The American public is so detached from the many wars being fought in their name that the killing of civilians abroad often goes unnoticed.
The latest victims whose deaths barely registered in the national consciousness were two Afghan boys, identified as 11-year-old Toor Jan and his brother, 12-year-old Andul Wodood. They were walking their donkeys and collecting firewood when they were shot dead by a NATO helicopter in the Shahed-e-Hasas district of Oruzgan Province.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, the new American commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) issued an apology to the chidlren’s family, saying that coalition forces mistook the boys for insurgents. “I offer my personal apology and condolences to the family of the boys who were killed,” said Dunford. “We take full responsibility for this tragedy.”
This marks at least the second time in under a month that NATO forces have killed Afghan civilians. On February 13, a NATO aristrike killed at least 10 civilians, among them 4 women and 5 children, in an airstrike on two homes in Kunar Province.
In both cases, news agencies dutifully reported the version of events offered by US-led coalition forces as fact (“sorry, it was an accident!”), mostly focusing on the public relations nightmare the US would be forced to deal with in the aftermath.
Meanwhile, no one has commented on how closely this latest killing mirrors an October airstrike that killed two insurgents and three Afghan children in Helmand Province last year. The children were initially identified by a local police chief as “two boys and a girl, who were nearby collecting firewood”, though it was later reported that the victims, Borjan, 12, Sardar Wali, 10, and Khan Bibi, eight, were killed while gathering dung for fuel.
This was mostly ignored until December, when a senior army officer made a disturbing admission. Army Lt Col Marion Carrington told the Marine Corp Times that soldiers were keeping an eye out for “children with potential hostile intent” because they could be Taliban recruits.
An unnamed marine official was also quoted questioning the innocence of the three Afghan children killed in October, saying that before the strike marines observed children digging holes in the dirt for the Taliban to plant explosive devices in, suggesting that “the Taliban may have recruited the children to carry out the mission”.
Aside from independent news outlets, this troubling notion that Afghan children digging holes are fair game was collectively ignored by the US media. The only mainstream outlet to pick up the story was The Guardian, which quoted Pardiss Kebriaei from the Center for Constitutional Rights:
Kebriaei said: “This is one official quoted. I don’t know if that standard is what they are using but the standard itself is troubling.”
The US is already facing criticism for using the term term “military-aged male” to justify targeted killings where the identities of individuals are not known. Under the US definition, all fighting-age males killed in drone strikes are regarded as combatants and not civilians, unless there is explicit evidence to the contrary. This has the effect of significantly reducing the official tally of civilian deaths.
Kebriael said the definition was reportedly being used in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. “Under the rules of law you can only target civilians if they are directly participating in hostilities. So, here, this standard of presuming any military aged males in the vicinity of a war zone are militants, already goes beyond what the law allows.
“When you get to the suggestion that children with potentially hostile intent may be perceived to be legitimate targets is deeply troubling and unlawful.”
Children in conflict zones have additional protections under the law.
Kebriael, who is counsel for CCR in a lawsuit which seeks accountability for the killing of three American citizens – including a 16 year old boy – in US drone strikes in Yemen last year, said that the piece also raised questions over how those killed in that incident were counted. “Were they counted as military-aged males or were they counted as children with potentially hostile intent or were they counted as the innocent bystanders they were?”
Thus far, no military official has come forward to suggest that the latest killing of two Afghan boys was anything besides an accident. But given the widening definition of what constitutes a “potential threat” isn’t it worth investigating whether these children were intentionally targeted? Did coalition forces think these kids were recruited by the Taliban to dig holes for explosive devices? Is the position espoused by military officials in the Marine Corp Times article a system-wide policy? If these children had lighter skin and names like Joe Smith and Jenny Rogers, would the establishment press be more inclined to ask these questions?
It’s not as though these are isolated incidents. In September of last year a NATO airstrike killed eight women and girls as they gathered firewood in Eastern Afghanistan. At first, the ISAF claimed they targeted insurgents but later issued a public apology, offering their “deepest regrets and sympathies” to “civilians who died or were injured.”
In March 2011, “Nine boys collecting firewood to heat their homes in the eastern Afghanistan mountains were killed by NATO helicopter gunners who mistook them for insurgents,” reported the New York Times. Though the killings led then US commander General David Petraeus to issue a rare apology, the boys father told the AFP amid tears, “The Americans are wild. They don’t value humanity and don’t care about our children.
In August 2010, NATO “bombs killed six children, aged 6 to 12, while they were collecting scrap metal.”
It’s far past time for establishment news outlets to use their resources to find out how it is that coalition forces continue to mistake children for Taliban insurgents.