Hearts And Minds 101: Don't Kill Kids


There were gruesome scenes in Afghanistan last week as US forces bombed a village in the southern Afghan province of Farah, killing at least 147 mostly women and children. It may be the single largest massacre of civilians in the past seven years of Western occupation of Afghanistan.

As bodies were being heaped onto trucks for quick Muslim burials in mass graves, protesters hurled abuse and stones at local government offices.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed "personal regret" for the loss of lives as she looked in the direction of President Hamid Karzai who, along with Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari, addressed the media in the White House last Wednesday.

US officials were quick to blame the Taliban for deliberately sheltering among civilians and thereby maximising casualties. Afghan National Army troops have been criticised too — for, it is claimed, calling in air support during a skirmish with the Taliban near the village of Bala Boluk.

They also claimed that the bombing was different to the one at Azizabad last August that claimed 90 civilian lives. The US had earlier said only a handful of Taliban fighters had been killed during that bombing, only to later acknowledge that civilians had died — although they claimed it was less than 90, a figure agreed upon by both the Afghan Government and an independent UN investigation.

This latest bloody attack is a reminder that for ordinary Afghans, death in this war can come from both the Taliban and from the Western-led forces.

Ordinary Afghans are too easily forgotten in the rhetoric about destroying terrorist havens.

According to US Air Force figures, during April 438 bombs were dropped over Afghanistan by American planes alone, the largest amount ever dropped during Operation Enduring Freedom. Last year was the worst for civilians caught up in the war — according to the Afghanistan Rights Monitor, 3917 civilians were killed, over 6800 wounded and 120,000 were forced to leave their homes.

The day after the attack on Farah, Presidents Karzai and Zardari met with Barack Obama to discuss the Taliban insurgency that is gaining strength in both countries.

President Karzai condemned the attack as "unacceptable" and demanded a full investigation. But there was little else he could do. President Obama spoke stridently of the need to "take out" the Taliban while pushing for economic development in areas most affected by the Taliban in both countries. His staffers have quietly if none-too-secretly told journalists that his Administration is not happy with either Karzai or Zardari.

Like Karzai, the war with the Taliban has left President Zardari an unpopular man.

The UN believes around 500,000 people could be affected by the recent upsurge in violence here in Pakistan, which is centred mainly around Bajaur and Swat after a recent peace deal between the Government and the Taliban in those areas broke down. They join the estimated one million civilians already displaced. Pilotless US aircraft have killed around 700 of them — only a handful of those killed were militant leaders.

For years now Afghan and Pakistani officials have asked US forces to take greater care in their operations and have argued that, by harming so many civilians, the US has in fact encouraged greater support for the Taliban.

US officials have announced an inquiry into the Farah bombing. However, despite calls from long-time observers and the US Congress for increased non-military aid aimed at improving socio-economic conditions in areas most at risk of Taliban infiltration, massive military operations continue to be the focus of US policy for the region.

In Congress last week, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates requested US$400 million for the Pakistan Counter-insurgency Fund aimed at training and arming Pakistani soldiers for counter-insurgency warfare. CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus can effectively do with this money whatever he sees fit, giving him significant influence over the operations undertaken by Pakistani forces. The Defence Department is hoping to provide Pakistan’s army with US$3 billion in military aid over the next five years.

A further US$1 billion in immediate military aid has been proposed for Pakistan from a pool of US$90 billion in requested "emergency" funds. The remainder of those funds has been earmarked for US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These sums overshadow the already substantial amounts promised under the Obama Administration’s "civilian surge" for Afghanistan and Pakistan — around US$7.5 billion over the next five years.

"For every dollar spent on non-military aid, four dollars are spent on military operations in Afghanistan," says University of New Hampshire academic and independent analyst Professor Marc Herold.

Yet the US Defense establishment has already expressed scepticism about the effectiveness of non-military aid. Secretary Gates said he had "strong concerns" with parts of the proposed "Pakistan Enduring Assistance and Cooperation Enhancement Act of 2009" that would freeze funding to Pakistan in the event of a military coup and require the US Government to regularly report on how military and non-military aid was being spent.

The Obama Administration has praised Pakistan’s recent return to military operations against the Taliban. The Pakistan Army is presently engaged in massive operations in the north-west of the country where militants have infiltrated the Buner valley — a few hours drive west of the capital Islamabad — and Dir, further west towards the Afghan border.

In Dir, like Kohat and Dera Adam Khel to the south — where I travelled recently — popular support for the Taliban is high thanks to ethnic loyalties and simmering resentment over inequality and civilian casualties. Recruits for the Taliban come mostly from the Pakhtun communities indigenous to Pakistan’s tribal areas, but it’s believed that the flow of non-Pakhtun recruits, particularly from poor rural communities in southern and western Punjab, is increasing.

The situation could not be more difficult for the governments of what has come to be referred to in the US as "AfPak" — singular — because of their joint role in combating terrorism. Under pressure to wage Washington’s war on its terms, they risk further alienating their populace and pushing them towards the Taliban.

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