New Data for the Shindand Bombing

by Joshua Foust on 10/9/2008

Since the beginning of the Shindand Bombing Scandal, I’ve felt it necessary, given the U.S. military’s record, to present skepticism of their claims of a night time raid on a compound in Shindand, Herat, which they claim only took five lives. It aroused the anger of Dave Dilegge, the proprietor of the Small Wars Journal. However, as more information came to light, including alternate investigations which suggested the civilian death toll was far higher than the initial estimate (“confirmed,” I am sad to note, by no less than Ollie North, many pro-military websites, including SWJ, either ignored or downplayed the potential for a serious IO loss.

Later, as successive waves of American-led investigations slowly inched the number of dead civilians upward, again there was nary an outcry from much of the military crowd, and much derision of those questioning the military’s side of the story. While none of this meant the high estimate of 90 civilian deaths was true, once news emerged that the U.S. had probably been tricked into “resolving” a tribal dispute, I was noting that this had become a serious loss in the perception war.

Now the latest military investigation has shown 30 civilians died in the attack—which is generally what I was speculating would be the case (the L.A. Times says 33 dead). This isn’t to gloat, but rather to mourn: the military has a serious problem with how it is conducting its relationship with the public, and incidents like this only make it look bad—to say nothing of how it will affect those with their lives on the line in Afghanistan. Worse still, fewer than 20 actual militants died, which means they managed to kill more than 50% more civilians than insurgents.

The military, however, is sticking to its story that they were right anyway. They never seem to learn.

Update: A friend suggested I add my own thoughts as to alternatives the military could pursue. I’ll attempt to do that, but this is a subject that requires much deeper thought—here, I’ll be speaking mostly off the cuff, after the jump.

What worries me is that the military doesn’t seem to have given a lot of thought to the IO implications of this in a local context. In a domestic U.S. context, the DOD can rely on a few things to help its message along.

The Pentagon’s “message force multipliers” (now under investigation by the FCC for possible violations of federal laws that limit domestic propaganda) would not have been so effective if there wasn’t a large friendly audience in the U.S. Americans are conditioned to think of the military as being fundamentally honest—which makes information dissemination much easier. In contrast, Afghans, for example, as well many viewers of al Jazeera, are not automatically inclined toward sympathy for the official U.S. version of events. This makes it much harder for the government to “sell” its story—something it has not put much thought into until very recently.

For another, being honest really helps. The reporting above indicates that the initial few investigative teams did not sift through the rubble, did not visit local hospitals, and did not interview locals. That Ollie North confirmed the initial version of events speaks to the challenges this raises: I don’t have any reason to believe he’s lying, but if he’s honestly reporting what he saw, then the post-incident investigation process has fundamental flaws that hint at a potentially drastic underestimation of civilian casualties. Being honest about imperfect information—”I really don’t know yet, can we wait until we’ve done our investigation?”—goes a long way toward building trust. This goes hand in hand with transparency—a monumental task, given the very real OPSEC concerns that should never be violated for this. But a tradition of secrecy does not help a military that no longer limits itself only to combat—the rest of the DOD must catch up to the reality of this war.

Of a similar note, avoiding absolute statements by press officers when there is contentious and imperfect information goes a long way as well. This obviously runs the risk of going against the need for transparency. (To be honest I don’t know what the right balance is.) But also not labeling everyone who died at a combat site “Taliban” or insurgents helps as well—in the last several months the Army has been caught with its pants down, insisting for days or even weeks that a group of dead people were safely neutralized Taliban only to have to recant and admit that they were, in fact, a family or a wedding party.

Lastly, APOLOGIZE. I fully understand and sympathize with the need to dehumanize an enemy we send young guys to go kill. But Afghans are people—when someone dies, they are mourned, and their family faces the consequences of that for decades. We weep whenever one of our soldiers comes home in a body bag. Yet we barely take the time to even acknowledge the innocents who also die in combat. Treating each one of their deaths as important and meaningful and a sorrowful event works two ways as well: we seem more human to them as well.

Anyway, these are just some random thoughts. I need to think about this a lot more, because it is getting at one of the fundamental ways I think we’re mis-fighting the war. But that’s another topic.

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This post was written by...

– 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 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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