Last week in this column I wrote about the need for a an independent inquiry into the bombing massacre reported in Azizabad near the western Afghan city of Herat. Over the last week international reports suggest that outrage in Afghanistan is building. Yesterday, in a reversal to the previous U. S. denials we learned that the U.S. Central Command will send a senior team headed by a general to investigate the charge that 90 people including children were killed on August 21, 2008 by U. S. bombs.
The treatment of civilians became a political and legal issue that was codified into Geneva conventions and legal code especially after World War II. This international standard is frequently tested and sometimes stretched beyond recognition as war unfolds. In combat, soldiers and officers regularly shoot or bomb first and hope that someone can fix it later. Soldiers are taught to break things and kill. This is what armies do. The nuanced work of relating to civilians – hearts and minds – is a thread of military thinking that shows up long after the breaking of things stops working.
Psychologists, social workers and anthropologists occasionally make a showing in the outworking of modern warfare as part of the intelligence gathering processes, prisoner interrogation, and care for wounded and tired soldiers. But the real warriors know the hard work is still combat and breaking things. When the faith community and human rights activists can sustain their energy and pressure, inquiries are called as an answer to that pressure. That is what we see now. It will be months before a report is issued.
Soon persons will be named to the military inquiry, at least if everything goes according to script. We will not learn a great deal about the results of this inquiry for several months. Its findings will be conditioned by the quality of its fact finding process, pressures from within the Central Command and the willingness of people with whom they speak to tell the truth, always a testy problem when investigators are armed and in uniform. It will also depend on the level of public interest and outrage here and in Afghanistan.
In the Abu Gharib scandal there was a military inquiry headed by a gutsy Major General named Taguba (a Major General has two stars) whose family was from the Philippines. His findings were tough and they shocked the world and may have even earned a little credibility for the Pentagon in some quarters. For his vigilant and patriotic effort in January 2006, Taguba was instructed by General Richard A. Cody, the Army’s Vice-Chief of Staff, to retire by January 2007. The general who leads the Azizabad inquiry is well versed on this recent history and knows that the inquiry work could be a career changer. He or she knows that doing inquiries is one of those auxiliary tasks the army has to do sometimes like social work, civil affairs and anthropology to negotiate the terrain of war in the modern world. He must not embarrass the military while constructing an answer for the public.
The Taguba inquiry’s tough findings were an exception to the script. More often military inquiries establish some of the facts and raise many more questions. The public is left guessing through months of writing and rewriting. Finally, if the story remains in the news long enough a report is issued and that document will point to mistakes, incompetence, or dereliction of duty on the part of soldiers, enlisted persons, but rarely of officers. When that occurs there may be mild punishment or military trials where guilt or innocence is determined by a military court. Military courts hate to hand down severe sentences because it wrecks havoc in morale among the rank and file.
As it stands now the best we can hope for is that Azizabad will remain in the news for some time to come. Without fresh material from people on the ground in Azizabad the reporting will largely be on the progress and process of the inquiry. In other words the reporting will be more about the American government and people’s perceptions and less about the victims. Last week in this column I proposed a serious and independent inquiry. I called for a team of Afghans and internationals who have experience and competence in these matters. This military inquiry makes it even more urgent that our proposed independent initiative be implemented and that the team be empowered to find the true facts and tell the story.
In our time the ballot box has become one of the most widely accepted instruments for nonviolent change. When applied fairly around our world we have a chance to help voters vote from a place of wisdom and vision for a more peaceable world. Smart bombs and dumb bombs can make enemies but so can the absence of truth. In this matter of Azizabad there is a chance that the truth will prevail if we have the courage to walk into the confusion of violence, listen and be informed by the voices at the point of impact who can help us build a structure of truth.
Afghanistan: Civilian Deaths From Airstrikes: Airstrikes Cause Public Backlash, Undermine Protection Efforts. Human Rights Watch Report Cover
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