by Joshua Foust on 10/20/2008 · 2 comments

Buried in this John Burns report on how ISAF and the U.S. are trying to change their tactics to stop angering Afghans is this tidbit:

“We want to make it an absolute rule that we acknowledge our mistakes when they happen,” said Col. Gordon (Skip) Davis, an American officer who leads a strategic advisory group to General McKiernan. “Regardless of the number of deaths, we’ll come out and say, ‘We’re responsible, we are the ones who did it.’ ” A British colonel, Mike Newman, set out requirements that battlefield commanders report civilian casualties by radio as soon as an engagement is completed and file a fuller account within four hours of returning to base or, at the latest, within 24 hours.

A new unit led by a civilian will monitor the reports, as well as “credible allegations” of civilian deaths from ordinary Afghans, aid agencies and news accounts. Where coalition forces are judged responsible, the command will acknowledge that responsibility, and relatives will be offered “condolence payments” set by the nation whose troops were involved. In the case of Britain and the United States, the standard is a payment of $2,500 for each death and more at the discretion of commanders.

This sounds familiar, somehow. Either way, it’s a big start, though maybe wrapped up in there could be the words, “we are sorry.” Apologies count for a lot, especially if they are accompanied by earnest pleas for recompense.

Burns also reports that NATO is planning on actually tracking civilian casualties, a flaw so glaring I am shocked and saddened it hadn’t been corrected yet. This is why the UN and HRW can vary in their estimates by many hundreds—no one has a good system for tracking how many died. That would be one thing—solid data are hard to come by there. But it is appalling the U.S. never created a system to track innocent deaths in a country it invaded seven years ago. For a country that claims to be all about hearts and minds, that is simply unbelievable.

No wonder we can’t get it right. We don’t even know how we’ve gotten it wrong.

Meanwhile, yet another IO opportunity is slipping out the window as the Taliban decide to start beheading migrant workers by the dozen as they travel by bus to Iran. This is the sort of event or revelation we should pounce upon, highlighting the difference between a deliberate brutality and one that happens unintentionally.

Unfortunately, right now, the cutting edge seems to be staying at, “let’s try being honest.”

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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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Alex Strick van Linschoten October 22, 2008 at 10:25 am

The events in Maiwand are more complicated that you reduce them to. Saying that “the Taliban [have] decide[d] to start beheading migrant workers” is a gross exaggeration. Firstly, what do you mean by ‘the Taliban’. Secondly, this is an isolated incident. Thirdly, there is still considerable confusion as to whether these were actually migrant workers or really recruits from someone’s personal militia who were travelling to Herat to a police training academy.

I agree that it is an isolated event and that as such it could be portent of something much bigger. But it is equally possible – and I have a hunch that I’m looking into on the ground down here – that there is something else at work here, perhaps intra-Taliban rivalry or some other story like this.

Joshua Foust October 22, 2008 at 10:46 am


You’re actually right. I’ve been searching for any follow up on this story. In fact, from what I can find, officials will only admit to finding six severed heads — not 30. The mea culpa would highlight this, as well as copping to my own laziness in not using whatever acronym signifies “insurgent groups” this week (ACM, AAF, AGE, et al.).

So I not only need to follow my own medicine (i.e. getting it right), I need to be more careful in how I describe things.

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