Monday, December 17, 2007

Musa Qala Redux Part 3: Civilian Casualties

[See Part 1 and Part 2]
Civilian casualties

Soon after the assault on Musa Qala began, reports of civilians killed in the attack came trickling in. The London Times' Stephen Grey, embedded with British and Afghan soldiers, himself witnessed two civilians dead after an apparent crossfire incident, writing "in the end there was no doubt that the two civilians had been killed by American gunfire" (Times, Dec 9). Strikingly, a NATO spokesperson said days later that no civilians had been killed in the operation.

More reports of dead civilians were to follow, though the average reader of the mainstream media would not have heard about them. The Manchester Guardian was virtually alone in relaying locals' reports that local elders claim that up to 40 civilians were killed in the attack. While the Guardian made mere mention of the accusations, only the Institute for War and Peace Reporting detailed the allegations.

According to the IWPR, one local said "A neighbourhood called Nabo Aka near the main mosque in Musa Qala was bombed, and 28 civilians were killed just there," including women and children, but "no Taliban". Likewise, one resident relates:

“Every single place has been bombed,” said Mohammad Gul, a resident of Toughi village. “I cannot go out, so I don’t know how many people are dead. But a missile landed on my neighbour’s house, killing his five-year-old daughter and his cow.”
Major media outlets had precious little to say about civilian deaths. On December 14, the London Times' Nick Meo related an Afghan boy's report that two of his relatives were killed by firing from a helicopter gunship. The BBC website cites a local saying he had seen the bodies of 15 women and children. By the time of this report (December 16) British military officials were claiming only two civilians had died.

The New York Times, that venerated paper of record, reported on December 11 that General Azimi, an Afghan Defence Ministry spokesperson, revealed that four civilians had died so far in the operation. The paper also quoted a resident of Musa Qala saying "We had heard there were a lot of civilian casualties," but offers nothing further on the subject. Recall that December 11 saw reports in both the Guardian and IWPR of some 40 civilian casualties.

North of the forty-ninth parallel, the media for the most part retailed the Afghan Defence Ministry's assertions. Several Canadian daily papers reported on December 9 that two children had been killed in the battle, though the closest that information got to the front page was page eight of the Ottawa Citizen. The Edmonton Journal (Dec 11, p A13) ran the NYT story acknowledging four dead, while Graeme Smith of the Globe and Mail wrote the same day (Dec 11, p A19) that "at least six civilians" had so far been killed.

Thus, apart from the Guardian's rather bland reference to 40 civilian deaths, the full extent of civilian allegations, available to anyone with an internet connection, appears to have been entirely ignored in the major print media of Britain and Canada as well as the New York Times.**

On first look, one might think that these media outlets merit a prize for demonstrating the workings of Orwell's memory hole. However, another recent story shows the media exceeding even those heights in ignoring news that puts the NATO project in a bad light. Here again, it is the Institute for War and Peace Reporting which broke the news, while mainstream outlets looked the other way, nearly unanimously.

On December 11, the IWPR website posted a report which relayed villagers' accusations of a massacre committed by what seem to be special forces. Residents of Toube village in Helmand province allege that foreign troops, accompanied by Afghan soldiers, killed over a dozen civilians, including babies, in a nighttime commando-style raid. The piece cites numerous witnesses, who all "spoke consistently of soldiers breaking down doors, shooting children and cutting throats".

A Lexis-Nexus search reveals that only one major English language media outlet covered the allegations. The British Telegraph on December 12 cited an officer saying that the British Army is "taking seriously" the atrocity allegations. NATO's Col. Richard Eaton acknowledges that "something" took place in the area at the time, but that the casualties were thought to all be Taliban fighters. Another NATO spokesperson confesses to be unaware of any NATO troops in the area on the night in question.

Then who might have been involved in the "something"? It doesn't take much reading between the lines to surmise that the NATO officials were unwilling or unable to ask the American military whether Operation Enduring Freedom troops had been involved. According to the IWPR report: "PRT officials were unable to comment on who is most likely to have been involved. "

How to explain the total silence of North American media on the matter? While it might be supposed that the allegations are all pure fabrications, that would not make the matter unworthy of coverage. For as IWPR relates, close to a hundred elders, upon hearing reports of the atrocity were motivated to travel two districts over to the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. There they had an audience with government officials and representatives of the British Provincial Reconstruction Team. Surely any event - real or imagined - that causes so significant a reaction is newsworthy ipso facto.

** It is not only in Musa Qala district where civilians were endangered on that weekend. The Gobe and Mail's Graeme Smith reported on December 10 that "An air strike in the Nowzad district of Helmand province this weekend killed 12 civilians and left a boy as the sole surviving member of the family, said Abdul Satar Mazahari, head of the refugee department in Helmand province."

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