Afghanistan’s civilians caught in the middle

May 9, 2009

Reuters correspondent Emma Graham-Harrison has written a moving and disturbing story about an 8-year-old girl badly burned by white phosphorous after being caught in the middle of a firefight in Afghanistan.  Like everything else that happens in Afghanistan, the question of who fired the shell that exploded in her house is in dispute. Her family said the shell was fired by western troops; NATO said it was “very unlikely” the weapon was theirs; and a U.S. spokeswoman suggested the Taliban may have been responsible.

But beyond the dispute, what comes across powerfully in Emma’s account is the story of the girl. 

“Life as 8-year-old Razia knew it ended one March morning when a shell her father says was fired by Western troops exploded into their house, enveloping her head and neck in a blazing chemical,” she writes. “Now she spends her days in a U.S. hospital bed at the Bagram airbase, her small fingernails still covered with flaking red polish but her face an almost unrecognisable mess of burned tissue and half her scalp a bald scar.”

Do read the whole story.

And now to the broader question of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

President Hamid Karzai has called on the United States to halt air strikes following attacks on two villages this week that Afghan officials said killed 147 people. Washington has acknowledged that some civilians died, but the U.S. military said it could not confirm with certainty which of the casualties from the fighting this week were Taliban fighters and which were non-combatants, because those killed had all been buried.

With ordinary people bearing the brunt of the fighting, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban have been accused of deliberately using civilians as cover. Time magazine quotes Nader Nadery, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, as saying that the Taliban continue to use civilians as human shields “as an effective PR strategy” to turn public opinion against the government. The Daily Telegraph reports a similar pattern in Pakistan, where the military have launched an offensive to regain control of the Swat valley.

Joshua Foust at notes that some commentators go as far as blaming the civilians themselves for being caught in the middle, or for failing to stand up to the Taliban.

“… even if they are in a technical sense offering sanctuary to the Taliban, that is our problem, not theirs, and we still do not have the right to kill 30 of them to get at 30 lightly-armed Taliban—not yet at least,” he writes. “Until we can address the fundamental perception imbalance in Afghan society, these strikes hurt us, however justified they may be tactically. The whole incident remains a failure, even if the handling of it is still immeasurably better. And above all, people, please stop blaming unarmed civilians for not resisting gun-carrying insurgents so the U.S. can have an easier time bombing the bad guys.”

For a ground-level view of how the Afghans try to survive while being caught between the U.S. military and the Taliban, I highly recommend this story in the U.S. Army Magazine (.pdf)  (highlighted by abu muqawama) by a U.S. platoon leader about his experiences of going out on patrol in Afghanistan.

“The Afghans consistently lied to us, and we knew that they knew that we knew it. Yet their lying was far less malicious than it was simply pragmatic. The Afghans of the area are a practical people in survival mode. They didn’t believe that it was in their best interest to help us. Not yet. The most successful local leaders are infamous for taking what they can get from the Americans and then, reportedly, turning around and making overtures to the Haqqani network’s leadership for whatever they can extract from them. The ambitious ones play both sides, while the average villager has little or no concern about who runs the countryside—all he or she wants is to be left totally alone.”

He also writes about going to talk to a father whose two sons had been killed after being accused of helping coalition forces.  “That brief exchange opened my eyes to the challenges we would face in trying to make real progress in our part of Afghanistan. When I met him half-way up the hillside, he stood stooped and sad in a light-blue shawl, with his nephews and cousins around him.  He admitted that his sons were killed, but when I offered to help him find the killers, he dismissed the idea out of hand, without even looking at me.”

Nor did the villagers tell the platoon leader about the waiting ambush.

(Reuters photos: Razia’s father in her hospital room; President Karzai, U.S. Marine on patrol)


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I am a viet nam veteran, I believe most of the people wanted us to go home. Thinking we were the cause for their suffering. When we tried as a nation to help better their life they began to take a different attitude.

We bought a sawmill and taught the people how to run it. Soon they were making money. This news traveled fast and the Viet Cong were throwing their weapons down. They were cutting timber ans hauling the logs to the sawmill.

All they wanted was a better way to improve their life. Will this work in Afghanistan? If it will work pride will return and they will do the right thing and protect their newfound life.

Posted by Tom Shepherd | Report as abusive

The United States blew a golden opportunity to make long lasting change in Afghanistan in 2001. The neo-cons in Washington completely ignored Afghanistan by offering limited military offensive to drive off Taliban out of Afghanistan. For the next 8 years, Iraq took precedence and Afghanistan is unable to stand on its own. And the US ignored the real problem – Pakistan. They fell for the double talk from Pakistanis and did not go after the Al Qaeda and Taliban all out into Pakistani NWFP and finish them off. The realization of the truth has come very late. So now Pakistan has been forced to fight a reluctant war with its own creation, the Taliban. No one knows how the outcome of this effort will be, especially in the long run. After creating one ignorant mess after another, now people are thinking of creating saw mills out of match sticks. They do not realize that the wolves in this region huff and puff and blow those match stick saw mills down. These people are no Vietnamese. Westerners should learn to understand the historical evolution of different cultures. There is an old saying in this region – “You can never f*ck with the Afghans and get away with it.” The British, Russians, Americans and now Pakistanis are learning this the hard way.

Posted by Mauryan | Report as abusive

The Afghans and pakistainy people are dealing with the aftermath of a new twist of that old saying” You can’t F*ck with the Americans, and get away with it, either!”
Sorry about the casualties, but the price of letting the Taliban run rampant, is not one I or most Americans are willing to pay. A couple of hundred of them, or thousands of us?

Posted by Jeff | Report as abusive

Have no fear, God is here. He will bring you to America and give you plenty of the American dollars.

Posted by Old Moses | Report as abusive

Mauryan very well said. I couldn’t have said it any better!

Posted by Narci | Report as abusive

[…] the wake of the US’ bombing blunder in Afghanistan, Myra MacDonald writes about the civilians who get caught in the […]

Posted by Selected reading « The Bleeding Heart Show | Report as abusive

this PNAC project is basically a racist operation… the indians are playing along for the time being because they figure getting rid of pakistan’s nukes is worth it.

the pakistanis and afghans are caught in the middle, victims of trouble deliberately stirred up to ensure energy goes to its rightful caucasian end-users in europe rather than escaping to wogs and chinks.

that’s about as brutal as i can put it… and when you factor in a little ashkenazi supremacism, it gets even uglier.

Posted by wadosy | Report as abusive

agree with you

Posted by azad | Report as abusive

Jeff writes: “The Afghans and pakistainy people are dealing with the aftermath of a new twist of that old saying” You can’t F*ck with the Americans, and get away with it, either!””

That is correct. If you f*ck with the Americans, you become a refugee. If you f*ck with the Afghans, you become a victim of terrorism.

Posted by Mauryan | Report as abusive

the pakistanis and afghans are caught in the middle, victims of trouble deliberately stirred up to ensure energy goes to its rightful caucasian end-users in europe rather than escaping to wogs and chink

Extremely well said. The real sufferers are the Afghani, Pakistani & people of India. A time needs to come when all the countries needs to realize our worst & common enemy are the Americans.Americans to become richer can do anything they can make china hate india, arabians to dislike other arabians & pakistan against india. It is time people tell the americans to leave everyone alone & close down all their embassy in the countries & go back to America.

I cannot say anything to this girl who at a young age has been tormented. What is proportionality here 4000 Americans get killed in WTC & entire country Iraq & Afghanistan is in rubbles. Atleast before americans people atleast despite being poor had some honor & precious life with the advent of them they not only destroyed Afghanistan, now they are destroying part of pakistan & now India also. Who wants Americans in this 3 countries please raise your hands & show up.

Posted by Vijay | Report as abusive

” You can’t F*ck with the Americans, and get away with it, either!”

—Although this ‘war’ is ultimately working to us Indian advantage, yet i do wish the Americans one day become atleast a ‘civilized’ society if not a cultural one.

Posted by anup | Report as abusive


Your comments seem to indicate a lot of hatred towards America & a very strong anti-American sentiment. Yes, I agree that mistakes have been made by certain American administrations in the past but you can’t just put all the blame squarely on America. Iraq was certainly a mistake as the American people were duped by Bush & Cheney into invading the wrong country but the operation in Afghanistan/Pakistan is not. While you are busy counting the ills of the US, don’t forget that it was also America, which saved western europe (& pretty much the whole world) from fascist & imperialist forces in WW2 & later from communist forces as well.
And since you mention 9/11, let me ask you, what Islamic country was America at war with, for terrorists to conduct a 9/11 & kill American civilians?

Posted by Mortal | Report as abusive


For all those people who have lost their Limbs, their kids becoming orphans it is a foolish consolation to talk of WW2 & communism.As far as communism goes it has a simple epithet that all men & women are equal & it is not founded on principles of race,religion,color of your skin or for that matter your strate in society. With a billion people starving in this world & another billion impoverished , one more billion uneducated you can’t expect a egalitarian world with americans throwing wheat in the seas.

The question is resentment by people why should a foreign country station its troop in their country which to me is fair. Just back off your military bases from every part of the world & leave people to manage themselves. If there are aggressors give the UN teeth to teach such countries proper lessons & not act unilaterally.

India & Pakistan may have different religion but ultimate context is that the ways of life won’t be much different. So i do not think Americans can step in to solve the problems of these countries. What America has done is created mischief & mistrust amongst every country in the world so that they can continue to rule the world. Obama wants to plug loophole in business transaction but he won’t mind if 6 billion people drink coke every day or have kellog breakfast & use microsoft windows or dell computers or driving ford car or watching holywood movies and banking with citibank this is american fairness & equality for you. If 5.7 billion people stop using american products tell me will they be rulers of this world.

Posted by Vijay | Report as abusive

It mystifies me that the government of our country feels a need to tear Afghanistan apart as it did Iraq. Remember this: We had NO reason under the sun to invade Iraq unless we were obsessing over their oil. We certainly dug our boots in around the oil wells, didn’t we? And how about that hideous Embassy we built on their sand? Like it or not our soldiers pillaged their sand and raped their women. What are we fighting for in Aphanistan? How will we recognize it? When will we know the fight is over and it is time to pick up our marbles and go home? War is an event that claims no winner…just a sad history of victims.

Posted by dot o’brien | Report as abusive

Vijay writes: “If 5.7 billion people stop using american products tell me will they be rulers of this world.”

Cold war is over. So come out of it. Even in America, no one is using “American” products. Everywhere one sees only “Made in China,” “Made in Japan,” “Made in Korea,” “Made in Taiwan” stickers on every product one can think of. And Americans are the consumers giving these nations business and making them rich in the bargain. America did not make the world poor. If America did not exist, this world would be in utter misery under the grip of colonial powers or Nazis or communists. So the Americans helped the world fight it and have invested heavily in helping freedom survive at least in half of the world. In the bargain, they had to get into bed with a lot of bad regimes and rulers. This aspect was run by their CIA mostly. And no one in the US itself knew what CIA was up to. Politicians have come and gone, but in all, the Americans have been like the Baloo bear in Jungle book. I prefer that bear to the Russian bear that was going to run over the world not long ago.

From an Indian stand point, a lot of things need not have happened and were forced on us. Partition was a mistake. That led to bloodshed, vengeance and mutual hatred. It has led to nuclear confrontation. This is a min cold war. Kashmir indecision was another mistake. That has led to insurgency, displacement of people and loss of lives. Russian invasion into Afghanistan was a mistake. They fell for the trap laid by Zia Ul Haq and the ISI. Avenging Vietnam in Afghanistan was a mistake. This helped religious fundamentalism take root and is burning out of control. To do this, the US had to encourage military regimes in Pakistan which was in a strategic place. It was a mistake to leave everything once the Soviets left. It was a mistake to raise the Taliban. It was a mistake to allow Al Qaeda to grow in strength. It was a mistake to take no interest in Afghanistan after driving the Taliban out. All these mistakes put together, have led to the situation today. Many parties are involved. Many leaders and their decisions are involved. Not all Americans are evil. Nor are the Russians or Pakistanis. One mess after another has reduced this region to rubble. Let us hope Pakistani military roots out the Taliban and emerges victorious. Let us hope that the Pakistani civil society and government become empowered and get to make vital decisions. These two are very essential for the refugees to return home.

Posted by Mauryan | Report as abusive

@What are we fighting for in Aphanistan? How will we recognize it? When will we know the fight is over and it is time to pick up our marbles and go home?
– Posted by dot o’brien

Dot o’brien: These are very fundamental question which I have asked in one form or another in various Reuters blogs but got nothing back. Any can help here. Myra your insight will be helpful since these questions deserve to be addressed for the sake of Afghanistan’s civilians caught in the middle (of what??????????).

Experts please.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

Dot O’brien asks: “What are we fighting for in Aphanistan? How will we recognize it? When will we know the fight is over and it is time to pick up our marbles and go home?”

Oil pipelines. Black gold. Natural Gas. Exxon, Unocal, Aaramco, British Petroleum, Chevron.

Other than these, no one cares for the desert sands, the Bedouins, their camels, their tribes, their religions, their customs and their countries. But their tents are pitched on top of black gold that these “civilizations” badly need. So long as there is black gold, they will be parked there in one way or another. Wars will be created, countries destroyed, sectioned, renamed, rebuilt and new alliances will be made. The cycle will continue until all black gold is exhausted and the sands fall into the huge cavities left behind and fill them up.

The genie was out of the oil lamp a while ago. It is not going to go back in without drinking blood. So be patient. It will happen sometime, let us say, in the future.

Posted by Mauryan | Report as abusive

“What are we fighting for in Aphanistan?”

it’s a mystery, isnt it?

just because oil production hit a plateau in 2004 and has been flat ever since, that’s no reason for starting wars to control the remaining oil.


and if israel’s survival is dependent on protection from the US, and the survival of the US is threatened by oil shortages (seeing as how americans are the most piggish consumers of oil in the world), and israelis and israel sympathizers have a stranglehold on american politics and media… well… it’s just a mystery.

…especially seeing as how the PNAC, in september of 2000, said they needed “a new pearl harbor” to kick the project off… and PNAC is a spinoff of the AEI, which is allied with the likud party of israel, and the likud party of israel is lead by bibi netanyahu, who thought 9/11 was “very good”.

it’s just too damn bad that china can buy oil faster than israeli america can steal it, despite the turmoil in pakistan and afghanistan that’s designed to thwart china’s access to persian gulf and central asian energy.


it’s awful hard to figure out.

Posted by wadosy | Report as abusive enduringturmoilcontinue.jpg

Posted by wadosy | Report as abusive

Energy Guys: That was too fundamental in nature.

As you notice, the posts are in about “energy” being the reason why US/NATO are fighting the war in Afghanistan. Let us go by the declared mission Global “war on terror”. what do you think US/NATO are really looking for when they shoot–a pigeon or any bearded guy with a turban—in trying to win the war and whom are they firing the drones on. So do these American/NATO generals ever tell anyone when this hell will be over and when US will finally “smoke out” OBL/Jawahiri/Omar trio from a cave. Once in a while we should show our sympathy for the civilians.

Nothing personal against anyone around, but I feel like typing Mahatma Gandhi’s this quote:
“I think it would be a good idea.” stated Mahatma Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western Civilization

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

12 May 2009 More trouble, more refugees means more money
for the afghan and pak politicians; it’s in their interest for misery to continue. Expect no solutions

Posted by jjmk4546 | Report as abusive

Rajeev, you and others asked why the United States and NATO are in Afghanistan, and whether it is really about energy rather than al Qaeda.

I would turn that question around and ask whether you think the face-value explanation of why they are in Afghanistan is plausible. If it is, there may be no need to look further for darker conspiracies or secret plans.

So here’s the face-value explanation as I see it and let me know if you think it stands up:

1) The United States and NATO went into Afghanistan, with the support of the United Nations, after 9/11 because the United States had been attacked at home for the first time since Pearl Harbour and was convinced it had to strike back

2) They got bogged down, partly because they had underestimated Afghanistan. I’m told by many American friends that Americans have little sense of history (itself both a positive and a negative quality). So while people with a strong sense of history might have seen it as strange not to recognise the lessons of previous invasions by the British and the Soviets, I doubt it would have looked the same to American eyes.

3) The United States then got distracted by Iraq, making the sitution even worse.

4) Both the United States and NATO have to stay the course now because neither wants the loss of prestige if they lose

5) They believe if they were to leave Afghanistan, then it would become a haven again for al Qaeda, which in turn would be able to organise attacks on western cities.

I’m aware that I’m being rather simplistic here. But I hope I am at least demonstrating the point that what you see on the surface is plausible.

From what I know of history, most conflicts have been based on misunderstandings, miscalculations and screw ups. Since people tend to want order and predictability, it’s always tempting to think that governments have a bigger masterplan out there that makes sense, for whatever ulterior motive. Maybe they don’t.


Posted by Myra MacDonald | Report as abusive

“The United States then got distracted by Iraq…”

why did they get distracted by iraq?

where did the push come from, that got us into iraq?

why was iraq so important that world-class statesmen and world-respected media had to lie us into iraq?

Posted by wadosy | Report as abusive

“it’s always tempting to think that governments have a bigger masterplan out there that makes sense, for whatever ulterior motive. Maybe they don’t.”

when a government or a particularly vociferous faction of that government publishes its intent to establish global hegemony, and their global hegemony hinges on grabbing control of energy and transportation routes, then they wish they had a “new pearl harbor” to get their project started, then they are installed into positions from which they could make their “new pearl harbor” happen, and then their “new pearl harbor” happens, and then, under phony cover of “retaliation” for that “new pearl harbor” but completely lacking evidence that the accused was guilty, attacks afghanistan and morphs that attack into war with iraq, which just happens to have huge oil deposits, dont we have to think that things are going according to some plan or other?

…especially in view of the ringleaders’ affliation with the likud party of israel, which has been agitating to remodel the middle east for decades?

Posted by wadosy | Report as abusive

…and here’s what’s so discouraging…

we got a couple upstart countries that have less than 300 years of existence between them, both of them having histories of consistent and violent disrespect for native cultures from their respective git-goes, stirring up all this trouble…

…and india, which supposedly has been civilized for thousands of years, signs onto their project.

what does that say about humanity’s ability to accumulate wisdom and pass that wisdom on?

Posted by wadosy | Report as abusive


Ahmed Rashid in his book, “Taliban” describes the real reason behind the Afghan conflict. His thesis is that it is the oil from Central Asia that every power wants to get access to. The Soviets wanted all the Central Asian oil to flow through their pipelines to the Caspian and Black Sea. Russia is doing the same now. After Iran went anti-American, there was a worry in them that the Americans would gain access to Afghanistan with Pakistan being their ally.

And there is another side of the story. Zia Ul Haq had seized power in Pakistan and the Jimmy Carter administration did not like this development. Aid was cut. On top of that, Zia got Bhutto hanged. In addition, he wanted no one to stop the Islamic bomb. To turn this pariah status around, there is a theory that Zia and his ISI laid what is called as a “bear trap” in Afghanistan. This is described in the book, “The Duel” by Tariq Ali. Zia was a clever tactician. He probably calculated that if the Soviets could be lured into Afghanistan, Americans would come and that meant money, and weapons. He got more than what he wanted. He got full support from the CIA. All weapons and ammunition were channeled through the ISI. Training became hi tech. Radical Islam that Zia wanted to spread in Pakistan got American blessing. And the US decided to turn a blind eye to the Islamic bomb. What a deal! Zia also knew that once the Soviet bear was killed, he would get full support from the Americans to turn the other way and he could launch a full scale proxy war into Kashmir and the strategy was already tested and tried in Afghanistan.

I guess leaders make some plans when then get into their operations. But a lot of intermediate events and unexpected turns happen that no one anticipates. Americans have been quite ignorant until now. But they have realized that, albeit a little too late. Now they are going to watch Pakistan burn in civil war. Al Qaeda will make sure that Pakistan burns now, because its back is to the wall. By burning Pakistan, the US cannot get its mission accomplished in Afghanistan. Another strategy would be to draw India into a major conflict. They have been trying that since Musharraf days. So they must be waiting to see who sits on the throne in New Delhi. If Congress sits there, response for any strikes inside India will be mild. So a civil war option inside Pakistan might be the next course of action. Al Qaeda is running out of options. So they might expedite their actions inside Pakistan soon.

Posted by Mauryan | Report as abusive

Mauryan says…”Al Qaeda will make sure that Pakistan burns now, because its back is to the wall.”


that’s why they call it “operation enduring turmoil”.

israeli america wins so long as pakistan and afghanistan are too screwed up for pipelines to the east.

Posted by wadosy | Report as abusive

What is the purpose of this blog?

To tell us that no-one has yet been able to devise a means of making war that doesn’t kill civilians?

To provide an outlet for anti-American opinions?

The blog is nonsense. The war is nonsense. If Obama does one useful thing with his presidency it will be to bring his people home.

Posted by Jason | Report as abusive

easy Jason
cool it
not everyone is antiamerican
did you forget the massive response with a number of nations that stood by america in the immediate aftermath of 911
this is part of rhetoric some nationals vent out with or without international politics.

Living here in US for a longtime I dont think we are buddist monks ourselves either

Posted by Azad | Report as abusive

@I would turn that question around and ask whether you think the face-value explanation of why they are in Afghanistan is plausible. If it is, there may be no need to look further for darker conspiracies or secret plans.

1. US mission in 2001 is understandable, ignoring the conspiracy theories and many supported that.
2. Myra: Pushing Iraq aside as a distraction is not going to work. No reason to be there. False intellignece is BS of the highest order. This is well expressed by the shoe thrown at Bush’s face. I do not know how much you appreciate that act. Bush deserved that and Americans need to do the same to him for not being in Afghanistan where Bush should have been. Iraq blows away all face-value explanations.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

Americans take advantage by the fact that the world knows they are ignorant about history/culture. Those who make decisions, the hawks in US admin, know it all and are not naive as they are presented to be. Americans got bogged down partly because they did not fight themselves and relied on others (locals etc). Believing an unnamed US delta force guy who fought in the rugged terrain Afghanistan said the US policy of relying on others did not work. He said they were with in reach of a valuable target, only to find the target slipped away. Those men were playing pretend wars with the enemy- double crossing. Why so? Military strategist can explain better– that how dumb it can be.

—Let us take now the GWOT on face value. Lose/win definition is unclear. GWOT is bogus title. How can they think of eliminating the terrorists if they do not do the ethnic cleansing of many hypehenated terrorist groups in the SAME AREA with a documented history of mingling with each other and supect in terrorist activities in Europe. is it American ignorance once again coming to their help? i AM NOT talking from India POV here. Pakistan-supported terrorists in East (Kashmir) mingle with A-Q, LeT or JeM suspect in London bombing. How in the world is possible to destroy A-Q and expect safety in N-Y and London when LeT and JeMs and other cousins in the same area are roaming free. Now this will get into the area of being politically correct since it is getting in the realm of K-issue–that too is bogus. Having terrorist means more attacks and K-issue off the track–case in point = Mumbai.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive