Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Afghan President Hamid Karzai Says 'Stop The Air Strikes!'

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has seen more than enough airstrikes against civilians, and he's asked the Americans to stop doing it, because it's jeopardizing the war effort. But he knows they're not listening, so he's taken his case to the American media as well.
Asked if he is asking the American government to roll back the air strikes, Karzai says, "Absolutely. Oh, yes, in clear words."

Karzai told 60 Minutes he delivered those words, privately, to President George W. Bush. But he decided to take the message public in this interview. "And I want to repeat that, alternatives to the use of air force. And I will speak for it again through your media," he says.

"You're demanding that?" [Scott] Pelley asks.

"Absolutely," Karzai says.
It must have come as something of a shock to the mainstream American news-types, who have been reporting Afghanistan as a success for so long that they likely had no idea the war was still up for grabs there, much less that the US might be in danger of losing -- and in danger of losing due to airstrikes on civilians!!

To their credit, rather than running from the story, some of the folks at CBS News started asking questions. And now they know a bit more than they did before:
60 Minutes was surprised to hear this: while the enemy has killed hundreds of civilians this year, a similar number of civilians have been killed by American forces. With relatively few troops there, the U.S. and NATO rely on air power. The number of civilians killed in air strikes has doubled.

60 Minutes wondered whether civilian deaths are undermining the effort to win the Afghan people. So correspondent Scott Pelley looked into one air strike from last spring. At the time, the Army said in a press release that there were unconfirmed reports that nine people died in an engagement with the enemy. But when we asked, the Army wouldn't tell us anything else, so we went to see for ourselves.

Our journey took us through Afghanistan, up the Shomali Plain north of the capital, Kabul. The Taliban are active in the area, so 60 Minutes hired Panjshiri mercenaries to cover our trip. The scene of the air strike is a village in the hills above Kapisa Province.

The 60 Minutes team found the dead buried in a cornfield. It appears there were no enemy combatants. It was four generations of one family, all killed in the air strike: an 85-year-old man, four women, and four children, ranging in age from five years to seven months. One boy survived.
No enemy combatants ...
The night of the bombing, seven-year-old Mujib happened to be staying with his uncle, Gulam Nabi.

"Some of the bodies were missing a hand or a leg or half a head. We recognized one of them only by the clothes she was wearing," Nabi remembers.

Nabi recognized Mujib's mother among the dead.

"I saw my mom, my sisters, and my brother and my grandfather were dead. And our house was destroyed," the little boy remembers.

Mujib's father was not there. He's accused of being a local Taliban leader and the U.S. has been searching for him with no luck. The air strike came March 4th. An Army press release says it started after enemy forces fired a rocket at a U.S. base above the village. The rocket fell "causing no coalition casualties," in fact, "missing the fire base" altogether. Then U.S. pilots saw two men with AK-47 rifles leaving the scene of the rocket attack and entering a compound in the village.

The fort, which is on a hill, began raining down mortar fire on part of the village -- mortar fire that came down for about an hour. It was nighttime, and even though there were no U.S. forces in contact with the enemy on the ground, a decision was made after the mortars to call in an air strike. U.S. Air Force aircraft dropped two bombs on the neighborhood, each one weighing 2,000 pounds.

The bombs hit their intended targets. But when the smoke cleared there were no men with rifles -- just Mujib's family.

"During the Russian invasion we haven’t heard of 10 members of one family being killed by Russians in one incident. But the Americans did that," a villager remarked.
Mujib's father was not there...
60 Minutes wanted to understand how these air strikes are planned. It turns out the mission that made Mujib’s neighborhood look like an ancient ruin was run through a futuristic-looking, classified control center. We were surprised to get into the facility because it has never been seen on television before. We promised the Air Force we wouldn’t reveal classified information, or the Persian Gulf country where the center is located.

Air Force Col. Gary Crowder is deputy director of the Combined Air Operations Center, which runs the air war over both Afghanistan and Iraq.

"You know, I'm curious. How often is an air strike prepared that's called off at the last minute?" Pelley asks.

"Thousands and thousands of times a month,” says Crowder. “We look very, very often, we tracked some of the insurgent leaders we will track for days and days on end. And we are prepared to strike them at any moment. But we can never get all of the criteria necessary to meet our rules of engagement.”
They get worse ideas than this? "Thousands and thousands of times a month"?? Unbelievable!
"I don't think people really appreciate the gymnastics that the U.S. military goes through in order to make sure that they're not killing civilians," Garlasco points out.

"If so much care is being taken why are so many civilians getting killed?" Pelley asks.

"Because the Taliban are violating international law,” says Garlasco, “and because the U.S. just doesn't have enough troops on the ground. You have the Taliban shielding in people's homes. And you have this small number of troops on the ground. And sometimes the only thing they can do is drop bombs.”

But why were bombs dropped on Mujib's house? As we said, the Army wouldn’t speak to us about it.
They knew what they were doing.
An Air Force source says that Mujib’s house was a Taliban hideout. But through an interpreter, the villagers disputed that, and they said the U.S. should have known better.

"The Americans came here the day before they bombed, they searched the whole house and saw women and children in the house," says Mujib's uncle, Gulam Nabi.

"This is such an important point. Let me be sure I've got this. Who came the day before?" Pelley asks,

"The Americans came the day before," a translator explains.

We took their accusation to the military. And an Air Force source confirmed that U.S. troops searched the house the day before. We don’t know what those troops may have seen or reported.
Hamid Karzai either doesn't believe or doesn't understand what's happening, or else he's in on the spin. Take your choice:
"Why are so many Afghan civilians being killed by U.S. forces?" Pelley asks President Karzai.

"The United States and the Coalition Forces are not doing that deliberately. The United States is here to help the Afghan people. The Afghan people understand that mistakes are made. But five years on, six years on, definitely, very clearly, they cannot comprehend as to why there is still a need for air power," Karzai explains.
Yeah, sure. The United States is here to help the Afghan people.

And then there's this:
From 500ft up, Lt Denton said: "You can see the person but you can't see the features of his face. The 30mm explode when they hit and kick up smoke and dust. You just see a big dust cloud where the person used to be."

"When you are on top of the enemy you look, shoot and it's, 'You die, you die, you die'," Lt Denton said. "The odds are on our side. I really enjoy it. I told my wife, if I could come home every night then this would be the perfect job."