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Monday, July 30, 2007


When is an accidental civilian death not an accident?

With a hat tip to WIIIAI, I refer readers to a most interesting article by Mark Benjamin in Salon, which touches on many issues that have been discussed here over the years. We're told that there used to be a "magic number" of 30 - if you hit 30 as the anticipated number of civilians killed, the airstrike had to go to Rumsfeld or Bush personally to sign off. It's interesting that it's a fixed number, obviously based on anticipated negative public relations value. It doesn't matter if you're aiming for Saddam Hussein, or a small unimportant platoon of Iraqi soldiers, and it doesn't matter if the chance of success of the strike at hitting the real target is 100% or 10%, the "magic number" is still 30. Which indicates that the number had nothing to do with proportionality (as required by international law), just p.r.

Incidentally, this business about "needing approval" is itself entirely p.r., designed for the suckers in the cheap seats. Because here's the bottom line:

Every high-CD target was ultimately approved except two structures holding foreign journalists, the Al-Rasheed hotel and Saddam's Ministry of Information.
And why were those two targets ruled off-limits? Because the bad p.r. value of killing journalists is even greater than that of killing random Iraqis or Afghans (not that it stops them from killing journalists one-by-one, but the mass killings would definitely be bad form).

We read:

What these rules mean is that killing civilians is legal -- as long as the deaths are the result of a strike at a legitimate military target. And it also means that some unknown percentage of civilian deaths from airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan are not accidents.

"'Accident' is not the right word," said Sarah Holewinski, executive director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, which works to help remunerate civilians caught in the crossfire. "They call them accidental deaths, but they are not," said Holewinski. "They know what they are doing."
And actually, as I've written a long time ago, there's another factor. Because even if you aim bombs at a known military target with no civilians present, you know that there is a certain error rate in dropping bombs - even so-called "smart bombs" do fail, even when aimed properly at a correctly-identified target. So if you drop a million pounds of bombs on Afghanistan this year, or a half-million pounds on Iraq (extrapolating in both cases from six-month numbers), then even a 1% failure rate (and the rate is much higher than that) means that you know in advance that thousands of pounds of bombs are likely to fall in places you don't intend. And again, that's assuming you correctly identified the target in the first place. A huge "if."

One interesting fact in the article - in Afghanistan, aerial bombing has doubled in 2007 compared to 2006; in Iraq, is has increased nearly four-fold.

Back to the accidents:

The cold, hard math of estimating collateral damage for preplanned strikes includes a calculation of the precise number of expected civilian deaths from each bomb, and it is made every day for every strike in the air wars over Iraq and Afghanistan. This grisly number is what must be weighed against the military value of the target in question.
Except for the big "but":
These kinds of deliberate targets, however, represent a minority of the airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much more common is the second category of airstrike: close air support. These are hastily arranged attacks from the air to relieve troops on the ground under enemy fire.
And in these "hastily arranged attacks," many of which seem from anecdotal observation to occur at night, the chances of even assessing the likely "collateral damage" are slim:
When troops are in a firefight and need immediate help from the air, decisions have to be made quickly, with greater emphasis on protecting U.S. forces. Steps are taken to minimize civilian deaths, but there simply is no time for a formal collateral damage assessment. Often there is only limited information on where any vulnerable civilians might be. "In those kinds of circumstances," [Col. Gary Crowder, the deputy director of the Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar] said, "that is where you see most of the civilians being killed."
On a different subject, in a comment a few posts down, I wrote:
For some reason the media (which means the military feeding them information) is always very careful to just use "NATO" [when talking about Afghanistan]. It could still be U.S. pilots doing the bulk, if not all, of the flying and bombing (although I suspect the British are in on it as well).
Here's what this article has to tell us about that:
In an unconventional and complicated arrangement in Afghanistan, roughly 32,000 NATO-led troops are conducting stabilization activities there. Meanwhile, approximately 21,000 U.S. service members are conducting counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan under Operation Enduring Freedom, currently spearheaded by the 82nd Airborne Division and special operations units. Commanders from NATO and Operation Enduring Freedom both call in airstrikes, carried out almost exclusively by U.S. aircraft getting their air-tasking orders from Crowder's shop in Qatar, the Combined Air Operations Center.
What a strange thing to read. Every single article in the press that appears about fighting in Afghanistan refers to killing "Taliban" and is framed as an action against "terrorism." Who is NATO "stabilizing" Afghanistan against if not "Taliban terrorists"?

Incidentally, one of the main sources for this article is Marc Garlasco, who was "the Pentagon's chief of high-value targeting at the start of the war," and has now morphed into "a senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch," which helps to account for statements like these:

"And yes, the U.S. is doing its darnedest to make sure they don't ... But when it really comes down to it, they are still dropping the bombs, so it is incumbent on them at all times to do their best and follow international law to make sure they are not killing innocent civilians." On whether they are succeeding in preventing civilian deaths, Garlasco said, "I really think they are trying very hard. It's tough."
And perhaps Marc is right about the "trying very hard" part, although I seriously doubt it. But whether they are or aren't, it's just further proof that there's only one proper answer - U.S. and allied forces have to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, now.

Update: One pet peeve I forgot to mention. In discussing the Johns Hopkins study and its estimate of 655,000 "excess" deaths in Iraq, the author writes, "The study, overseen by epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins and derided by the Bush administration as not credible..." This is "factual," in the sense that the Bush administration did deride the study as "not credible," but they had absolutely no basis for their position. They simply said the study was not credible, which does not allow their "opinion" to be cited as some kind of counterweight to the study itself. The simple act of citing such a claim gives it a credibility it simply does not deserve.

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