On August 21 a major bombing tragedy occurred near the western Afghan province of Herat. According to the Afghan government and UN sources, 60 children and 30 civilian adults were killed. The Pentagon has disputed this charge and said that only five civilians and 25 Talilban insurgents were killed in the midnight air attack on the village of Azizabad . Ninety percent of all aircraft in the Afghan war belong to the US. Air attacks have increased dramatically as the Taliban have gotten stronger over the last year. In one month, July of this year, the total tonnage of dropped bombs equalled the total tonnage for all of 2006. The air war in Afghanistan is growing as the balance in the ground war shifts to engage intensified Taliban strength.
Afghan officials in Herat said that the bomb fell on villagers who had gathered for a memorial ceremony for a person killed last year. This story was a minor blip in the late August headlines as US politicians maneuvered for position at the polls and struggled to outdo one another to support the war effort in Afghanistan. Unless an independent inquiry is launched the entire incident, perhaps one of many in Afghanistan, will hover on the edge our consciousness for several months as official military inquiries grind on until its memory disappears.
But, an independent inquiry requires people on the ground with skills in interviewing, cross checking and a commitment to establishing the truth. Included among the questions would be how many people were killed? Was there reliable or inaccurate intelligence? Had villagers actually gathered for a ceremony of remembrance? Was the ceremony a cover for other organizational endeavours? Were there civilians present? Were there actually 30 children killed? Why would children be present if the event was called for strategic reasons? As a real inquiry developed, these questions would lead to deeper questions related to air strikes in general and the accountability of expatriate bombings to the Afghan government.
In conditions of war where suspicions run high and truth is regularly compromised it is difficult but not impossible to carry out such an inquiry. For credibility a team of fact finders would need to be made up of a combination of Afghan and international participants who can carry on conversations and ask questions in an atmosphere of trust. My own experience is that the passions unleashed by an event such as this pushes the families of victims to outbursts of anger mixed with statements of truth telling. By meeting enough people a general picture of what occurred can be reconstructed and described in detail. It may be more difficult to gain reliable information from military sources but even this is not impossible. My experience is that despite the appearance of rigid discipline and single mindedness there are soldiers who will talk usually off the record and after a respectful relationship has been established.
In violent conditions like the town of Azizabad on August 21, 2008, persons from the outside may be viewed as deceptive representatives of those who carried out the bombing unless introductions are facilitated in a trusted manner. Other forms of trust building may be required. But most important is the interview process itself. Where trauma, hatred, fear, distrust and grief are present, relating with a personal touch can be crucial. The quality of the interview, if limited only to the objective facts, may remain surface and even be devoid of factual reliability. The interviewer may need to address the pain and grief or the memory of the one(s) who died by questions such as, What can you tell me about the person who was killed? How was he or she known in the family or village? Did the person have any premonition that a terrible tragedy may be in store? Finally the team of inquiry will have to address the question that is uppermost in minds of families of the victims, What good will this inquiry achieve? Will anyone listen? Will we see compensation or justice for the tragedy?
This kind of work takes time. Many would prefer that an inquiry be bent to make recommendations to policy makers, i.e those who plan the bombing and target them My own judgement is that it is much better to simply tell the story of what happened as truthfully as possible. When the fact finding team is confident of the truth, its findings will speak for themselves. Perhaps the independent inquiry will find that US spokesperson Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green was right when she described the charges of killing so many civilians as, “outrageous”. But, if official responses prove to be unfounded and it turns out that a massacre has occurred, the findings will cry out to the world with a quality of moral indignation that no one, not even a heavily medaled general can disregard for long.
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