On February 28, 2013, two young Afghan boys were killed during a NATO airstrike in southern Afghanistan. What made this incident unusual was that the world learned their names.
Two brothers, 11-year-old Toor Jan and 12-year-old Andul Wodood, were walking behind their donkeys and collecting firewood in the Shahid-e Hasas district of Uruzgan Province when they were killed by weapons fired from a NATO helicopter. NATO explained the children were targeted because they were mistaken for insurgents. NATO killed their animals, too — perhaps under the mistaken suspicion they were "insurgent" donkeys.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, offered his "personal apology and condolences to the family of the boys who were killed." Dunford said the coalition took "full responsibility" for the deaths. This appears to have been an empty promise.
Assuming full responsibility would call for compensation to the families of those killed. Full responsibility would demand a thorough, independent investigation and a full public accounting. Full responsibility would require releasing the names of the pilots who pulled the triggers and the commanding officers who authorized the order to fire.
The official statement did not mention how many aircraft were involved. It did not identify what kinds of weaponry were unleashed on the boys. There was no accounting for how many rounds were fired. The world was not even told the nationality of the soldiers responsible for the deadly assault.
Instead of pressing for this information, US press reports carried headlines that seemed designed to insulate (if not exonerate) the pilots and commanders responsible: "Two Afghan Boys Accidentally Killed by NATO Helicopter" (New York Times, March 2, 2013), "Afghan Boys Killed by NATO Copter" (New York Times, March 3, 2013). Of course, helicopters don't have autonomy. There are no laws that call for jailing — or demoting — a chopper.
In the aftermath of the February 2013 killings, a coalition spokesman told the Associated Press: "They saw two young children who were apparently listening to a radio and they shot them -- it is not yet clear why." The opacity of the official responses continued with a statement from the Australian forces deployed in Uruzgan. There had been an "operational incident" in the province's northwest before the attack that killed the children, as if this provided some rationale for the tragedy that followed. The statement offered no further details except to confirm that no soldiers had been harmed.
In an online "Comments" exchange, two US combat veterans reflected on the tragedy. One found it "kind of strange that an attack helicopter would not have been able to make a better target ID." Another former soldier shared a telling personal recollection: "I had a buddy (F-16 pilot) who tracked an insurgent carrying an RPG for a while, waiting for him to commit a hostile act. After tracking him for a length of time, the insurgent took his RPG off his shoulder, unrolled it, and began praying on it. My buddy ended up deciding that a prayer rug did not constitute a lethal weapon and returned to base."
A History of Collateral Damage
Tragically, the deaths of innocent civilians at the hands of the US-lead coalition forces is nothing new. In 2012, the estimated number of Afghan casualties blamed on US and allied forces included 316 killed and 271 wounded. Most of the civilian victims were killed in US and NATO airstrikes. The deaths included more than 51 children -- 16% of the fatalities.
On February 13, 2013, a NATO air strike requested by Afghan forces resulted in the slaughter of 10 people in the eastern province of Kunar. The dead included five children and four women. Once again, American taxpayers (whose taxes had subsidized this attack) never learned the names of any of these victims. But in the capital of Kabul, the outrage prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to forbid his troops from requesting any further foreign air strikes.
Is it possible that NATO forces can't distinguish between insurgents with Kalishnikovs and children gathering sticks and brambles? The question arises because this was not the first time that children have been killed while foraging for firewood. On March 2, 2012, almost a year before the attack on Toor Jan and Andul Wodood, NATO helicopter gunners killed nine boys who were out scouring the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in search of winter firewood to heat their homes.
Once again, NATO explained its gunmen simply mistook the boys for "insurgents." Once again, NATO issued a statement apologizing for the mistake. “We are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologize to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and, most importantly, the surviving family members of those killed by our actions,” then-commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus said. “These deaths should have never happened.”
The boys killed in the 2012 attack, ranged from 9- to 15-years-old. The victims included two sets of brothers. Most of their names remain unreported. Only one boy survived.
After hearing the distant gunfire, villagers became alarmed when the children did not return home and went to look for them. A shopkeeper from a nearby village lost his 14-year-old nephew, Kallid, in the attack. “The children were all from poor families," the grieving man told a New York Times reporter, "otherwise no one would send their sons up to the mountains despite the known threats from both insurgents and Americans.” Still shaken by the memories, he described the scene that met the villagers when they reached the site of the attack.
“Some of the dead bodies were really badly chopped up by the rockets,” he said. “The head of a child was missing. Others were missing limbs. We tried to find the body pieces and put them together. As it was getting late, we brought down the bodies in a rope bed. We buried them in the village’s cemetery.”
The lone survivor, an 11-year-old named Hemad, recalled what happened. “We were almost done collecting the wood when suddenly we saw the helicopters come,” he related. “There were two of them. The helicopters hovered over us, scanned us and we saw a green flash from the helicopters. Then they flew back high up, and in a second round they hovered over us and started shooting. They fired a rocket, which landed on a tree. The tree branches fell over me and shrapnel hit my right hand and my side.” Hidden beneath the tree, Hemad huddled in fear as the hovering gunners shot his friends "one after another.”
Khalid was the only male in the family, his uncle explained. “He was studying in sixth grade of the orphanage school and working because his father died four years ago due to a long-term sickness. He has 13 sisters…. He was the sole breadwinner of the family. I don’t know what would happen to his family to his sisters and mothers. They are all female and poor.”
General Petraeus pledged to investigate the attack and to take disciplinary action if appropriate. (It was the third instance in two weeks in which NATO stood accused of killing as many as 65 Afghan civilians, including women and children. Again, NATO officials maintained that those killed were "insurgents.") It does not appear that anyone under Petraeus' command suffered any censure for these civilian deaths.
NATO explained that, two days before the boys were killed, a rocket attack on Forward Operating Base Blessing had prompted an airborne hunt for the insurgents responsible. NATO claimed that its helicopters “returned fire at the assessed point of origin with indirect and aerial fire. Regrettably there appears to have been an error in the handoff between identifying the location of the insurgents and the attack helicopters that carried out subsequent operations.”
President Hamid Karzai called the attack “ruthless” and wondered aloud how the US goal of defeating terrorism could be achieved by the continued murder of innocent civilians. Karzai's criticism was underscored when more than 200 people gathered in the village of Nanglam to protest the boys’ deaths, shouting “Death, death to America!” and “Death to Obama and his colleagues and associates!”
The US Attacks a School in Pakistan
And it's not only in Afganistan that children are being blown apart by US weapons. The use of US drones in the wilds of Pakistan's Waziristan Province continues to claim civilian lives. Typically, these attacks are described as having killed "suspected insurgents" but that hopeful justification fails to excuse what happened on October 26, 2006.
On that day, a US drone destroyed a school in Baiaur, exploding with a shuddering blast that left 83 people dead. The US media failed to detail this horror. The few reports that did appear merely helped to mask the extent of the human tragedy.
The New York Times waited 11 days before filing a report and then ran it under the headline: "American Strike in January Missed Al-Qaeda's No. 2 by a Few Hours." The Times story mentioned (only in passing) that the drone struck "a madrasa, or religious school" but offered no further information.
Vijay Prashad, the London-based author of Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press), supplies some of the details overlooked by the Times: "Only three of those killed were older than 20. The rest were between the ages of 7 and 17. There was no apology for this strike, authorized by the White House, no … end to this kind of tragedy." In terms of a childhood body count, it was the equivalent of four Sandy Hook Elementary School massacres.
And once again, back in the US, the country responsible for sending an unmanned airborne vehicle halfway around the earth to kill by remote control, we would never learn the names of the murdered children.
21 Children Slain in Yemen
The deadliest US slaughter of innocents that we know about occurred during a US assault on the Yemeni village of al-Ma'jalaj, Abyan on December 17, 2009.
The village, identified as an al-Qa'ida training camp, was attacked with Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster-bombs. The body count was impressive. In addition to 14 "alleged al-Qa'ida members," a Yemeni parliamentary investigation recorded the deaths of 14 women and 21 children.
The Abyan attack was one of three ordered by President Barack Obama. Two other villages – one in Mahsad and another in the Arhab district – also killed scores of civilians. Local officials claimed that more than 60 were killed in the Mahsad attack. The total civilian deaths in the three attacks was estimated at 120. (Another strike, against a village in Shebwa, was carried out on December 24.)
ABC News reporter Brian Ross reported the order to attack the three Yemeni villages "came directly from the Oval Office." The US claimed that 35 "suspected Al Quada figures had been killed" and ABC reported the President personally called Yemen's President Saleh to "congratulate" him on the attacks.
Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, called for an "immediate investigation" of the civilian deaths. Amnesty's concerns were raised after photographs of the attack revealed the remains of US-manufactured cluster bombs. "Those responsible for unlawful killings must be brought to justice," Luther insisted.
The US government refused to respond to Amnesty International's inquiries about the deadly raid.
The official story claimed the raid had been conducted by troops under the command of Yemen's government. The Defense Department referred all questions to the Yemeni government.
The murders of so many civilians triggered massive anti-government demonstrations across Yemen. Thousands of angry Yemenis filled the streets in southern Yemen, and in the provinces of Dhal'e, Lahu and Abyan, chanting anti-government slogans and demanding an investigation. Addressing a massive rally of 10,000 in Taiz Province, Southern Movement leader Abbass al Asal declared, "This is genocide." Asal claimed the al- Ma'jalaj attack had killed a total of 64 civilians — including 17 women and 23 children.
Residents of Abyan told the AP there was no Al Qaeda "training camp" in their poor village of tents and mud-brick houses. One resident pointed out that the village was located 100 meters from a major highway and two kilometers from a government army base.
The only Al Qaeda link was Mohammed Saleh al-Kazemi, a former Afghanistan soldier who had settled in Yemen where he had been living openly with his family since 2005.
Wikileaks Reveals the Hidden White House Role
It now appears that the report of President Obama's reputed "congratulatory" call to Yemen's president may have been part of an orchestrated disinformation campaign. In 2010, Amnesty International released a leaked cable that revealed the US had leaned on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to take public responsibility for a US-raid that went terribly awry.
The leaked January 4, 2010 diplomatic cable (released by the Wikileaks organization) showed the US was wholly responsible for the deadly attacks. In the cables, President Saleh promised US General David Petraeus that he would "continue saying the bombs are outs, not yours." In the cable, Petraeus dismisses the damage, saying the attack killed "only" three "civilians."
The cable went on to record how Saleh's Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-'Alimi was moved "to joke that he had just 'lied' by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the ROYG 'Republic of Yemen Government."
The leaked cable, Saleh complained that cruise missile attacks in his country were "not very accurate" and expressed a preference for targeted aerial attacks, which killed fewer civilians. (This question of accuracy and collateral damage was underscored by a reported May 2010 attack in Yemen where a US drone inadvertently killed a key government official while he was involved in an attempt to negotiate with members of Al Qaeda.)
A Journalist Is Jailed for Uncovering US Killings
Abdulelah Haider Shaye is a crusading Yemeni journalist who insists on covering all sides of a story. While not in sympathy with Islamic militants, Shaye has taken steps (sometimes at great personal risk) to seek out and interview members of anti-government groups. This led some Yemeni officials to brand him an "Al Qaeda operative."
After the government announced it had conducted an air raid on the village of al Majala, Shaye managed to reach the village. In addition to dozens of bodies draped beneath shrouds, Shaye photographed fragments of Tomahawk missiles and cluster-bombs clearly labeled "Made in the USA." (Yemen's army does not have access to such "advanced" weaponry.)
As Jeremy Scahill reported in The Nation, it was Shaye's photographs and reporting that first raised the concern of Amnesty International. It was Shaye who stood over the corpses and counted 14 women and 21 children among the dead.
In July 2010, half-a-year after his report on the US bombing of Majala, Shaye was abducted by Yemeni intelligence agents. With a hood placed over his head, the reporter was told: "We will destroy your life if you keep on talking about this issue."
The government made good on its threat a month later. On August 6, 2010, Shaye's home was attacked. He was blindfolded and handcuffed and tossed into an unlit, subterranean jail cell where he was beaten and interrogated for a month. (At the same time, Yemen's intelligence agency also arrested Shaye's friend, Kamal Sharaf, a political cartoonist whose satirical jibes had angered the government.)
Shaye didn't have a court appearance until September 22, 2010. He arrived at the court with scars marking his chest and several teeth missing. The court accused the reporter of being an Al Qeada "media man" who was plotting to incite insurrection and assassination of government officials – all capital offenses. Shaye refused to recant. Speaking from behind the bars of a holding cell, he declared: "When they hid murderers of children and women in Abyan… it was on that day they decided to arrest me."
Three months later, in January 2011, Shaye received his sentence: Five years in jail and two years of probation. Human Rights Watch condemned the trail, pointing out that much of the evidence used against the report was clearly fabricated. HRW lawyer Abdulrahman Barman called the trial "a complete farce."
Amnesty International's Philip Luther claimed Shaye had been imprisoned "soley for daring to speak out about US collaboration in a cluster munitions attack."
The Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists and Reporters without Borders immediately demanded Shaye's freedom. Even some powerful Yemenis joined tribal sheikhs joined the campaign to demand the journalist be pardoned. With pressure for Shaye's release mounting, the government printed a pardon statement for President Saleh's signature. The day before the pardon was to be granted, however, the news reached Washington.
On February 2, 2011, President Obama placed a phone call to Yemeni President Saleh. This time the call was not bogus. Official White House records report that Obama called Saleh and "expressed concern" over the reporter's imminent release. Obama repeated the false characterization that Shaye was guilty of the crime of "association" with Al Qaeda members. Yemen buckled. Shaye's pardon was revoked.
The effect was to tighten the US-imposed muzzle on journalists -- in Yemen but around the world, in any country where US weapons are killing civilians under the banner of the "War on Terror." The message, as Scahill noted, is "simply interviewing Al Qaeda-associated figures, or reporting on civilian deaths caused by US strikes, is a crime in the view of the US government."
The President Phones It In
In order to cover up the US role in the mass-murder of Yemeni women and children, President Obama apparently faked a phone call to lay responsibility at the doorstep of the Yemen government. A little over a year later, President Obama placed another call to Yemen -- this time to demand the continued incarceration of the reporter who revealed the US role in the civilian slaughter.
The duplicity of the White House only became known when Wikileaks dared reveal the truth contained in a purloined diplomatic cable.
The cable did not contain the names of the dead women and children whose bodies were photographed, veiled beneath bloodied sheets in the dust-poor villages of southern Yemen. But the dead do have names and they are remembered by their friends and family. The survivors remember vividly that it was weapons "Made in the USA" that ended the lives of their wives, sisters and children.
When any government pursues a policy that routinely puts the lives of innocents at risk, that government faces a potential blowback.
It pains me to write this, but when the lives of children are no longer considered precious by the leader of the World's Only Superpower, it is only a matter of time before the world responds in kind. Violence breeds violence. Terrorism feeds on terrorism. Let us pray that the Pentagon's and CIA's murderous policies are reined in and halted before some grief-stricken zealot adds two more names – Sasha and Malia -- to the roster of dead innocents.
Please, Mr. President, for the sake of our children and your two precious daughters, call off your drones and missiles and end your foreign wars.