Greg Mitchell / AP & avid S, Cloud / AP & CBC News – 2007-05-10 08:18:25
Gen. Petraeus and the $2000 Payoff
Greg Mitchell / Associated Press
(May 9, 2007) — Until recently, the press has rarely covered the US military program that occasionally offers “condolence” payments to Iraqis and Afghans whose loved ones have been killed or injured by our troops. But a number of high-profile incidents involving the killing of noncombatants has drawn some long-overdue, if fleeting, attention to the subject.
On Tuesday, in the latest example, the US military apologized for a not-accidental atrocity near Jalalabad back in March and agreed to make the usual maximum payment — don’t laugh — of about $2000 to survivors for each of the 19 Afghan lives lost.
That’s an improvement in some ways. Last month I titled a column on this subject, “Sorry We Shot Your Kid, Here’s $500,” referring to a documented case in Iraq.
Those 19 deaths in Afghanistan (and 50 wounded), by the way, were not the result of some unintentional air strike. Troops, angry about a bomb attack on them, carried out a rampage along a ten-mile stretch of highway, shooting villagers apparently at random. Well, we got around to saying we were sorry — two months later.
Not that we don’t kill civilians from the air. Today, AP reports that a US air strike killed 21 noncombatants in southern Afghanistan, including many children, on Tuesday.
The war zone killings, the justification for most of them — we rarely apologize even as we sometimes pay up – and the amount of the restitution, are all appalling, and a debasement of our values. It’s time for the press to ponder all of this deeply as the war — and the suffering of US troops and civilians in Iraq — continues with no end in sight.
This also serves to reminds us of several disturbing questions: How many innocent Iraqis have been killed or injured, accidentally or on purpose, by our troops? And what is the price of a human life — in our view, and in the view of the survivors whose hearts and minds we are attempting to win?
Reporters should also ask Gen. David Petraeus, who is directing the “surge” effort in Iraq, why he lied in responding to a reporter’s question this week concerning widespread abuse by US troops.
At the Associated Press’ annual meeting in New York on Tuesday, I sat in the audience observing Gen. Petraeus on a huge screen, via satellite from Baghdad, as he answered questions from two AP journalists. Asked about a military study of over 1,300 US troops in Iraq, released last week, which showed increasing mental stress — and an alarming spillover into poor treatment of noncombatants — Petraeus replied, “When I received that survey I was very concerned by the results. It showed a willingness of a fair number to not report the wrongdoing of their buddies.”
That’s true enough, but then he asserted that the survey showed that only a “small number” admitted they may have mistreated “detainees.”
That was a lie. Actually, the study found that 10% of US forces reported that they had personally, and without cause, mistreated civilians (not detainees) through physical violence or damage to personal property. So much for the claims by President Bush, military leaders and conservative pundits that 99.9% of US troops always behave honorably. Of course, that kind of record has never been achieved by any country in any war.
The survey also noted that only 47% of the soldiers and 38% of marines agreed that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect. More than 40% said they backed torture in certain circumstances.
Only 40 % of American marines and 55% of soldiers in Iraq said they would report a fellow service member for killing or injuring an innocent Iraqi. Of course, this only guarantees that it will happen again, and again. But that’s okay, a few American dollars will make that right again.
Or maybe not. Last month I spoke with Jon Tracy, a former Army captain who helped administer and make day-to-day condolence or “solatia” payment decisions in Iraq as a Judge Advocate in 2004 and 2005. This came after I found on the Web a paper he had written about his experience which critiqued the program in a balanced way. At the time I was deeply troubled after examining files on hundreds of Iraqi claims forced into the open by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Every Iraqi he had dealt with Iraq, Tracy revealed, “expressed shock and disbelief” when he told them he could only offer them, at most, $2,500 for a precious life lost. He observed that this “limits the unit’s ability to adequately assist in the most egregious cases.” Under the rules, “the full market value may be paid for a Toyota run over by a tank in the course of a non-combat related accident, but only $2,500 may be paid for the death of a child shot in the crossfire. … The artificial limit leaves survivors bitter and frustrated at the US”
In other words, it can do more harm than good. The solution, of course, is to make such payments unnecessary.
US Pays and Apologizes to Kin of Afghans Killed by Marines
David S, Cloud / Associated Press
WASHINGTON (May 8, 2007) — An Army commander apologized and paid compensation on Tuesday to families of Afghan civilians killed by marines after a suicide attack in March, in the first formal acknowledgment by the American authorities that the killings were unjustified.
Col. John Nicholson, an Army brigade commander in eastern Afghanistan, met Tuesday with the families of the 19 Afghans killed and 50 wounded when a Marine Special Operations unit opened fire on a crowded stretch of road near Jalalabad after a suicide bomber in a vehicle rammed their convoy.
“I stand before you today, deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people,” Colonel Nicholson said, recounting to reporters the words he had used in the meetings. In a videoconference to reporters at the Pentagon, he added, “We made official apologies on the part of the US government” and paid $2,000 for each death.
The incident is already the subject of a criminal investigation by the Pentagon. But the decision to issue a public apology now reflects the military’s growing concern that recent civilian casualties have led to widespread ill will among Afghans and could jeopardize military operations.
“Any time we’re responsible for the loss of innocent life, we understand that that hurts our ability to accomplish the mission,” Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday.
The American military considers offering payments to relatives of victims vital in allaying anger among civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the military regularly makes payments when it kills noncombatants.
Such payments are sometimes accompanied by statements saying that the military is not acknowledging that its soldiers acted improperly. But in this case, Colonel Nicholson went further than usual in acknowledging that the civilians were “innocent Afghans.”
“This is a terrible, terrible mistake, and my nation grieves with you for your loss and suffering,” he said in his statement to the families. “We humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness.”
The company commander and the senior enlisted member from the unit involved in the incident were relieved of duty last month. With six other marines involved, they were returned to Camp Lejeune, N.C., until the investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service is completed, said Maj. Cliff W. Gilmore, a spokesman for the Marine Special Operations Command.
Criminal charges could be brought against at least five marines involved, a Marine official has said.
Anger among Afghans at American tactics has seemed to intensify since the March 4 incident. After an incident this month in western Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai warned at a news conference that continuing civilian casualties would not be tolerated.
Afghan officials assert that, in the May incident, dozens of civilians were killed after a joint American and Afghan Army patrol was ambushed near Shindand and called in airstrikes. About 40 civilians, including women and children, were killed and 50 were wounded in the attacks, officials from Herat Province have told reporters.
The American military last weekend said more than 10 Taliban commanders had been among those killed in the fighting around Shindand, though it did not identify them. But the command has also said that it is investigating with Afghan officials reports that civilians were among the casualties.
Hundreds of Afghans protested after the killings involving member of the marines in March. In response, Maj. Gen. Francis H. Kearney III of the Army, the commander of Special Operations troops in the Middle East and Central Asia, ordered the unit out of Afghanistan after concluding that the killings had damaged the unit’s ability to be effective.
Colonel Nicholson said the Army made extensive efforts to find anyone who might have been wounded on the crowded highway or relatives, including those not from the area.
US Air Strikes Kill 21 Civilians in Afghanistan
(May 9, 2007) — At least 21 civilians were killed in southern Afghanistan this week after the US military launched air strikes to help US coalition soldiers battling Taliban fighters, a provincial governor said Wednesday.
The US military, however, said it has no reports of civilian deaths.
Assadullah Wafa, governor of Helmand province, said the insurgents fought with US special forces and Afghan soldiers about 25 kilometres north of the town of Sangin on Tuesday evening.
He said Taliban fighters entered the homes of villagers in the Sangin district during the fighting and that 21 civilians, including women and children, were killed when the US-led coalition forces called in air strikes.
Maj. William Mitchell, spokesperson for the US-led coalition, said the insurgents used guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars in the fight with US troops and Afghan soldiers.
“We don’t have any report of civilian casualties. There are enemy casualties — I think the number is significant,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell declined to release an estimated number of casualties.
Mohammad Asif, a resident in the area, said the bombing hit five homes during the battle and US troops and Afghan soldiers were preventing people from going into the area. He said he thought as many as 38 people were killed and 20 more wounded.
The US military said the battle killed one coalition soldier, but it declined to release the soldier’s nationality.
Sangin, in the heart of Afghanistan’s opium poppy region, has seen heavy fighting in recent weeks. NATO-led forces have been fighting Taliban insurgents in the Sangin Valley since the end of April.
The Sangin Valley offensive is part of Operation Achilles, NATO’s largest-ever manoeuvre against the Taliban, which began in March.
The operation is focused on clearing northern areas of Helmand province of insurgents so that reconstruction can begin and the authority of the Afghan government can be extended.
Across Afghanistan, anger is rising over the growing number of civilian deaths at the hands of coalition forces.
On Tuesday in Kabul, Afghanistan’s upper house of parliament passed a bill calling for talks with the Taliban to end the ongoing conflict.
The bill also calls for an end to international military operations against the Taliban when efforts to begin such talks get going.
If a military operation against the Taliban is absolutely necessary, the bill says it should be carried out jointly with the Afghan national army and police and in consultation with the Afghan government.
The bill must be approved by the country’s lower house of parliament and signed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai before it becomes law.
Canada has more than 2,000 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, the majority in the southern province of Kandahar.
Fifty-four Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have been killed since Canada first sent troops to the troubled country in early 2002.
With files from the Associated Press
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