NATO has alienated the Afghan people by excessive reliance on air strikes that have caused high civilian casualties

Whoosh!  Boom!  Ha, ha!  We killed loads of insurgents!  Oh, weren’t they?  We’ll have a full inquiry.  Ooh, look, here’s some more!  Whoosh!  Boom!

I started putting together a list of the most serious incidents in Afghanistan where coalition forces have targeted and killed civilians.  I still have about a score of tabs open in my browser each listing different incidents.  This is some of the highlights lowlights.

July 2008: A US air strike killed 47 civilians, including 39 women and children, as they were travelling to a wedding in Afghanistan, an official inquiry found today. The bride was among the dead.  The US military initially denied any civilians had been killed.

2008: The Red Cross said 250 people had been killed or wounded in five days of military action and militant attacks in the past week.  The UN said that nearly 700 Afghan civilians had lost their lives in 2008 – about two-thirds in militant attacks and about 255 in military operations.

September 2009: NATO airstrikes kill villagers syphoning fuel from two abandoned petrol tankers.  NATO’s International Security and Assistance Force discounted reports that civilians were among the dead.  “After assessing that only insurgents were in the area, the local ISAF commander ordered an air strike, which destroyed the fuel trucks, and a large number of insurgents were reportedly killed and injured.”  Whoopsie – made up fibs.  “90 people were dead, but that number included senior Taliban militants.”  Whoopsie, more fibs.  “Local people are telling me 130 people have been killed.”  And finally, “NATO missiles wiped out much of the village of Omar Kheil.”  Whoopsie indeed.

May 2011: Two homes were bombed supposedly being used as a base, killing 14 civilians, including up to 12 children.  NATO later apologies for calling in an airstrike on “a residential compound”.

2012: The UN mission in Afghanistan said 83 civilians were killed and 46 wounded in aerial attacks by international military forces in the first half of 2012.

June 2012:   The US-led military coalition says it will only use airstrikes as a self-defence weapon of last resort for troops and would avoid hitting structures that could house civilians.  That followed a bombardment that killed 18 civilians celebrating a wedding in eastern Logar province, which drew an apology from the American commander.

February 2013: The number of civilian casualties blamed on allied forces decreased by 46 percent, with 316 killed and 271 wounded in 2012.  Most of those were killed in NATO airstrikes, although that number, too, dropped by nearly half last year to 126, including 51 children.  The death of civilians in military operations, particularly in airstrikes, has been among a major source of acrimony between Karzai’s government and foreign forces.

March 2013: A NATO helicopter killed two children and wounded eight civilians during an attack on Taliban fighters.  The helicopter opened fire as it supported Afghan soldiers near the town of Ghazni despite president Hamid Karzai forbidding troops to call for foreign air support.

April 2013: Figures are released saying that between 2006 and 2012, 10,737 civilians were killed by anti-government forces in Afghanistan, and 3,436 by pro-government forces and 2,006 not known.  So between 21% and 34% were killed by ‘friendly fire’.  This is by air and ground troops.  Messy, a civil war, isn’t it?

November 2013: A letter from US president Barack Obama said the US had already “redoubled our efforts to ensure that Afghan homes are respected by our forces” and continued to “make every effort to respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans in their homes and in their daily lives, just as we do for our own citizens“.

November 2013: The number of civilian deaths from airstrikes fell by more than one third in the first half of this year, but around 50 people were killed, according to United Nations statistics. Overall, the Taliban and other insurgent groups were responsible for three-quarters of civilian casualties.  [That’s progress.  In 2008 one third of civilian deaths were ‘collateral damage’, by 2013 it was only one in four ‘accidental’ innocent civilian deaths by the coalition.]

December 2014: An airstrike by coalition forces killed three Afghan villagers who were “heavily armed” but not part of the Taliban insurgency.  The governor of eastern Logar province said the coalition had told local authorities the dead were Taliban insurgents, but that villagers said the dead were civilians protecting their land from nomads.

October 2015: Barack Obama promises full probe into suspected US airstrike on Kunduz hospital.  Blah, blah, blah.  Fourteen years of airstrikes killing civilians and fourteen years of “The Department of Defense has launched a full investigation“.  In the UK we call that a ‘cover-up’.  It should take 20 minutes to find out who is the commander in that area, ask who was the officer on duty, ask who ordered the airstrikes and then ask them why.  It was supposed to be “jaw-jaw instead of war-war” not “jaw-jaw so we can carry on with war-war”.

NATO has alienated the Afghan people by excessive reliance on air strikes that have caused high civilian casualties.
General Stanley McChrystal, USA commander in Afghanistan

More airstrikes against civilians

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: airstrikes kill civilians.  It is what they are designed to do: destroy infrastructure that is operated mostly by civilians.

I hadn’t got as far as writing about what Russia were up to in Syria and why the UK government is so cross about it (it’s because fighters trained by us were targeted and we may have special forces embedded with them) before NATO destroyed a hospital in the middle of the night in Afghanistan.  Médecins Sans Frontières personnel were killed as were patients.

I am always amazed by the work of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) personnel.  Imagine doing all those years in university studying to be a doctor or even a surgeon and then, instead of going off to do a job that pays very well indeed, going to some hell-hole and making a difference to people’s lives.  It is an incredibly generous gift they make of their time, comfort, skills and earning potential.  When the government says you shouldn’t go somewhere on holiday because of disease or war, that is where they go.  As an organisation they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 for their humanitarian work around the world.

They do amazing work under incredible pressures and stress.  For example, here is an account of a trauma hospital having to deal with the effects of local fighting:

By midday our hospital was on the front line, with fighting right outside the gate.  Bullets have come into the hospital, some even through the roof of the intensive care unit.  But despite being in the middle of the fighting, our hospital and staff have been respected and we’ve been able to carry on our work.  We’ve received 296 wounded patients, including 64 children.  Most have gunshot wounds from being caught in the crossfire.  The hospital has been completely full of patients.  We normally have a capacity of 92 beds, but we expanded immediately and increased the number of beds to 150.  There have been patients in the offices, in the examination rooms, and being stabilised on mattresses on the floor.
Dr Masood Nasim

Nine Médecins Sans Frontières personnel were killed in the NATO airstrike and 19 more wounded, along with 18 others.

The airstrike was against the trauma hospital being described above.

In the last five days this hospital in Kabul had treated 394 people in near front-line conditions.  In about 75 minutes, the six waves of bombs in the airstrike caused 46 more and prevented the treatment of future casualties by gutting the buildings; they were still burning in morning.

What a marvellous night’s work, bringing peace and hope to the region, uniting people of violently contrasting views, bringing people together despite their differences … by bombing and killing civilians.  How much long-term damage has this caused by creating hatred?

Good job here were no boots on the ground.  A soldier might have got hurt, instead of doctors and nurses, and without a hospital, how would they get treatment?

No humanitarian can make war.  And no humanitarian can make peace.  These are political responsibilities, not humanitarian imperatives.
Dr. James Orbinski, Médecins Sans Frontières International Council President

What a terrible waste of those volunteer physicians’ lives, the training, the investment society had made in them, the funding and support that was given to enable them to help others.  Very special people: generous, selfless people who are willing to travel to a war zone to help complete strangers.  How must their friends, families and colleagues at home feel?  Every civilian death from an airstrike is a tragedy, but these are amplified: these were people who saved other people.  How many casualties will now die or be crippled because these specialists are no longer there to help?

And how must the people of that city feel, living on the front line, now knowing their local hospital has been destroyed?  That nothing is safe, anything could be bombed with no notice in the night.  Little wonder there are so many refugees.

Bombing for Peace. This time: Syria.

1.  Cameron loses Commons vote on Syria action

“It is clear to me that the British parliament…does not want to see British military action”

“”David Cameron, Prime Minister, 20th August 2013

BBC: “MPs have rejected possible UK military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government to deter the use of chemical weapons.  David Cameron said he would respect the defeat of a government motion by 285-272, ruling out joining US-led strikes.”

Had that very close vote gone the other way, we would be attacking Syria’s government, troops, infrastructure and, inevitably, civilians as “collateral damage”.


2.  MPs support UK air strikes against IS in Iraq

Intervention at the request of the Iraqi government was “morally justified” to combat a “brutal terrorist organisation” and was clearly lawful.  Britain has a clear “duty” to join the campaign, and IS is a direct threat to the UK and I am not prepared to “subcontract” the protection of British streets from terrorism to other countries’ air forces.

Paraphrasing of David Cameron, Prime Minister, 26th September 2014

BBC: “The UK Parliament has backed British participation in air strikes against Islamic State extremists in Iraq.  After a seven-hour debate, MPs voted for military action by 524 votes to 43.  Some MPs expressed concerns about the prospect of future engagement in Syria.”


3.   David Cameron believes ‘there ​i​s a case to do more’ in Syria

“British MPs need to think again about what else British forces can do to help moderate forces in Syria.”

David Cameron, Prime Minister, 2nd July 2015 via Downing Street

Guardian: “No 10 stressed it would be better if military action, likely to be air strikes, only went ahead if there was a consensus in the Commons.  Michael Fallon, defence secretary, said Isis was directed and led from northern Syria.  He vowed that if there was any decision to include air strikes in Syria as part of a full spectrum response (spot the weasel words), the government would seek the approval of parliament. “Our position remains that we would return to this house for approval before air strikes in Syria.  We are clear any action we take must not provide any succour to Assad’s regime.”  The prime minister’s spokeswoman stressed that British military assets were already flying over Syria, and British forces were helping to train members of the Syrian Free Army outside Syria itself.”

So we’re training ‘freedom fighters’ / ‘insurgents’ / future terrorists?  Isn’t that the classic mistake the CIA has been making for decades?


4.   Syria air strikes conducted by UK military pilots

” ”  ← (i.e. nothing so far)

David Cameron, Prime Minister, 17th July 2015

BBC: “UK pilots embedded with coalition allies’ forces have been conducting air strikes over Syria against the Islamic State group, it has emerged.  Crispin Blunt, Conservative MP and Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, said the 2013 vote on action in Syria was a “totally different decision” to the question of strikes on IS and that that decision had not been undermined.  Labour has indicated it would not oppose military action in Syria. Acting leader Harriet Harman has said the case for air strikes was now different to the situation in 2013, when Labour voted against UK military action in Syria.”

When was this discussed and arranged?  Apparently a couple of days ago when the Greece crisis was all over the news.  What a good day that was to bury bad news.

Both sides of the Commons are all for this.  Politicians are odd creatures: opposition in everything, everything, as a matter of principal, regardless of the logic, yet unity in wanting to extend violence.  There is something about the desire for power that results in a mind-set of wanting to see others hurt.  [ note to self – there’s a psychology essay to be written based on that last sentence. ]


It seems there are three sides in Syria:

  1. Assad’s regime which is being attacked by the US and allies.  UK troops may or may not be embedded and supporting these attacks.
  2. The revolutionaries trying to bring down Assad’s regime (sorry, who are these people exactly?) who are being trained by the UK.
  3. IS / ISIS / ISIL / whatever we are to call-them this week are being attacked by the US and allies and (covertly) the UK.

This is like the proxy wars of the Cold War in the1900s where NATO and the Warsaw Pact tested and demonstrated their weapons’ capabilities in other countries by supporting opposing sides.  At least then the West and East could pretend we/they were on opposite sides.  Now the West seems to be supporting the fighting on all sides.

Had the 2013 vote gone the other way (requiring a difference of just 7 MPs’ votes), we would be openly bombing all of Syria.  No wonder Moslems think there is a Holy War going on.

As for training the rebels (the next generation of elite mercenaries and terrorists) trying to bring down and take over Assad’s government, how many of them are now fighting for, leading, arming or training the IS / ISIS / ISIL forces?

Presumably, if and when IS / ISIS / ISIL have been defeated, the airstrikes will continue but against the Syrian government.  Therein lies the inevitable argument of the next few days: “We may as well start bombing Assad now to prevent his resources falling into IS / ISIS / ISIL hands“.  Yep, I predict a scorched earth policy, although it will not be called that.

Here we are in 2015, still bringing peace with bombs.  And how well has that been working since 2003?