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Sunday, February 22, 2009


Afghan airstrike: the numerology of death

See if you can spot the errors in this story:
An airstrike by the United States-led military coalition killed 13 civilians and 3 militants last Tuesday in western Afghanistan, not “up to 15 militants” as was initially claimed by American forces, military officials here said Saturday.

The civilians killed included three children, six women and four men in the Gozara district of Herat Province, in addition to three people suspected of being Taliban fighters, according to an aide to the provincial governor.
First of all, I'm obliged to point out that saying they killed "up to 15 militants" was technically correct. They also killed "up to 1000 militants." They just didn't happen to kill the maximum number they claimed.

But, conversely, the claim that they killed "13 civilians and 3 militants," while it sounds more accurate, is actually false. Because, from the second paragraph, we know those last three weren't "militants," they were suspected militants. So the correct claim now is that they killed "up to" three militants. In actual fact they may have killed none.

Now think about the original story. Where did they get the number "15" from (which seems to be pretty much accurate) in the first place? Anyone actually on the ground, even an informant, could have easily identified the children and women as non-combatants. Most likely this was a night airstrike, as so many of them are, and the death count was supplied by thermal imaging, through which one dead Afghan or Iraqi or Somali pretty much looks the same as another. As does one living Afghan, before the bombs are dropped.

The article reminds us that "Initially, American forces described the bombardment as a 'precision strike' that hit an insurgent hide-out, killing as many as 15 militants," which tells you the usefulness of that phrase "precision strike." No doubt it was a precision strike, if measured by GPS coordinates. It's only when measured by the actual target, a minor detail to the U.S. military, that that "precision" becomes a little less precise. Or a lot less precise in this case.

For sick amusement, I'll quote the U.S. military's latest claim: "the investigation shows 'how seriously we take our responsibility in conducting operations against militant targets and the occurrence of noncombatant casualties.'" Really? How so, exactly? Because they don't just shoot first, but they actually ask questions later? How very thoughtful. Pointing out the blindingly obvious, if they actually took the "occurrence of noncombatant casualties" so "seriously," they would ask the questions first ("Just who exactly is in those tents we are about to bomb and how can we be sure they aren't filled with women and children and other non-combatants?") and wouldn't be causing so many of them in the first place. Of course if they really took that responsibility seriously they would stop dropping bombs on people in other countries, period.

On a total side note, why is it that the media never reports demonstrations in the same manner as they report military death counts? Why do we never (or virtually never) see an article which says "up to a hundred thousand people demonstrated yesterday against the war in Iraq"? No, instead it's "10,000 people demonstrated yesterday against the war in Iraq." Which is perfectly true. It just doesn't bother to mention the other 90,000 who also attended the demonstration.

Update: I need to add one more thing about the identification of the "militants." The U.S. "proof" is that "weapons and ammunition were found at the site." Really? I'm guessing that the vast majority of Afghans (and Americans too!) found in rural areas are in possession of "weapons and ammunition." Now if there were RPGs, yes, I'd concede they were militants. But if there were RPGs, the U.S. military would surely have called attention to that. "Weapons and ammunition"? Sorry, just doesn't cut it.

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