Strangely, He Didn’t Mention Parents Intentionally Maiming Their Children This Time

by Joshua Foust on 3/2/2011 · 3 comments

ISAF has decided, finally, to apologize for the civilian casualties they caused in Kunar. No, not the one last month, this is a new incident:

“We are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologize to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and most importantly, the surviving family members of those killed by our actions,” said General David. H. Petraeus, Commander of International Security Assistance Force. “These deaths should have never happened and I will personally apologize to President Karzai when he returns from his trip to London this week.”

I wonder where in the COIN manual it talks about misleading the public on civilian casualties and inventing claims of child abuse to justify it? Anyway, last week, Petraeus was singing a different tune about where these mysterious dead children come from.

To the shock of President Hamid Karzai’s aides, Gen. David H. Petraeus suggested Sunday at the presidential palace that Afghans caught up in a coalition attack in northeastern Afghanistan might have burned their own children to exaggerate claims of civilian casualties, according to two participants at the meeting.

Oh well. His spokesman, Rear Admiral Greg Smith, later clarified that what Petraeus really meant to say was that he thought most Afghan parents burn their own children as a means of enforcing discipline. Also, ISAF troops began to harass and in one case detain journalists trying to reach the area to report on it. So, clearly that’s better.

This might even be relieving as a break from the normal pattern. :

  1. Deny all wrongdoing
  2. Shift the blame to someone else, whether Taliban or parents.
  3. Claim to have documentary evidence that exonerates all ISAF soldiers.
  4. Harass and detain journalists seeking an independent source on the event.
  5. Finally, after days or weeks of investigations, admit to a lower number of dead civilians and hope the issue goes away.

This pattern has taken place at least a dozen times since I first began following Afghanistan closely in 2006. If it weren’t so damned predictable it would be shocking, or something. But instead, it’s just expected. ISAF—and in particular General Petraeus—is really blowing it on this stuff.

And here’s the thing: that original event remains unresolved. Petraeus made his comments on an event in Ghaziabad; the current apology mentions Dara-i Pech, near FOB Blessing. These are separate events, both in Kunar, both horrifying to think about. ISAF needs to do a helluva lot more apologizing.

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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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Steve Magribi March 3, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Joshua, this was actually the most talked about thing amongst Afghans for the past week or so. When P4 made his comment about Afghan Parents the whole country went into SMS mode and it flew from cousin to cousin, province to province.

ISAF may not be aware, but P4 is becoming a bit of a Mubarak/Gaddafi type villain amongst many Afghans. The comment he made struck home very hard and hurt many to the point of sheer anger.

The thing about “saying sorry” is that it only works for a while. P4 lost all credibility again with his attack on Afghans parents. It really was a key moment in this war and a key moment in the myth of Petreaus here in Afghanistan.

I hope they are cutting his orders very quickly. He does need to go soon.

Haqbeen March 4, 2011 at 10:55 am

Americans lost their credibility in Afghanistan in the eyes of Afghans. By the ugly comments P4 and his general made, perhaps they see Afghans something else than human being.

James Gundun March 4, 2011 at 5:35 pm

I believe Petraeus’s 180 from Ghaziabad implies a measure of guilt in the incident, not just a PR reverse. To the last point of Ghaziabad, an Afghan investigation later confirmed the general version of local residents and officials. Petraeus and the U.S. military are pitting themselves against the Afghan grapevine, an unwise strategy.

Winning this battle of perceptions is likely impossible.

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