l Jazeera’s headline this morning cleverly uses scare quotes: “US Military ‘Confirms’ Afghan Deaths”.
The raised eyebrows over “confirm” are justified, however. While “a senior military official” told the press, in advance of a formal briefing on Friday, that, yes, US airstrikes had killed civilians, he was quick to shift responsibility.
According to CNN, the official said that the “buildings and compounds” hit by the U.S. had been “identified as areas from which insurgent fighters were firing on Afghan and coalition forces”. The insurgents were holding residents in those buildings “as a means of causing civilian casualties”. And, just for good measure and a good headline, he added that there was “separate intelligence that some civilians in a nearby area were killed with hand grenades by militants who then displayed the bodies”.
Never mind that there was no evidence, in eyewitness accounts and from the International Committee of the Red Cross, who had officials on the scene, that the dead civilians were human shields. Never mind that tribal elders who contacted the ICRC made no reference to civilians held by insurgents in the bombed buildings, as they asked for help to deal with casualties.
Forget the possibility that American officials could say what, at this point, is the likely scenario. In the battle between Afghan insurgents and the Afghan military, there was crossfire. That crossfire included US bombs. And crossfire is not always accurate or discriminate. In war, stuff happens.
No, the “collateral damage” — not to the innocent but to the US military — must be limited. So Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will say, with a straight face, “”We regret any, even one, Afghan…innocent civilian casualty.” The US senior official will frame the “real” issue, “The question now for investigators, the official said, is how much information was available at the time of the strikes about the potential presence of civilians and whether those in charge should have known civilians might be in the vicinity.”
And that will do until the next incident.