Of Mass Graves and Public Diplomacy

by Joshua Foust on 7/30/2007 · 10 comments

Last week, I somewhat casually mentioned the discovery of a series of mass graves across Afghanistan. In that story, which was published in the EU-financed newsweekly Killid, Mohammad Nadir Naderi, a spokesman for the Afghan independent commission of human rights, said that over the last five years about 20 mass graves had been found around the country. Daniel Graeber, however, finds an interesting a discrepancy:

In a little over a year, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) have uncovered 81 mass graves in various parts of the country. Thousands of bodies were unearthed in a grave north of the Afghan capital, Kabul in July, 2007. The remains of 500 victims were unearthed in April of this year in northeastern Afghanistan, and over 1,000 were discovered in a mass grave in eastern Afghanistan. Smaller sites containing 50 to 70 bodies were discovered in several locations in Kabul.

I honestly don’t know why there is such a huge gap—20 versus 81—and how such wildly divergent numbers could come from the same source. It could easily just be sloppy reporting on someone’s part (I haven’t fact-checked any of this, so I have no idea where the ‘real’ number lies). But this does bring up a troubling point, which is that we’re not entirely sure how badly Afghanistan was brutalized in the 80s and 90s… and we’re not even sure what’s happening now.

This creates a major problem: not only are we totally in the dark about what’s going on, we’re totally unable to manage how our actions are perceived. Hell, I want NATO and the U.S. to come out on top, and I find myself reacting with muted horror at the use of 1,000lb bombs on a few Taliban in a fully-occupied village. If there’s one thing we could have learned from the Soviet experience, it is that, whatever else the circumstances, you win zero friends by killing civilians.

Yes, it sucks to be fired upon, and I can’t pretend to speak for the soldiers there. I certainly do not like suggesting that they should simply accept the fact that the crazies will take pot shots at them. But here is one of the most telling quotes from Afghanistanica’s exploration of Captain Zakharov’s experience:

“Then the rascal thought of something else. As a way of forcing the peasants [who were friendly with Zakharov] to leave Afghanistan, he began to fire at my position straight from the neighboring kishlaks [villages] in an effort to draw our return fire. The provocations were repeated every day, but our guns remained silent. I refused to fire on peaceful civilians.”

It seems we have learned nothing from the Soviet experience—we continue to think relying on “precision” airpower (how precise must you be with 1,000 pounds of explosives?) and simply paying off the victims of collateral damage will create the conditions of victory. Even the most recent announcement of Jaap de Hoop Scheffer that NATO will use smaller bombs barely makes a step in the right direction: 500lbs of explosives for mud huts rather than 1000lbs.

This is why in 2007 the U.S./NATO coalition has killed more innocent civilians than the Taliban. And it is why the occupation/reconstruction effort faces such enormous challenges: we are a coalition of nation-states, treating a subnational problem like it’s just another nation-state. We’re getting the question wrong. But I hope we change.


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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 10 comments }

Lee July 31, 2007 at 12:08 am

Joshua or Nathan,
Please send your contact info to me @ simwolfspider@excite.com, The US Miltary deserves fair repesentation on your site, additionally, I believe I could add gainful insight for everyone who participates on this site. -Lee

Nathan July 31, 2007 at 1:23 am

Lee, you can always reach me here. My email address is my first name @registan.net.

Péter July 31, 2007 at 6:54 am

Zakharov seems to have been pretty smart indeed. I do bet though even he, in his era, would have liked to go over that Pakistani border to ‘un-restrain’ himself a little.
I’ve just seen Sean Langan’s 2006 documentary, ‘Meeting the Taliban’, and found it so telling how a U.S. officer in Kunar province talked there of his frustrations, that he is ‘privy to the intel’, and knows therefore what’s going on over the border. That conversation between Langan, the reporter, and the military officer, took place during the night by the way, in some forest, with soldiers seeking cover from the potshots coming from several directions at the time.
Soldiers who feel their hands are tied anyway probably find it all the more difficult therefore to hold back when there’s contact. But that’s not to say they shouldn’t, sometimes, of course.

Péter July 31, 2007 at 6:57 am

Coming to think of it, if somebody wants to see that documentary I should probably correct myself: it was another documentary by Langan, not ‘Meeting the Taliban’, but one with the very different title of ‘Fighting the Taliban’. Both were fine, anyway.

Michael July 31, 2007 at 8:57 am

A 1000-lb bomb can be pretty precise, blowing up one house through a window and completely missing the house next door (and not even wounding the occupants). Of course, if its targeted at the wrong house, none of that matters. This is why it’s so important to have intel (boots) on the ground…. and not just satellites and fancy equipment in the sky

Joshua Foust July 31, 2007 at 9:36 am

Lee, I hope you don’t think I’m being anti-military. I am frustrated that their tactics do not reflect the reality on the ground, but I am absolutely rooting for them to win. Peter, that problem — of being unable, because of political constraints, to deal with militants in a lawless area — is deeply frustrating. If the Pakistani government will not control its own territory, which is used to launch attacks at another country, I honestly don’t see where the sovereignty argument comes in — they’ve violated Afghanistan’s sovereignty. Fair’s fair and all that.

Michael – are you telling me a 1000 pound bomb will fit through the window of one of these, while leaving neighbors unscathed?

Color me skeptical. Even the newest JDAMS with laser seeked bolted on the front have a CEP of 3 meters, which not only isn’t just a window, but in a typical village actually is another house. When you add in that these houses are made out of dirt, and are not blast-resistant, it should be no wonder there is a lot of collateral damage.

You’re right, too, that intel matters — which is why I brought up Zakharov. He knew when he was being baited into attacking civilians, and when he could ambush and destroy the mujahideen. We don’t yet have that sophistication (and, in fairness, neither did most of the Soviets).

Péter August 1, 2007 at 12:37 am

That pic is just great, Josh, it tells it all. (I also perfectly understand the point Michael is making about precision munition, but the Afghan context does, unfortunately, give a few twists to what we can ‘normally’ expect as a result of bombing.)

As to the Pakistani sovereignty argument. Well, there is the Armed activities on the territory of the Congo case from before the International Court of Justice which might be pretty relevant here. I have read the really lengthy judgement back at the time when it came out. And I have to report that international law and international lawyers are still mostly stuck with a dreamed up Westphalian image of the world, but in an inconsequential manner, actually. In its decision the ICJ essentially said that neighbouring countries can’t do anything on the territory of the DRC, unless it is the DRC that attacks them, which would be the only case when they could use their right to self-defense (based on the UN Charter). As to whether it is a breach of the ‘duty of vigilance’ when a government (such as that of the DRC) doesn’t stop a non-state actor from attacking another state from within its own internationally recognised boundaries, they concluded that it’s not a breach in the case if the government doesn’t effectively control the given area from where attacks are launched by the non-state actor.

Logical? Absolutely not.

It is essentially saying that military action, by the state that is threatened by a non-state actor, is aggression, because it is the harbouring state’s territory that is attacked then, but it’s not a breach of the duty of vigilance on the part of the harbouring state if its territory harbours an aggressive non-state actor, since it’s not really the harbouring state’s territory. Mind-boggling, really.

To translate this to the Pakistani context, for simplification I’ll talk of an Afghan-Pakistani equation. If Pakistan were to claim that it doesn’t control its tribal areas effectively (it hasn’t claimed that to my knowledge, actually), then Afghanistan couldn’t attack, because it would be an aggression, and A’stan couldn’t even claim that Pakistan is in breach of its duty of vigilance. However, since Pakistan does claim it is doing everything possible in its tribal areas, and its stance usually is that the Afghan government and ISAF/OEF forces should do more to control cross-border movements, the situation is more complicated. It would be interesting to see this case before the ICJ and what ruling they would come to then. I do think, though, that the Pakistani line of defence would probably be that Pakistan is the victim, and it is the Afghan government and the international forces that are in breach of their duty of vigilance. (If you think back to the sort of things Musharraf said before his spring Ankara meeting with Karzai in Turkey, it is more than realistic to expect that they would be arguing like that.)

A different scenario could be the Security Council bringing a decision about this. The Security Council has already shown understanding to concerns by a state about a non-state actor’s activities, allowing military action in response to that concerned state in at least one very relevant case (9-11). But would the Security Council back similar action inside Pakistan?

However, this of course is not only an international legal issue. The U.S. wouldn’t push this case as far as the Security Council, really. The way to go about this is informally working out some arrangement, as it has been done up till now, although up till now arguably not enough has happened.

(I’ll cross-post this international legal agony part of my comment over at my place, too, Josh, if you don’t mind, since I also looked to raise this issue since a while now.)

Péter August 2, 2007 at 1:49 pm

If somebody hasn’t yet tired of reading this series of comments from me, I’ll correct myself again about Langan’s documentary. It was ‘Meeting the Taliban’ indeed. Like I said, both it and ‘Fighting the Taliban’ are worth watching, anyways.

Michael August 4, 2007 at 5:01 pm

Peter and Joshua – you’re right, it would be better to have sound judgment on the ground than someone from 15,000 ft bombing, when possible

this would require investing in a larger army (that is trained in peacekeeping, peacemaking, counter-insurgency, as well as traditional land warfare) and spending less on air force gadgets… but that’s a whole nother topic

Joshua Foust August 4, 2007 at 6:49 pm

It’s almost like we should go to war with the Army we need, and not the one we just happen to have. I agree. A lot of “outsiders” — that is to say, foreign policy experts, NGO workers, consultants and analysts from outside the military — feel the same way. Yet here we are, six years on, with the same damned Army.

Makes you think.

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