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 Registan.net 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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