in Afghanistan has already tried, in fact, to apply “information war” techniques in effort to control the narrative on the issue. The command has argued both that the Taliban were responsible for the massive civilians casualties in a U.S. airstrike on May 4 that killed 147 civilians, including 90 women and children, and that the number of civilian deaths claimed has been vastly exaggerated, despite detailed evidence from village residents supporting the casualty figures.

Col. Greg Julian, the command’s spokesman, said in late May that a “weapon-sight” video would show that the Taliban were to blame. However, Nancy A. Youssef reported Jun. 15 in McClatchy newspapers that the video in question shows that no one had checked to see if women and children were in the building before it was bombed, according to two U.S. military officials.

The Afghan government has highlighted the problem of SOF units carrying out raids that result in airstrikes against civilian targets. Kai Eide, the chief of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, has now publicly supported that position, saying in a video conference call from Kabul to NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels Jun. 12 that there is an “urgent need” to review raids by SOF units, because the civilian casualties being created have been “disproportionate to the military gains”.

But McChrystal hinted in his confirmation hearing that he hoped to reduce civilian casualties by obtaining more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. Petraeus confirmed that approach to the problem in remarks at the CNAS conference last week, announcing that he was planning to shift some high-tech intelligence vehicles from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Petraeus referred to “predators, armed full motion video with Hellfire missiles”, “special intelligence birds”, and unmanned intelligence vehicles called Shadows and Ravens, which fly 24 hours a day.

Although such intelligence aircraft may make U.S. battlefield targeting more precise, Petraeus’s reference to drones equipped with Hellfire missiles suggests that U.S. forces in Afghanistan may now rely more than previously on drone strikes against suspected Afghan insurgents. Given the chronic lack of accurate intelligence on the identity of insurgent leaders, that would tend to increase civilian casualties.

Petraeus’s past reluctance to stop or dramatically reduce such SOF operations, despite the bad publicity surrounding them, suggests that high level intra-military politics are involved.

The Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MarSOC) has been involved in the most highly publicized cases of massive civilian casualties in Afghanistan. It was established by the Marine Corps only in February 2006, and the first MarSOC company arrived in Afghanistan just a year later.

MarSOC was unable to recruit the more mature officers and troops needed for cross-cultural situations, and its recruits had only a few months of training before being sent to Afghanistan.

The unit’s commanding officer had been warned by one participant in the training before the unit had arrived in Afghanistan that his troops were too young and too oriented toward killing to serve in Afghanistan, according to Chris Mason, a former U.S. official in Afghanistan familiar with the unit’s history.

In March 2007, a company of MarSOC troops which had only arrived in the country the previous month were accused of firing indiscriminately at pedestrians and cars as they sped away from a suicide bomb attack, killing as many as 19 Afghan civilians. Five days later the same unit reportedly fired on traffic again.

As a result, a powerful Pashtun tribe, the Shinwari, demanded to the governor of Nangahar province and Afghan President Hamid Karzai that U.S. military operations in the province be terminated. Within a month, the 120-man MarSOC company was pulled out of Afghanistan.

Significantly, however, a new MarSOC unit was sent back to Afghanistan only a few weeks later, assigned to Herat province. Last August, a MarSOC unit launched an attack against a preplanned target in Azizabad that combined unmanned drones, attack helicopters and a Specter gunship. More than 90 civilians were killed in the attack, including 60 children, but not a single Taliban fighter was killed in the attack, according to Afghan and U.N. officials.

Karzai said the operation had been triggered by false information given by the leader of a rival tribe, and no U.S. official contradicted him.

When Petraeus took command at CENTCOM just a few weeks later, Afghans were still seething over the Azizabad massacre. That would have been the perfect time for him to take decisive action on MarSOC’s operations.

But Petraeus took no action on MarSOC. Meanwhile, other SOF units were continuing to carry out raids that did not get headlines but which regularly killed women and children, stirring more Afghan anger. Petraeus may have been confronted with the necessity of stopping all the operations if he wished to discipline MarSOC, which would have been too serious a blow to the reputation of U.S. Special Operations Forces.

For two weeks, from mid-February to early March, the rate of SOF raids was reduced. But in early March, they were resumed, despite the near certainty that there would be more embarrassing incidents involving SOF operations. The worst case of massive civilian deaths in the war would come just two months later, and involved the MarSOC unit.

Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. His new book, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, was published February 14, 2014. Read other articles by Gareth.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on June 22nd, 2009 at 11:52am #

    who’s next in next serial war? Is the aggression against pashtuns hundred eighty first aggression against hated aliens?
    i81 wars may be a record. But there may be ahead dozens of more serial killings.
    that’s why some countries are begining to band together so as to avoid an easy [for amers] war against them.
    in the old days one cld see on TV an amer war but no longer. So, amers don’t know how much entertainment they are deprived of.
    instead they get dull reality shows and free fighting. tnx

  2. Suthiano said on June 22nd, 2009 at 12:31pm #

    a lot of civilian deaths are caused by drone planes.

    U.S. launches another drone plane to patrol Canadian border http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2009/06/22/drone-great-lakes022.html

    This drone plane will be “unarmed”… but how long until that changes?

    The war is coming soon to your home town, because the threat of “terrorism” is everywhere, and must be stamped out.

  3. bozh said on June 22nd, 2009 at 2:24pm #

    suthiano,
    i don’t think canada is a terrorist state yet. I wld be in the eyes of the ruling class if they’d read what i say.
    but that does not mean that s’mone is not paid to watch ‘terrorist’ like me, you, and them. tnx

  4. Daniel Feralas said on June 23rd, 2009 at 1:35pm #

    “Petraeus’s past reluctance to stop or dramatically reduce such SOF operations, despite the bad publicity surrounding them, suggests that high level intra-military politics are involved.

    The Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MarSOC) has been involved in the most highly publicized cases of massive civilian casualties in Afghanistan. It was established by the Marine Corps only in February 2006, and the first MarSOC company arrived in Afghanistan just a year later.

    MarSOC was unable to recruit the more mature officers and troops needed for cross-cultural situations, and its recruits had only a few months of training before being sent to Afghanistan.

    The unit’s commanding officer had been warned by one participant in the training before the unit had arrived in Afghanistan that his troops were too young and too oriented toward killing to serve in Afghanistan, according to Chris Mason, a former U.S. official in Afghanistan familiar with the unit’s history.

    In March 2007, a company of MarSOC troops which had only arrived in the country the previous month were accused of firing indiscriminately at pedestrians and cars as they sped away from a suicide bomb attack, killing as many as 19 Afghan civilians. Five days later the same unit reportedly fired on traffic again”

    I think politics has been involved, but I’m not quite sure how Marsoc was too oriented toward killing. The Marsoc forces of that time period were drawn from Force Recon Marines who were used primarily to collect intelligence prior to an amphibious landing. Unlike the younger Marines in a Recon Battalion, they would normally be out of range of supporting arms ( Artillery and Naval Gunfire) so the need for “fire discipline” would be paramount. It would seem unlikely that they were too oriented toward killing. Being unable to recruit the officers and enlisted people needed is also strange, as the service records of eligible Marines were drawn from the entire Marine Corps.

    Also you have to note that the company involved in the shooting incident was found to have acted correctly.

  5. John S. Hatch said on June 23rd, 2009 at 2:00pm #

    It has been clear for a long time that American military psyochpaths couldn’t care less about the civilian lives of ‘Japs’ or ‘Slants’ or ‘Gooks’ or ‘Sandniggers’ or ‘Ragheads’ or anyone who isn’t white, christian, and American neo-con. If they kill you, then by definition you’re a ‘bad guy’, even if you’re just eight days old.

    That’s how terrified they are.

  6. bozh said on June 23rd, 2009 at 3:29pm #

    john,
    for me, it is not difficult to espy that, among many other lands and empires, US is also governed by a gang, differing not a tad in kind from a biker or mafia gang but only in degree of atrocities which gangs generally perpetrate.
    natch, US gang is the largest and strongest; thus, it kills and destroys more than any other gang.
    members of the gangs are gangsters who worship/adore criminal behavior that brings in money and accolades from other gang members.
    and we’ve had a gangster rule for about 10K yrs in almost al lands or region.
    people like lapps, inuits, some other indigenes, having no concept of land ownerhip and or bordered land, were not ever ruled by gangsters until just recently if even now.
    tnx

  7. Melissa said on June 23rd, 2009 at 3:43pm #

    When the mafia does it, it’s called extortion, murder, etc.

    When another country/organized group does it, it’s terrorism.

    When USA does it, we choose misleading terms like: sanctions, diplomacy, capitalism and a just war.

    Hmph.

  8. John Basoline said on June 24th, 2009 at 2:38pm #

    The majority of you are horribly misinformed…the unit you are speaking of in the latest incident were advisors traveling with the Afghan National Army(ANA) and the Commander of the Afghan force was told he should do more planning and gather more information and external support, as well as local support, prior to entering into the unknown province “uninvited” and his judgment about the situation was similar to all of you “Couch Commanders”, just naïve. This was an ANA mission. The advice was not heeded, however, b/c they had air power they were able to save the majority of the Afghan Army Soldiers and all of the Americans. Just think about what you “Americans” would have been saying had you lost all the ANA Soldiers and all the advisor team…;what then? I can see your criticism and it disgust me.

    You live in your misinformed, non-austere, utopian worlds and cannot taste the fear, sweat, dirt, or blood churning the emotions and decisions of the battlefield.

    You provide your chastising comments of the American Military and you yourself (most likely) have never climbed an afghan mountain, made a life or death decision, hell you probably have problems making decisions at Starbucks. I will leave you this….critics with no experience are worthless.

  9. Don Hawkins said on June 24th, 2009 at 5:37pm #

    Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
    Carl Sagan

    The Greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge. –Stephen Hawking

    “I’ll take it from here” Unknown

  10. Melissa said on June 24th, 2009 at 5:53pm #

    John: The difference is we don’t offer ourselves as guns for hire for someone else’s agenda -an agenda we disagree with. Different standard of morals. I don’t believe the basis for this indefinite war.

    I don’t doubt that you are faced with a gruesome, troubling and difficult violence-filled reality of which I don’t have a first person view. But your willingness to follow orders is what makes that horrible reality your reality.

    Forgive me for saying so, you’re there (were there?) ’cause you signed up. We filled the streets to keep you home, safe, and whole. We continue to want you here, not there, dealing with battlefield decisions and spilling blood.

    If the entire ANA and American troops had been wasted it would just be more of the same, no? Remember how troops are viewed by Pentagon in Kissinger’s words? Those aren’t the feelings of anti-war folks; we think you have more to offer protecting and serving within our borders, where those that love you can fold you into their arms daily.

    Come home safe, if your still abroad. We need you to protect and defend our constitution, our Bill of Rights. That’s where the real basis for war is.

    Peace,
    Melissa