Thursday, January 7, 2010

Did U.S. Forces Execute Kids in Afghanistan?

Did U.S. Forces Execute Kids in Afghanistan?

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The Taliban suicide attack that killed a group of CIA agents in Afghanistan was big news in the U.S. over the past week. The attack took place on a base that was directing U.S. drone aircraft used to attack Taliban leaders. The airwaves and front pages were filled with sympathetic stories referring to the fact that the female station chief, who was among those killed, was the "mother of three children."

But the apparent mass murder of Afghan school children, including one as young as 11 years old, by U.S.-led troops, was pretty much blacked out in the American media. Especially blacked out was the claim by UN investigators that the students had not just been killed but executed, many of them after having first been rousted from their bedrooms and handcuffed.

Here is the excellent report on the incident that ran in the Times of London (like Fox News, a Rupert Murdoch-owned publication) on Dec. 31:


Western troops accused of executing 10 Afghan civilians, including children

By Jerome Starkey in Kabul

American-led troops were accused yesterday of dragging innocent children from their beds and shooting them during a night raid that left ten people dead.

Afghan government investigators said that eight schoolchildren were killed, all but one of them from the same family. Locals said that some victims were handcuffed before being killed.

Western military sources said that the dead were all part of an Afghan terrorist cell responsible for manufacturing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have claimed the lives of countless soldiers and civilians.

"This was a joint operation that was conducted against an IED cell that Afghan and US officials had been developing information against for some time," said a senior Nato insider. But he admitted that "the facts about what actually went down are in dispute."

The article goes on to say:

In a telephone interview last night, the headmaster [of the local school] said that the victims were asleep in three rooms when the troops arrived. "Seven students were in one room," said Rahman Jan Ehsas. "A student and one guest were in another room, a guest room, and a farmer was asleep with his wife in a third building.

"First the foreign troops entered the guest room and shot two of them. Then they entered another room and handcuffed the seven students. Then they killed them. Abdul Khaliq [the farmer] heard shooting and came outside. When they saw him they shot him as well. He was outside. That's why his wife wasn't killed."

A local elder, Jan Mohammed, said that three boys were killed in one room and five were handcuffed before they were shot. "I saw their school books covered in blood," he said.

The investigation found that eight of the victims were aged from 11 to 17. The guest was a shepherd boy, 12, called Samar Gul, the headmaster said. He said that six of the students were at high school and two were at primary school. He said that all the students were his nephews.

Compare this article to the one mention of the incident that appeared in the New York Times, one of the few American news outlets to even mention the incident. The article, which appeared on Dec. 28, focused entirely on the difficulty civilian killings cause for the U.S. war effort, and not on the allegations of a serious war crime:

Attack Puts Afghan Leader and NATO at Odds

By Alissa J. Rubin and Abdul Waheed Wafa

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The killing of at least nine men in a remote valley of eastern Afghanistan by a joint operation of Afghan and American forces put President Hamid Karzai and senior NATO officials at odds on Monday over whether those killed had been civilians or Taliban insurgents.

In a statement e-mailed to the news media, Mr. Karzai condemned the weekend attack and said the dead had been civilians, eight of them schoolboys. He called for an investigation.

Local officials, including the governor and members of Parliament from Kunar Province, where the deaths occurred, confirmed the reports. But the Kunar police chief, Khalilullah Ziayee, cautioned that his office was still investigating the killings and that outstanding questions remained, including why the eight young men had been in the same house at the time.

"There are still questions to be answered, like why these students were together and what they were doing on that night," Mr. Ziayee said.

A senior NATO official with knowledge of the operation said that the raid had been carried out by a joint Afghan-American force and that its target was a group of men who were known Taliban members and smugglers of homemade bombs, which the American and NATO forces call improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.'s.

According to the NATO official, nine men were killed. "These were people who had a well-established network, they were I.E.D. smugglers and also were responsible for direct attacks on Afghan security and coalition forces in those areas," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue.

"When the raid took place they were armed and had material for making I.E.D.'s," the official added.

While the article in the New York Times eventually mentions the allegation that the victims were children, not grown men, it nonetheless begins with the unchallenged assertion in the lead that they were "men." There is no mention of the equally serious allegation that the victims had been handcuffed before being executed, and the story leaves the impression, made by NATO sources, that they were armed and had died fighting. There is no indication in the Times story that the reporters made any effort, as the more enterprising and skeptical London Times reporter did, to get local, non-official, sources of information. The New York Times reporters attributed the claim that the victims had been making bombs to an anonymous NATO source, even though there was no legitimate reason for the anonymity ("because of the delicacy of the situation" was the lame excuse offered). Indeed, the use of an anonymous source here would appear to violate the Times' own standards.

It's not that American newsrooms lacked the knowledge that a major war crime may have been committed. Nearly all American news organizations receive the AP news wire. Here is the AP report on the killings, which ran under the headline "UN says killed Afghans were students":

The United Nations says a raid last weekend by foreign troops in a tense eastern Afghan province killed eight local students.

The Afghan government says that all 10 people killed in a village in Kunar province were civilians. NATO says there is no evidence to substantiate the claim and has requested a joint investigation.

UN special representative in Afghanistan Kai Eide said in a statement Thursday that preliminary investigation shows there were insurgents in the area at the time of the attack. But he adds that eight of those killed were students in local schools.

Once again, the American media are falling down shamefully in providing honest reporting on a war, making it difficult for the American people to make informed judgments about what is being done in their name.

If the charges are correct -- that American forces, or American-led forces, are handcuffing their victims and then executing them -- they are committing egregious war crimes. If they are killing children, they are committing equally egregious war crimes. If they are handcuffing and executing children, the atrocity is beyond horrific. If true, this incident would actually be worse than the infamous war crime that occurred in My Lai during the Vietnam War. In that case, we had ordinary soldiers in the field, acting under the orders of several low-ranking officers in the heat of an operation, shooting and killing women, children and babies. But in this case we appear to have seasoned special forces troops actually directing the taking of captives, cuffing them, herding them into a room and spraying them with bullets, execution-style.

Given the history of the commanding general in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal -- who is known to have run a massive death squad operation in Iraq before being named to his current post by President Obama, and who is known to have called for the same kind of tactics in Afghanistan -- it should not be surprising that the U.S. would now be committing atrocities in Afghanistan. If this is how this war is going to be conducted, the U.S. media should be making a major effort to uncover and expose the crime.

On January 1, the London Times' Jerome Starkey, in Afghanistan, followed up with a second story, reporting that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is calling for the U.S. to hand over the troops who killed the students. Starkey quoted a "NATO source" as saying that the "foreigners involved" in the incident were "non-military, suggesting that they were part of a secret paramilitary unit based in the capital" of Kabul. He goes on to quote a "Western official" as saying: "There's no doubt that there were insurgents there, and there may well have been an insurgent leader in the house, but that doesn't justify executing eight children who were all enrolled in local schools."

Good enterprise reporting by the London Times and its Kabul-based correspondent. Silence on these developments in the U.S. media.

Meanwhile, it has been a week since New York Times reporters Rubin and Wafa made their first flawed report on the incident, and there has been not a word since then about it in the paper. Are Rubin and Wafa or other Times reporters on the story? Will there be a follow-up?

On the evidence of past coverage of these U.S. wars and their ongoing atrocities by the Times and by other major U.S. corporate media news organizations, don't bet on it. You'll do better looking to the foreign media.

By the way, given that we're talking about allegations of a serious war crime, it is important to note that, under the Geneva Conventions, it is a legal requirement that the U.S. military chain of command immediately initiate an official investigation to determine whether such a crime has occurred. One would hope that the Commander-in-Chief, President Obama, would order such an inquiry.

Any effort to prevent such an inquiry, or to cover up a war crime, would be a war crime in itself. We just had one administration that did a lot of that. We don't need another one.

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