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Frontline, March 11, 2009

Afghanistan: Terror, U.S. style

U.S. forces are guilty of terrorising innocent Afghans, but it is similar acts of the Taliban that get front-page coverage in the Western media.

Marc W. Herold

“Nothing has changed for us in this new Afghanistan,” said 16-year-old Seema, in early 2007, whose father was killed by a U.S. “liberating” bomb in October 2001.

IN a widely quoted recent interview (on the National Public Radio network), Sarah Chayes proclaims, “Taliban Terrorising Afghanistan”.(1) Sarah Chayes has long been an advocate of a “better” intervention and nation-building.(2) She shines as a paragon amongst the humanitarian imperialists.(3) In suggesting that earlier and broader North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) engagement could have solved Afghanistan’s problems, Sarah Chayes implies that Afghanistan’s troubles call for military solutions.(4) Give birth to “human rights” and electoral democracy with U.S. precision bombs and Special Forces.

One officer in the U.S. military, recommending her as a speaker, wrote, “She’s like no journalist you’ve ever seen. She’s a hawk!” She does not view the foreign presence in Afghanistan as imperial, and she attempts to work with the armed forces and the U.S. government.(5) She has harsh words for warlords but remains mostly silent about the death and widespread destruction caused by U.S. and NATO actions.(6)

At the same time, those like President Hamid Karzai, Lt. Col. Owen McNally of the British Army and me who focus upon Afghan civilians killed by U.S./NATO actions are either respectively silenced, arrested or ignored.(7) U.S. forces are guilty of terrorising innocent Afghans as will be argued herein. This in no way implies that the Taliban and its allies do not engage in comparable practices. The difference is that those practices get front-line coverage in the Western media, whereas the former remain shrouded in silence and media spin.

U.S. corporate media spin involves both lying by omission and commission. For example, how many Americans know that U.S. forces burned the bodies of alleged Taliban fighters after laying them out facing Mecca? Had the burning of dead Taliban fighters not been recorded by the Australian reporter Stephen DuPont, employed by SBS Dateline, the outrageous action would no doubt have gone unnoticed (as have presumably numerous other such actions by U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan). The incident took place on October 1, 2005, above the village of Gonbaz in Shah Wali Kot district of Kandahar province. The day before, the U.S. unit had been ambushed and the firefight had left one U.S. occupation soldier dead (Staff Sgt. John Doles). The U.S. occupation forces of the 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Army Airborne Brigade, laid out the bodies of two Taliban men also killed on September 30 on a ridge line facing Mecca, then burnt the bodies and taunted their opponents about the corpses, in a manner profoundly offensive to Muslims and in breach of the Geneva Conventions. Cremation is not a Muslim custom and the Geneva Conventions stipulate that the enemy dead should be honourably buried. A U.S. army psychological operations unit then taunted villagers in the local language:

You allowed your fighters to be laid down facing west and burnt. You are too scared to retrieve their bodies. This just proves you are the lady boys we always believed you to be….You attack and run away like women. You call yourself Taliban but you are a disgrace to the Muslim religion and you bring shame upon your family. Come and fight like men instead of the cowardly dogs you are!

Table 1Afghan civilians
Occupation forces
Ratio of civilians
to occupation forces
2008 (Jan-Sep)628-7292362.7-3.1
Jan 200971-86243.0-3.6
Feb 20091042.5

The video showed U.S. military vehicles fitted with loudspeakers broadcasting the taunts. The SBS footage showed flames licking two charred corpses and a group of five U.S. soldiers standing watching from a rocky ledge.

The facts on the ground are very clear: U.S./NATO forces kill three to four Afghan civilians for every foreign occupation soldier who dies. If we safely assume that the occupation soldiers die at the hands of the Taliban and its allies, then U.S./NATO occupation force actions against innocent Afghan civilians are three to four times as deadly as Taliban actions against the occupation forces.(8) The facts (not interpretations or proclamations) on the ground are summarised in Table 1.

No one denies that the Taliban and its allies kill Afghan and occupation forces and Afghan civilians. Indeed, their weapons’ relative imprecision is proportional to their low cost. As was so brilliantly pointed out by Mike Davis, the suicide car bomber is the “poor man’s air force”.(9) But the very expensive weapons of the foreign occupiers should translate into a level of precision that largely spares civilians as is endlessly repeated by the so-called defence intellectuals and their mainstream media acolytes. As I have demonstrated for now over seven years, such is not the case.(10) Anyone familiar with the history of the development of precision aerial weapons knows that they were primarily developed to save pilot lives and reduce the cost of striking a target from the air. They succeeded admirably in doing just that.

Sparing civilians was something that was later conveniently employed as a public relations step to assuage and convince the general public in the aggressor nation. That general public needed to be convinced that our side only kills accidentally and possesses the weaponry to spare innocent civilians. Anyone or any evidence that contradicts these sacred cows of the Pentagon, the mainstream media and the humanitarian imperialists (such as Harvard’s Carr Centre or Human Rights Watch) will be either ignored or discredited by whatever means is necessary – whether ignored, silenced or ultimately arrested. As Joshua Foust cogently put it, “lots of bombs go off in Afghanistan, but the media only seem to report the ones that hit internationals”.(11)

The propaganda war takes on yet greater importance as the military war has reached at best a stalemate (if not a progressing defeat of the U.S. and NATO as has been widely noted with the resurgence of the Taliban). In the past few months, many – from Hamid Karzai to the United Nations and The New York Times – have commented upon the urgent need for the U.S./NATO to reduce the number of civilians they kill. The recent emphasis has been to advocate allegedly less deadly ground force action in lieu of deadly close air support aerial strikes.(12) U.S. military data show that beginning in June 2008, the number of bombs dropped decreased even as ground combat increased.(13) At the same time, ground combat was more deadly for U.S. occupation soldiers – from June-October 2008, as many as 96 soldiers died in combat compared with 51 in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Defence. The problem for U.S./NATO forces is that greater reliance upon ground forces leads to greater military casualties – 14 foreign occupation soldiers were killed in January 2008, whereas the figure was 24 in January 2009,(14) which, in turn, fuels public criticism on the home front.

The Taliban and its allies have developed a winning strategy as I have pointed out elsewhere(15): create a sufficient level of instability by selective attacks upon aid workers, schools and the like in the countryside to forestall reconstruction and by use of very low-cost tactical weapons (suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs) to hit Afghan forces and the foreign occupiers. Such instability and violence combined with high levels of civilian casualties turn the population against the foreign occupiers in what has become an anti-colonial dynamic in which the flames of nationalism burn red-hot. Lack of opportunity and a hatred of foreigners are motivating the new generation of Afghan resistance fighters(16). As Mehran Bozorgnia and Alex Thomson noted, “…these local, Afghan fighters enjoy real support. It is simply wrong to say it is just coercion and terror. Just like the Mujahideen did. Indeed, on this evidence the so-called Taliban might be changing into something far more like the Mujahideen than the madrassa-produced Pakistani Taliban. Have NATO allowed themselves to become the new Russians? Many an Afghan would say yes.”

The failure of U.S. counter-insurgency is well illustrated in Khost province.(17) According to the U.S., its aid through the provincial reconstruction team has built or renovated a dozen kilometres of roads, eight administration buildings, 27 health centres and 48 schools during 2001-2009. But the level of violence has kept on soaring:(18)resistance attacks in 2004, 50 in 2005, 107 in 2006, 165 in 2007 and 196 in 2008, according to the provincial counter-insurgency chief in Khost. An association tribal leader in Khost, Raza Nawaz Tani, says: “Today the people in this region hate Americans, whereas they were welcomed when they arrived in 2001.”

Another tribal leader said: “Ninety per cent of the victims of their [U.S.] operations are civilians”. An Afghan working for an international organisation in Khost emphasised that night-time raids and searches of women deeply offend the conservative and proud Pashtuns:

“For the Pashtuns, if a man comes uninvited into my home at night and touches a woman in my family, I have the right to kill him, without facing consequences, because that is a crime.”

A U.S. military spokesman in Khost, Patrick Seiber, blandly asserted that night raids were “effective – that’s what we do when the enemy is there”.

Small Afghan girl injured
A girl injured in the U.S. bombing on a wedding party in a village on July 1, 2002. U.S./NATO occupation force actions against innocent Afghan civilians are three to four times as deadly as Taliban actions against the occupation forces.

Midnight assaults, whether by air or ground, by U.S./NATO forces increase the likelihood of greater civilian casualties, especially of women and children. A recently released report by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) noted that “the combination of abusive behaviour and violent breaking and entry into civilians’ homes in the middle of the night stokes almost as much anger and resentment toward… [pro-government forces] as the more lethal air strikes…. Most of the time these night raids end up killing civilians in their houses. People are afraid to complain.”18 In July 2008, an early morning U.S. air strike decimated a wedding procession in the mountains of Nangarhar, killing some 50 members of the party.(19) The bridegroom’s father remembers: “When I got (to the site of the air strike), I saw pieces of bodies scattered around. I couldn’t even make out which part was which. It was just flesh, everywhere.”

Who is terrorising whom?

Most often, raids by foreign forces are accompanied by abductions and later abuse. For example, even Amnesty International noted such in its 2005 assessment of Afghanistan:

Evidence emerged that U.S. forces had tortured and ill-treated detainees in the “war on terror” in Afghanistan. Former detainees reported being made to kneel, stand or maintain painful postures for long periods, and being subjected to hooding, sleep deprivation, stripping and humiliation. Suspects were detained without legal authority and held incommunicado, without access to lawyers, families or the courts.(20)

A typical U.S.-led night-time raid took place on May 9, 2008. The entry in The Afghan Victim Memorial Project reads:

During the evening of Friday, May 9, 2008, in a hamlet of the Marko area of Ghanikhel district, Nangarhar province, a U.S. occupation force raid killed three civilians, according to local residents. The U.S. attacked the home of Abdul Malik. An elderly man was shot in a mosque and two other men employed as drivers were killed in their homes. Four other civilians were injured in the raid and seven were abducted to a fate unknown. “The Americans killed three civilians,” said demonstrator Pizwan Khan. “They were my neighbours and I knew they were not Taliban,” he told Agence France Presse.

“The coalition claimed they were fired upon from a house and the enemy was gathered there, but the villagers claim those people who were killed were innocent civilians,” said Mohammad Hashem Ghamsharik, spokesman for the Nangarhar Governor. Malik Sohail, the tribal chief of the Shinwaris, said seven people were abducted by U.S. troops during the night-time raid. He added that all those killed, injured and abducted were members of one family. The independent Pajhwok Afghan News service published a photo of one of the victims (something the Associated Press rarely does though it frequently publishes photos of Taliban suicide attack victims – so-called “good bodies”(21)).

House destroyed in US bombs
A house in Ganikhel village that was attacked by mistake by U.S. forces in October 2001.

Predictably, the U.S. military propaganda machine in Kabul said its troops had only killed “militants” who had attacked troops searching for a “foreign fighter network”. The font of military propaganda, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) occupation spokesman Portuguese Brigadier General Carlos Branco, said: “If we see that there is the possibility of 0.1 per cent of civilian casualties, we do not launch the operations.” On Saturday, up to a thousand protesters took to the main road protesting the deaths. They showed the corpses of the three dead victims (Reuters published a photo, but the Associated Press barely mentioned the incident preferring to headline its wire report with “U.S. Coalition: Militants killed in Afghanistan”). The protesters chanted “Death to America”, “Death to Bush, Death to Karzai”. The local Afghan police shot at the stone-throwing demonstrators, killing three and injuring four others.(22)

For many years, prisoner abuse at the Bagram and U.S. Special Forces’ operating bases was routine and may still very well be.(23) In September 2008, a 38-year-old U.S. Special Forces Green Beret soldier was charged with killing an innocent Afghan civilian and cutting off his ear.(24) Countless individual cases of abduction and abuse are described in The Afghan Victim Memorial database.

At least two secret U.S. Special Forces teams – one operating out of Camp Gecko in Kandahar and the other nicknamed Shaheen, based in Nangarhar – have been operating with utter impunity, carrying out executions. In the middle of the night, some time in October 2007 in Toube village in the area of Garmser, Helmand province, a U.S. Special Forces-led death squad with Afghan troops acted upon information that two high-level Taliban targets were living in Toube. Witnesses told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) that the soldiers broke down doors, shot a number of people, including children in their beds, and in one house slit the throats of two brothers, one of whom survived. The U.S. soldiers came from the infamous base, Camp Gecko (now called Firebase Maholic), located some 15 km outside Kandahar in what was once Mullah Omar’s fortified residence.(25)

On May 15, 2008, Philip Alston, a professor at New York University’s Law School and special investigator for the U.N. Human Rights Council, revealed that U.S. intelligence agents had been carrying out secretive night-time killer raids on “suspected insurgents”. Such raids by international forces had reportedly killed 200 Afghan civilians often in aerial bombings just during 2008. Alston emphasised that these U.S. Special Forces were acting with complete impunity, refusing to provide any information whatsoever. Afghan forces working with the foreign units were not under the control of the Afghan government. Alston wrote:

It is absolutely unacceptable for heavily armed internationals accompanied by heavily armed Afghan forces to be wandering around conducting dangerous raids that too often result in killings without anyone taking responsibility for them.

U.S. and NATO bombing has already contributed to a huge population suffering from permanent physical disability.(26) U.S. cluster bombs caused great damage during the first three months of the bombing campaign in 2001.(27) Flying bomb shrapnel is a major cause of amputation and life-long handicap, especially in a poor country like Afghanistan where most labour involves using one’s body.

The U.S. air attack on Afghanistan began at 4:20 GMT, October 7. The next day, Reuters carried an interview with a 16-year-old ice-cream vendor from Jalalabad injured in a cruise missile strike on the Jalalabad airfield near his home. “There was just a roaring sound, and then I opened my eyes and I was in a hospital,” said the boy, called Assadullah, speaking in Peshawar after being taken across the border for medical help. “I lost my leg and two fingers. There were other people hurt. People were running all over the place.”

Assadullah wants revenge for having part of his leg and two fingers taken away by the U.S. missile: “I wish my God destroys their houses, villages, their cities.”

Who is terrorising whom?

An estimated 1.5 million Afghan war widows, victims of 30 years of continuing war, struggle to survive in a society where widowhood is socially frowned upon and where no system of social security exists.(28) “The average age of an Afghan widow is just 35 years, and 94 per cent of them are unable to read and write,” Deborah Zalesne, a board member of Beyond 9/11 and a law professor at the City University of New York, told IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks). “About 90 per cent of Afghan widows have children, and the average widow has more than four,” Deborah Zalesne added. To survive, many Afghan widows weave carpets, do tailoring, beg or even engage in prostitution. In urban areas where women have better access to employment and other services than in conservative rural areas, an average working widow earns about $16 a month, experts estimate.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy writes:

“War widows often stand outside government buildings holding frayed photographs of their late husbands, hoping to be noticed. ‘They should be the government’s top priority,’ says Ms Akrami. ‘These women are uneducated; they lack basic job skills and cannot fend for themselves. If America invaded us to liberate our women, this is a clear sign that they are failing miserably.’”(29)

U.S./NATO bombing and ground attacks have contributed to Afghan widowhood, especially when, as is usually the case, attacks are carried out in the middle of the night.(30)

For example:

Every morning Gul, who was widowed when an American bomb hit her house in 2001, leaves her two daughters to go begging on the streets of Kabul. “If I’m lucky, I’ll make about 50 afghanis (80 p), enough to buy two pieces of bread,” she says…. Kabul, it is said, is the widows’ capital of the world. As many as 50,000 women like Gul live in the city, and many make their home in the abandoned buildings that dot the suburbs, often living in horrific conditions…. On the southern edge of Kabul, among the rubble and bombed-out buildings, Gul and her two daughters, Zeba and Seema, live in a simple one-room flat with no heating or water in a city where winter temperatures can plummet as low as -170C. Inside, Gul’s daughters prepare tea for their tired mother. They would like to attend school but do not have money to buy school supplies. “I want to become a teacher,” says 14-year-old Zeba, “I wish I could go to school. I am happiest when I am learning.”

Sixteen-year-old Seema, meanwhile, is angry at the Afghan government’s empty promises. “I don’t think our lives will improve,” she says. “My mother is a beggar; the government doesn’t care about us. They do not offer to help us; nothing has changed for us in this new Afghanistan.”

A similar story describes Magul’s fate in Kandahar in December 2001, described in The Afghan Victim Memorial Project:

“In memory of Magul’s (38) husband and one child killed in early December 2001 during the heavy bombing of Kandahar city. A U.S. bomb killed her husband and a child, also taking away any form of regular income. Magul ekes out a hand-to-mouth existence, washing other people’s clothes when she gets a chance. Her 16-year-old son looks for a job but cannot find one. Magul collects cattle feed in a bag under her voluminous head-to-toe burka and feeds it to her seven children. She says, ‘Animals eat this stuff, but it’s all I have to take home to them.’ She could not remember (in late January 2002) when she last had a hot meal of rice and beans. Every morning Magul joins an army of several thousand burka-clad women besieging the interim government’s planning department in Kandahar, seeking assistance which never materialises. Killed by a U.S. ‘precision’ bomb.”

Who is terrorising whom?

The intense U.S. and NATO bombing has demolished homes, torn up fields and orchards and killed villagers’ animals.

Costs and consequences of aerial bombings


The aforementioned vectors of U.S/NATO terrorising Afghanistan are part of a larger field of costs resulting from aerial bombing campaigns (described in Table 2).(31)

A full accounting would need to assess these multiple effects, which rarely get mention in mainstream accounts of the Afghan war. On the other hand, the discussed vectors of U.S./NATO actions provide evidence to answer “Who is Terrorising Whom in Afghanistan”.


1) Based upon an interview with National Public Radio in the United States, see “Sarah Chayes: Taliban Terrorizing Afghanistan”, (February 4, 2009) at

2) As for example in a 2006 interview on the liberal radio programme DemocracyNow!, where she laments that the U.S. lost its focus in Afghanistan of laying “the foundations of a respectful democratic country that would carry Afghanistan forward into the community of nations”.

3) Jean Bricmont (tr. by Diana Johnstone), Humanitarian Imperialism Using Human Rights to Sell War (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007).

4) As in “NATO Didn’t Lose Afghanistan”, The New York Times (July 10, 2007).

5) Paraphrasing Mike Thicke, “Inside Afghanistan: A Review of The Punishment of Virtue”, Seven Oaks Magazine (January 3, 2007) at

6) In her interview with Bill Moyers, Sarah Chayes does mention the blood debt created when Canadian forces killed a sharecropper and his son near Kandahar, “You know. You’ve got people now with blood feud against NATO troops because of things like, you know, civilian casualties” (from “We’re Fooling Ourselves – Bill Moyers Interview with Sarah Chayes on Afghanistan” (January 29, 2009)) at

7) See “Karzai Says Afghanistan’s Foreign Allies were Pressuring Him to Stop Complaining about Civilian Casualties”, Agence France Presse (February 4, 2009) and Audrey Gillan, “British Army Officer accused of leaking Afghan Deaths Data”, The Guardian (February 5, 2009).

8) I have explored this issue of relative lethality many times in0 the past six years; see for example my “Relative Lethality”, Frontline, (January 26, 2007) at

9) ”Mike Davis, “The Poor Man’s Air Force. A History of the Car Bomb”, in (April 12, 2006) at

10) See my “U.S. Bombing and Afghan Civilian Deaths; The Official Neglect of ‘Unworthy’ Bodies”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, September 3, 2002); pp 626-34.

11) Joshua Frost, “The Unbearable Lightness of Kabul. Lots of Bombs go off in Afghanistan, but the Media only seem to Report the Ones that hit Internationals”, Columbia Journalism Review (December 1, 2008) at

12) The deadliness of such CAS attacks is documented in my essay, “Matrix of Death. A New Dossier on the (Im)Precision of U.S. Bombing and the (Undervaluation) of Afghan Lives”, Global Research (October 2, 2008) at

13) Bruce Rolfsen, “Strikes in Afghanistan Decline as Flights Rise”, Air Force News (November 19, 2008).

14) From “Coalition Military Fatalities by Year and Month”, at

15) See my “U.S. Military Strategy to Maintain Afghanistan as an ‘Empty Space’” (March 18, 2006) at

16) Alex Thomson, “New Breed of Taliban Replaces Old Guard”, The Telegraph (September 19, 2008) at

17) The following account is taken from Emmanuel Duparcq, “Khost: a U.S War Snared in Afghan Realities”, Agence France Presse (February 8, 2009) at

18) Graeme Smith, “Report Slams Tactic of Night Raids on Afghan Homes”, The Globe and Mail (December 23, 2008).

19) Ezatullah Zawab and Hafizullah Gardesh, “‘Just Flesh Everywhere’: Air Attacks Turn Friends into Enemies”, The Keene Sentinel (August 3, 2008) at

20) Amnesty International USA, “2005 Annual Report for Afghanistan”, at

21) The bias in reporting by the Associated Press has been widely acknowledged. See, for example, Peter Phillips, “New Bias in the Associated Press”, (July 22, 2006) at www.commondreams.organd my own “The AP Speaks Newspeak” (December 12, 2007) at

22) From the Afghan Victim Memorial Project at Afghan Victim Memorial Project.

23) Tom Lasseter, “Day 2: U.S. Abuse of Detainees was Routine at Afghanistan Bases”, McClatchey Newspapers (July 9, 2008) at www.mcclatchydc.comand Kevin Sack and Craig Pyes, “Secrets in the Mountains of Afghanistan. The Concealed Deaths of Two Detainees at Gardez Paints a Troubling Picture of Abuse by U.S. Special Forces Units There”, Los Angeles Times (September 24, 2006).

24) Soldier Formally Charged in Afghan Civilian Death”, Associated Press (September 18, 2008) at

25) Details from Afghan Victim Memorial Project at Afghan Victim Memorial Project.

26) Details in Rosie DiManno, “Afghanistan a Land of Disabled and Discarded. The Survey Put the Tally of Severely Disabled Afghans at up to 867,000”, Toronto Star (May 22, 2008) at RAWA News.

27) See my “Above the Law and Below Morality: Data on 11 Weeks of U.S. Cluster-Bombing of Afghanistan”, (February 1, 2002) at

28) “Bleak Prospects for Estimated 1.5 Million Widows in Afghanistan”, IRIN News (January 30, 2008) at RAWA News. See also Saba Gul Khattak, “The U.S Bombing of Afghanistan: A Women-Centered Perspective” (New York: Social Science Research Center website, viewpoint essay #6, 2001).

29) Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, “Forgotten Women Turn Kabul into Widows’ Capital”, The Independent (May 17, 2007) at and also

30) Further details in my “Rubble Rousers: U.S. Bombing and the Afghan Refugee Crisis” (March 16, 2002) at

31) From my chapter “‘Collateral Damage’? Civilians and the U.S. Air War in Afghanistan”, in Aftab Ahmad Malik (ed), Shattered Illusions Analyzing the War on Terrorism (Bristol, England: Amal Press, 2002), p.217.

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