Sunday, November 29, 2009

Winning the War for Hearts and Minds

Lack of money is the root of all evil

George Bernard Shaw

He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

There's a lot of talk of “a war for hearts and minds”, as there was in the Vietnam war, but, as in Vietnam and El Salvador, far more money and effort  is being spent blowing peoples’ hearts and minds out of their bodies and creating grief, rage and a desire for revenge in the hearts and minds of survivors than is spent on providing enough money to buy food to feed hearts and minds, clothing to cover them, medical care to keep them healthy or an education that gives them more than one extreme interpretation of a single book (the Quran) (1).

A “war for hearts and minds” may sound noble and idealistic. In fact in reality such wars by US forces from Vietnam to El Salvador, Nicaragua and Iraq have involved terrorism of a kind that even the Taliban or Al Qa’ida could not match for brutality. In Vietnam  the US ‘Phoenix programme” involved the torture and murder of vast numbers of civilians suspected of being “Communist sympathisers” (2). In El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala US military trainers like General Simeon Trombitas and Major James Steele trained right-wing militaries in how to break the will not only of armed guerrillas but trade unionists and school teachers by a campaign of massacres of entire villages involving torture, rape and murder. One favourite technique was to cut the foetus from the belly of a pregnant woman in front of everyone, then kill mother and child. The same men were training Iraqi ‘security forces’ in the same methods in Iraq from 2005 to 2009 – and probably still are, if they’ve not been moved to Afghanistan already (3), (4).

So the phrase “a war for hearts and minds”, as it’s used by the US government and its allies, is just Orwellian doublespeak; Like “counter terrorism” it means a war to instil terror and fear in the hearts and minds of anyone who might dissents from total domination of their country by those who collaborate with foreign firms and governments to rob them in return for a share of the loot. Some British officers also privately admit it can simply mean propaganda.

Airstrikes, suicide bombings and torture and murder by the Taliban and US and Afghan government forces, terrible as they are, are not the only killers in Afghanistan or Pakistan though. Cold and hunger, diseases caused by lack of clean water and a lack of medical treatment have killed many times more. During the 2001 invasion the airstrikes made aid truck drivers refuse to cross the border from Pakistan, out of fear of being bombed the way Kosovan Albanian refugees were in 1999 in Kosovo, mistaken for tanks and APCs by pilots ordered to bomb from high altitude to avoid any possible anti-aircraft systems. Their fears were well grounded – US planes repeatedly bombed the International Red Cross headquarters in Kabul, despite its roof being clearly marked with a giant red cross (5) – (10).

As a result by January 2002 hundreds of refugees were dying every night of exposure and hunger in the Maslakh refugee camp near Herat alone (11). In refugee camps and villages across the country desperate people ate grass to try to survive the withdrawal of aid workers due to a war begun in the middle of a famine in winter(12) – (15). At the same time US airstrikes and missile strikes killed more civilians in Afghanistan than died in New York on September 11th (16) – (22).

The Bush administration and the Pentagon made a great show of dropping food aid by parachute (which according to Medicins Sans Frontiers and others was far too little and much of it wrapped in the same yellow packaging as cluster bombs they dropped simultaneously, resulting in many deaths among children picking them up) (23) – (24).

The Taliban’s Afghan rivals of the ‘Northern Alliance’ meanwhile robbed many Pashtun civilians of the last of their food, using accusations that they were Taliban as an excuse (25).

You may think that this is the past, but nothing much has changed, except that starvation is increased by both airstrikes and Taliban suicide bombings and hijackings these days, as a result of NATO forcing aid workers to join military reconstruction teams, making them into Taliban targets.

NATO governments still haven’t provided most of the aid they promised. Hunger, cold and lack of medical attention remain killers on a scale at least as great as NATO offensives or Taliban suicide bombings in Afghanistan and there has been very little in the way of reconstruction. This is often blamed on insurgents, like the similar situation in Iraq. Take a look at New Orleans though, where there is no insurgency, and you’ll see there’s no reconstruction there either – unless you count locking people out of their public housing before demolishing it to let developers build flats to rent to the wealthy – something the poor of Kabul have also seen done by the Karzai government and the warlords allied to NATO, who demolished the homes of the poor with their inhabitants still in them to make way for luxury residences for government ministers (26) – (30).

“Reconstruction” is mostly simply a euphemism for theft. Much of the 'aid' pledged is never delivered, while 40% goes to firms from the donor country. The top management in the reconstruction consortia do well from it, so do major shareholders and some consultants. Ordinary Afghans and Iraqis see little or none of it. British and American forces don’t even get the armour and armoured vehicles available. Afghan army and police units are using equipment from the 1960s and 1970s.

There are exceptions, but they are the minority.

Petraeus’ supposedly brilliant “troop surge” in Iraq has not ended the civil war there because there is no military solution to problems caused by poverty, hunger, lack of education and a cycle of revenge creating sectarian kidnappings, murders and bombings. As in Afghanistan hunger, poverty and disease have been increased for Iraqis as a result of the corruption of the occupying governments and the new government they’ve installed.

By 2008 Iraqis were on a quarter of the food rations they received under Saddam Hussein and sanctions, many reduced to searching rubbish bins for food, like many of the people of the Phillipines, El Salvador and Nicaragua – whose hunger was similarly the result of brutal US military-led campaigns for “democracy”. Some of the continuing “insurgent” bombings in Iraq look suspiciously like those carried out by the CIA in Guatemala in the 1950s to justify a US backed military coup there. According to Professor Greg Grandin, they often made claims of responsibility for bombings and other attacks on behalf of non-existent terrorist groups they had invented like the ‘Organisation of Militant Godless’ – echoed by the many ‘previously unheard of’ groups claiming responsibility for bombings today (31).

A real war for Hearts and Minds can only be won by those who fire the least bullets and explode the least bombs; by the side who kill the fewest people and so create the fewest enemies seeking vengeance on them, whether as a result of airstrikes or suicide bombings or torture or summary ‘execution’. It will be won by the side that kills the least mothers, fathers, children, uncles, cousins, grandparents, lovers, neighbours and friends. It will be won by the side that provides decent jobs paying enough to feed a family; by the side that helps grow crops rather than spraying chemicals on them or burning them as part of a “war on drugs” carried out by a government proven by the US National Security Archive, and investigative journalists historians to have colluded with drug traffickers from Vietnam, El Salvador and Nicaragua to Panama, Colombia and Afghanistan; by the side that provides people with a decent education; by the side that helps provide hospitals and the funding to pay doctors and buy or produce medicines (32) – (35).

It will be won by defeating the greatest killers in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the world : hunger, cold, ignorance and illness. Every dollar or pound spent on bombs, bullets and fuel to transport them to the war zone is a dollar or a pound that could have been spent on saving lives and winning hearts and minds rather than destroying some and turning others against us.

A real war for hearts and minds can only be won by only firing in self-defence or the defence of others – and not by seeking to secure control of areas by offensives, nor by airstrikes, nor by assassination by missile strike or airstrike, nor by ‘counter terrorism’ or ‘counter insurgency’ operations’. US “counter-insurgency” methods are terrorism and brutality of a kind that even the Taliban has never matched.

A genuine ‘war for hearts and minds’ is won by the side that explodes the least bombs, fires the fewest bullets and provides the most food, education and medical care to allow others’ hearts and minds freedom to develop the way they want to – and not the way big companies and Pentagon planners in another country want them to.

(1) = Professor Marilyn B. Young (1990) ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990’

(2) = Professor Marilyn B. Young (1990) ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990’, pages 212-213

(3) = Professor Greg Grandin (2007) ‘Empire’s Workshop : Latin America, the United States and the Rise of Imperialism’, Holt Paperbacks, New York, 2007, Chapter 3, especially pages 90-91, 101 and 116-117

(4) = See this post and Guardian 22 Nov 2009 'US pours millions into anti-Taliban militias in Afghanistan',

(5) = Independent 19 Oct2001 ‘Blair in row with aid group over claim that Taliban are looting food convoys’,

(6) = AP 26 Oct 2001 ‘U.S. Jets Hit Red Cross in Kabul’, and

(7) = Independent 27 Oct 2001 ‘Kabul Red Cross is bombed again byAmerican jets again’,

(8) = BBC News 17 May 1999 ‘Nato pilot bombed refugees’,

(9) = Independent 14 May 1999 ‘Robinson criticises Nato'sbombing’,

(10) = Human Rights Watch Feb 2000 ‘CIVILIAN DEATHS IN THE NATO AIRCAMPAIGN’,

(11) = Guardian 3 Jan 2002 Refugees left in the cold at 'slaughterhouse' camp

(12) = Guardian 9 Jan 2002 ‘Afghans eat grass as aid fails to arrive’,

(13) = Observer 27 Jan 2002 ‘Hunger and vengeance haunt Afghanistan's sprawling tent city’,

(14) = The Ecologist March 2002 ‘Media indifference to Afghan crisis :
Why is the mainstream media ignoring the mass death of Afghan civilians?’,

(15) = Guardian 4 Feb 2002 ‘Aid packages ignore starving Afghans’,

(16) = Independent 27 Nov 2001 ‘Legacy of civilian casualties in ruins of shattered town’,

(17) = Independent 05 Dec 2001 ‘Civilians abandon homes after hundreds are casualties of US air strikes on villages’ ,

(18) = Independent  01 Jan 2002 ‘US accused of killing 100 civilians in Afghan bombing raid’,

(19) = Independent  04 Dec 2001 ‘A village is destroyed. And America says nothing happened’,

(20) = Guardian 7 Jan 2002 ‘Bloody evidence of US blunder’,

(21) = Guardian 20 May 2002 ‘Forgotten victims’,

(22) = Professor Marc Herold ‘A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States' Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan : October 7, 2001 thru March 2002’,

(23) = Guardian 9 Oct 2001 ‘Border stays shut to fleeing Afghans’,

(24) = Independent 21 Aug 2002 ‘Return to Afghanistan: Explosives that US knew would kill innocents continue to take their toll’,

(25) = Sunday Herald 24 March 2002 Eyewitness: Afghanistan - 'They took our food stocks and water pumps, then beat us',;col1

(26) = Mail & Guardian (South Africa) 21 Dec 2007, 'Housing protests grip New Orleans',

(27) = Klein, Naomi (2007), 'The Shock Doctrine' , Penguin , London, 2007, Chapter 20

(28)  = Washington Post 12 Jan 2007, ‘New Orleanians March to Protest Crime Wave’,

(29) = Independent 05 Sep 2003 ‘UN fears instability in Kabul after Mayor demolishes 'illegal' homes’,

(30) = Washington Post 16 Sep 2003 ‘Land grab in Kabul embarrasses government’ and several other articles reproduced at

(31) = Professor Greg Grandin (2007) ‘Empire’s Workshop : Latin America, the United States and the Rise of Imperialism’, Holt Paperbacks, New York, 2007, p 48

(32) = Professor Alfred McCoy (1991) ‘The Politics of Heroin - CIA complicity in the global drug trade’, Lawrence Hill , New York ,1991

(33) = US National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 2, ‘The Contras, Cocaine,
and Covert Operations’,

(34) = See sources on this link


McChrystal's El Salvador in Afghanistan and/or Obama's peace talks with Taliban and Hekmatyar?

And the strange case of Bashir Noorzai

The latest news from Afghanistan is that McChrystal's new counter-insurgency strategy involves embedding US Special Forces with local Afghan militias. For some reason McChrystal has made this a purely US operation, with ISAF and NATO having no part in it and being given little information on it. Is this an El Salvador death squads option for Afghanistan like the ones Reagan inflicted on Salvadoran's and the one's Bush inflicted on Iraqis and which Obama hasn't seemed to end? Let's hope not, but if not the secrecy with allies is strange.(1)

The "Noorzai" referred to by McChrystal's predecessor in the Guardian article as the man McChrystal wanted to hand out the money to potential Afghan militia leaders would seem to be Arif Noorzai, an Afghan government minister (2). Bashir Noorzai, the former head of the same clan, was arrested on charges of heroin trafficking in the US in 2005 and jailed in April 2009 according to Reuters (with no explanation for why he spent 4 years in jail before being tried)(3) - (5). Now it may be hard to find anyone with any influence in Afghanistan who isn't involved in the heroin trade, but this makes NATO governments' claim that they've sent troops there to end the heroin trade even more ludicrous - and provides another reason to move to legalisation of Afghan poppy crops for the production of medical opiate painkillers, something already allowed in Britain (6).

Having said that Bashir Noorzai's trial seems to have been highly political.The US gives massive military aid and political support to the Colombian government, whose President Uribe is known to be deeply involved in the drugs trade in Cocaine (7). Bush and Clinton both backed Uribe - and Hillary Clinton is Obama's Secretary of State. So if the Bush and Obama administrations both want Bashir jailed it can't really be because he's involved in drugs trafficking. Peter Dale Scott also quotes Pakistani investigative journalist Ahmed Rashid's book 'Descent into Chaos' which revealed that during the 2001 invasion "the Pentagon had a list of twenty-five or more drug labs and warehouses in Afghanistan but refused to bomb them because some belonged to the CIA's new NA [Northern Alliance] allies." (8)

Reuters reported that:

In sentencing him, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin noted Noorzai's history and his circumstances in coming to the United States were "unusual" but said he could not "second guess" the U.S. government on whether they should have arrested him."They are foreign policy considerations," said Chin. (8)

The Times article from May this year mentions Obama's envoy to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke "has met Daoud Abedi, an Afghan-American businessman close to Hekmatyar, and the US administration will fund an Afghan government department to conduct negotiations with Hezb-i-Islami and the Taliban."(9)

This sounds like an attempt at peace negotiations, but knowing the history of US interventions, US government thinking and looking at McChrystal's report to Obama this suggests Obama is trying to use military force - possibly including El Salvador style death squads - to pressure the Taliban and Hekmatyar to make a peace deal. How likely is that to work? Would the US make peace while under attack by regular and irregular enemy forces? (10)

Hekmatyar was backed by the Us as one of the Mujahedin warlords fighting the Soviet invasion, but went onto the State Department's "most wanted" list of terrorists after he was allegedly involved in organising the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (which, like September 11th seemed to involve a surprising number of warnings before the attack being ignored by the upper ranks of the FBI and government). He is certainly as extreme in his views and actions as any Taliban (11), (12).

However handing out money to bribe Afghans to change sides is likely to be far more effective than fighting them to try to get them to surrender. Pakistani investigative journalist and author Ahmed Rashid recounts in his book 'Descent into Chaos' that it took only millions of dollars to bribe some Taliban commanders to change sides or stay neutral in October 2001, while US airstrikes mostly just killed civilians. The current war costs millions each day. The question is whether handing out money to clan leaders and warlords, as the Bush admin-istration did in larger amounts than it provided to Karzai's government, will just make the warlords stronger and any chance for an elected government that could provide legal protection to Afghans weaker. (14)

(1) = Guardian 22 Nov 2009 'US pours millions into anti-Taliban militias in Afghanistan',

(2) = Times 10 May 2009 'Karzai in move to share power with warlord wanted by US',

(3) = Reuters 11 Sep 2008 'Accused Afghan drug lord goes on trial in New York',

(4) = Reuters 11 Sep 2008 'Accused drug lord in U.S. called Taliban backer',

(5) = Reuters 30 Apr 2009 'Afghan tribal leader gets life in prison in NY',

(6) = Herald 03 Sep 2008 ‘UK farmers allowed to cultivate poppies for morphine’,
(2) = Herald 03 Sep 2008 ‘UK farmers allowed to cultivate poppies for morphine’,


(8) = Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (New York: Viking, 2008), page 320

(9) = See (5) above

(10) = See (2) above

(11) = COMISAF’s Initial Assessment – Lt. General William McChrystal 30 Aug 2009,

(12) = Rashid , Ahmed(2001) Taliban , Tauris,London ,2001 - Chapter 14

(13) = Bovard, James (2003) ‘Terrorism and Tyranny : Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil’, Palgrave MacMillan, N.Y & Houndmills, U.K, 2003, paperback edition, Chapter 3, especially pages 32-38

(14) = Ahmed Rashid (2008) ‘Descent into Chaos : How the war against Islamic extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia’, Allen Lane (Penguin books), London, 2008, Chapter 8, pages 125-144 of hardback edition and chapter 4 (page 76) of hardback edition

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Have NATO airstrikes killed fewer civilians in Afghanistan under Obama? And have they fallen under McChrystal?

Contents Links

Any figures likely far lower than real total

When looking at the figures on civilian deaths in Afghanistan it’s important to remember that there is no independent and reliable source of figures that has sufficient resources and security to investigate and record all killings of civilians, especially in a country as large and mountainous as Afghanistan – so any figures are likely to be significantly lower than the real totals.

The two main bodies giving figures are UNAMA and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). Of the two only UNAMA gives monthly and annual totals for the whole country (and only from 2007 on), while the AIHRC does in-depth interviews of Afghans and NATO forces for some cases. The Afghanistan Conflict Monitor of the Simon Fraser University in Australia warns that that “figures released by these agencies likely represent a substantial undercount”.

(Also note that the sources i provide don’t even cover every airstrike that’s been reported in the media between the Azizabad airstrikes in August 2008 and the present.)

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The Afghanistan Conflict Monitor of the Simon Fraser University in Australia, ‘Civilian Casualties’,


No entirely independent source for figures, only UN produces monthly and annual totals

As the US and its ally the Afghan government are both UN members – and the US is the most powerful member of the UN, even UNAMA figures may be subject to some downward pressure from the US government. This may even be more the case under Obama – who is keen to show civilian deaths caused by NATO in Afghanistan are falling – than under Bush. There has been a fall in the number of civilian casualties from air strikes reported by NATO and the Afghan government according to the media. This may show a genuine fall, as in the past the Karzai

The AIHRC is not as independent as its name might suggest given that its members were all appointed by Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President installed by the US. It’s chairperson is a woman – Dr. Sima Samar - who has received death threats from both the Taliban and fundamentalist warlords allied to NATO and would not be allowed to be in any public position if not for NATO governments’ pressure. (I’m completely in favour of women being in public life and Dr. Samar is both brave and the right kind of person to have on the commission)  She and her fellow commissioners were appointed by President Karzai, who was appointed by President Bush. She has said she hopes NATO troops will “stay to finish the job you have started”. So if the AIHRC has a bias it’s therefore likely to be more pro-NATO than anti-NATO, though it frequently disputes both Afghan government figures (sometimes saying they’re too high) and NATO claims and figures (saying they’re too low), showing a high degree of independence in practice.

 In some cases Amnesty International have talked to village elders to get the names and numbers of civilians killed in an airstrike, or Human Rights Watch have carried out investigations, or International Red Cross staff on the ground have been able to give rough estimates of the scale of civilian deaths, but, though the resulting figures are often higher than UNAMA or AIHRC or afghan government ones when they do investigate an incident,  none of these three sources attempt to provide comprehensive figures for civilian deaths in Afghanistan. There is also the Afghan Rights Monitor group, which seems to be genuinely independent of the Afghan government, unlike the AIHRC. ARM figures, like Amnesty figures, are sometimes much higher than AIHRC or UNAMA figures – leading to arguments with UNAMA.

Since Azizabad President Karzai has also set up a commission specifically to investigate airstrikes and this provided figures on the Kunduz strike in October.

In general NATO figures for civilian casualties caused by their airstrikes are the lowest (and least credible given their terrible record of deliberately reducing the true figures in their “investigations”).

However frequently no two sources agree on the number of casualties (especially the case in the Kunduz airstrikes). UNAMA figures are a bit higher than NATO’s. Afghan government figures tend to be very high, at least in high profile cases where large numbers of civilians have been killed, due to public pressure for the true figures. AIHRC and investigations by Amnesty International give the  most credible figures as they are usually based on interviews with survivors and village elders and use the best methodology.

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The Afghanistan Conflict Monitor of the Simon Fraser University in Australia, ‘Civilian Casualties’,

Independent 25 Jun 2002 ‘Afghanistan loses female minister in row over sharia law’,

Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Commissioners, Dr. Sima Samar,

UN News Service 17 Feb 2009 ‘Number of Afghan civilian deaths in 2008 highest since Taliban ouster, says UN’, <a href="




Mis-quoting Human Rights Watch

In July 2008 a Human Rights Watch researcher was quoted as follows in the New York Times

‘“In their deliberate targeting, the Air Force has all but eliminated civilian casualties in Afghanistan,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst with Human Rights Watch...The greater risk of civilian casualties, Mr. Garlasco said, comes in unplanned targeting, when American and allied troops come under attack unexpectedly and call for airstrikes...In an attempt to help troops on the ground caught up in the fight, there have been situations where they have killed civilians.’”

If that is the case (and it may well be as Garlasco is a former US soldier and experienced HRW investigator) it didn’t stop NATO airstrikes killing large number of civilians in what must have been unplanned attacks over and over again – at Azizabad, Farrah, Kunduz and many other places.

Many people half-quoted or mis-quoted Garlasco to give the impression he was saying NATO had almost entirely ended killings of civilians in air strikes in Afghanistan. He hadn’t. He’d just specified which kinds of airstrikes were killing most civilians.

NYT 23 Jul 2008 ‘Civilian Risks Curbing Strikes in Afghan War’, (page 1 only except for subscribers) ,

read the full version at

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Azizabad airstrikes, August 2008 – Why NATO figures are unreliable, based on deliberately flawed methodology

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission found that the US military have consistently tried to deny the true number of civilians killed by air strikes in Afghanistan by using deliberately flawed counting methods.

In the worst incident of 2008 under Bush, at Azizabad,  US airstrikes after fighting between Taliban and NATO ground forces near Azizabad in Afghanistan killed at least 76 civilians according to a subsequent AIHRC investigation – and 95 according to the Afghan government.

As the issue wouldn’t go way the US military’s figure rose from 7 to  26 civilians killed, still conflicting with UN, Afghan government , AIHRC and Human Rights Watch investigations which showed at least 97 civilians were killed.

In another typically dishonest US military “investigation” a General Callan provided a final US military figure of 33 civilians dead, based on such innovative methodology as counting burials of a whole family in one grave as one civilian casualty (which was false as it’s common to bury families together and in airstrikes often a few lumps of flesh are all that’s left of the bodies) and counting all adult males as Taliban (the same definition of ‘enemy combatant’ used by General Mladic and the Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica).

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AFP 26 Aug 2008 ‘US-led force says 5 Afghan civilians killed in strikes’,

PBS 27 Aug 2008 ‘U.N. Says 90 Civilians Killed in Afghan Airstrike’,

Washington Post 29 Aug 2008 ‘Pentagon Reports U.S. Airstrike Killed 5 Afghan Civilians, Not 90’,

AP 02 Sep 2009 ‘US probe finds fewer Afghan deaths than UN claimed’,

Human Rights Watch 08 Sep 2008 ‘“Troops in Contact” - Airstrikes and Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan’,

Human Rights Watch 14 Jan  2009 ‘Letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on US Airstrikes in Azizabad, Afghanistan’,

HRW 15 Jan 2009 ‘Afghanistan: US Investigation of Airstrike Deaths ‘Deeply Flawed’,

Farah Airstrikes, May 2009 : Propaganda continued under Obama

The Azizabad airstrikes were followed in August 2009 by airstrikes in the province of Farah.

Red Cross staff on the ground reported the strikes continued for 14 hours and had killed dozens of civilians. They and Afghan survivors said that civilians had fled miles from the scene of the fighting, only to be followed and bombed by US planes, apparently believing them to be fleeing Taliban.  The US military initially denied any significant civilian casualties. Then Defence Secretary Robert Gates and the Pentagon came out with an imaginative tale in which the Taliban had gone from house to house throwing grenades in to kill civilians – and had then pretended US airstrikes had killed them – and carried the same bodies from one village to another to make it look like there were more than there really were. Seeing that this story wasn’t being bought, they later admitted it wasn’t true.

The US military’s investigation found 20 to 35 civilians had been killed, but as usual this was an unbelievably low figure compared to those provided by more neutral bodies. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission’s investigation gave a figure of 97 civilians killed – 21 women, 65 children and 11 adult men , along with 25 to 30 insurgents.

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Independent 06 May 2009 ‘Afghans riot over air-strike atrocity’,

Independent 06 May 2009 ‘'Dozens die' in Afghan air strikes says Red Cross’,

ICRC News Release 06 May 2009 ‘Afghanistan: ICRC confirms dozens killed in air strikes’,!OpenDocument

Independent 08 May 2009 ‘US denies 147 Afghan civilians killed’,

IOS 10 May 2009 ‘Patrick Cockburn: Who killed 120 civilians? The US says it's not a story’,

Human Rights Watch 14 May 2009 ‘Afghanistan: US Should Act to End Bombing Tragedies  :

Civilian Death Toll in May 3 Airstrikes Shows Previous Measures Inadequate’,

Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission 26 May 2009 ‘Press release:Balabolook incident’,

Voice Of America 26 May 2009 ‘Rights Group: 97 Afghan Civilians Killed in US Strikes’,

Reuters 19 Jun 2009 ‘U.S. says Afghan air strikes killed 26 civilians’,

Reuters 19 Jun 2009 ‘U.S. says Afghan air strikes killed 26 civilians’,

Dispatches – Afghanistan’s Dirty War, Channel 4 News (UK) 12 Jun 2009, Afghanistan's Dirty War,

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After Farah : Have things changed under McChrystal? ; Kunduz and after

After Azizabad Obama appointed a new military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. From now on there would supposedly be a new strategy, airstrikes would be used as little as possible and the number of civilians killed by them would be reduced as a result.

Yet many other NATO airstrikes have also killed civilians since Farah, the worst case so far being a German airstrike on petrol tankers hijacked by the Taliban near Kunduz in September 2009. The Taliban couldn’t use all the fuel themselves, so took what they could transport and told villagers they could take as much as they wanted. A German NATO officer meanwhile called in airstrikes, fearing the Taliban might use the tankers for suicide bombings against NATO forces. General McChrystal, seeing wounded civilians arrive in a hospital, admitted some civilians might have been killed, but unusually gave no figure. President Karzai’s air strike commission gave a figure of 30 civilians killed and 69 Taliban, but said 20 of the Taliban were “unarmed”, bringing the meaning of “Taliban” in its statement into question. Were they Taliban-sympathising civilians or Taliban who had put their weapons down? The Afghan Rights Monitor gave a figure of 60-70 civilians killed, while Afghan village elders gave Amnesty International a list of 83 civilians they said had been killed in the Kunduz strikes.

 Unless the US military has turned over an unprecedented new leaf it will be continuing to deny the real numbers killed – and for the months since Azizabad pretty much the only figures available are NATO and Afghan government ones (with the exception of other sources for the Kunduz strikes).

On NATO and recent Afghan government figures Kunduz might look like an isolated incident. During June 2009, beginning almost a month after McChrystal took command, only 10 civilians were killed by NATO airstrikes in major offensives on Taliban held territory; and only 8  in July during similar circumstances . The NATO and Afghan government figures for August were very low too. However  given the record of deceit in US military and NATO figures on civilian deaths and the immense pressure the US government can put on Karzai’s government it would be a very trusting, naive or blindly “patriotic” person who took these figures as the real ones without any investigation of them by more reliable sources.

If for instance you look at the US military’s initial claims for Azizabad – 5 civilian deaths – with the AIHRC investigation finding at least 76 or the Afghan government figure of 95 that puts the NATO figure at around one fifteenth to one twentieth of more reliable sources. If you compare their final figure of 33 – its under half of the AIHRC figure and just over a third of the Afghan government one – and they are unlikely to concede such a high proportion of the real figure in cases which have received much less publicity.

Media reports of AIHRC figures mean the total for September 2009 alone must be at least 78 in at least two incidents, which brings the monthly average to higher than the UNAMA figures for January to June 2009 of 200 civilians (or 33 per month) killed by airstrikes in Afghanistan. If we take into account that AIHRC figures would probably be higher than the UNAMA ones the totals per month of civilians killed in airstrikes might be about the same for the months of 2009 before McChrystal took command and the months since he did (assuming the Obama administration has not put pressure on UNAMA to lower the figures).

Alternatively if we reason that Afghan government figures used to be higher than NATO ones the fact that they now agree might indicate that civilian deaths from airstrikes genuinely have fallen

It  might be possible to dismiss incidents like the Azizabad, Farah and Kunduz strikes as “freak accidents” if it wasn’t for the fact that they have happened just as frequently as they did under Bush for 7 years – and  are merely the worst instances of a common event. For instance on 20th May – mere weeks after Azizabad – the US military was admitted to having killed at least 8 more civilians in a separate airstrike on “Taliban” who turned out not to be. About a fortnight after the strikes on the tankers at Kunduz a group of 6 farmers was killed by another NATO airstrike. For a fuller list of reports on air strikes in Afghanistan see the Afghan Conflict Monitor’s civilian casualties page.

So AP headlines like ‘Western airstrikes kill fewer civilians’ become a bit dubious when you read the rest of the article – which says the sources for the claim were NATO and its allies in the Afghan government – one of the sides in the war (27). It’s true that the Afghan government has given higher figures than NATO for civilian casualties of air strikes in the past, at least where the number of dead was big enough to cause widespread anger among Afghans, but it may be under greater pressure to be “on message” now that the Obama administration has indicated it would prefer to replace Karzai. It's also worth noting that that AP headline was from 10th August 2009. Less than a month later the Kunduz air-strikes happened.


Professor Marc Herold sees the increase in NATO casualties as an indication that the bad publicity and loss of more Afghan public support caused by the high rate of civilians being killed by airstrikes has forced the US military into relying on fighting on the ground and avoiding airstrikes. This is possible, but then there was a 78% increase in NATO casualties in Afghanistan after the first wave of NATO reinforcements under Obama and Brown when we know for certain that airstrikes were killing more civilians than in the same months of the previous year. The cause seems to have been NATO offensives carried out with the new forces available leading to more fighting and more civilian and military casualties. Since we have no figures on civilian casualties since Azizabad other than NATO and Afghan government ones there is no way as yet to tell if NATO are killing less civilians in airstrikes since Azizabad or not. The unprecedented agreement between NATO and the Karzai government on these figures may be due to falling casualties from airstrikes, or it may be due to increased political pressure from the US government on Karzai.

Whichever interpretation you take there is no doubt that the total number of civilian casualties from all causes (not just NATO airstrikes) in Afghanistan rose steadily in 2007 to 2008 under Bush and has continued to rise for the first 6 months of 2009 under Obama compared to the first 6 months of 2008 under Bush (and ditto for the first 10 months of each year). NATO casualties in the first 3 months under Obama, after reinforcements were sent, also rose 78% compared to the last 3 months of 2008. So so far under Obama civilian casualties continue to increase, probably due to more troops being present leading to more fighting. It's true that the proportion of civilian casualties caused by NATO and Afghan government forces has fallen and the proportion killed by their enemies has risen, but civilians are still dying in greater numbers.

Back to contents links/ top of page

Sources for 'After Farah';'Have things changed under McChrystal; after Kunduz - and - Conclusion


Afghanistan Conflict Monitor (Simon Fraser University, Australia) – Airstrikes,

UN News Service 17 Feb 2009 ‘Number of Afghan civilian deaths in 2008 highest since Taliban ouster, says UN’,




AP/MSNBC 10 Aug 2009 ‘Western airstrikes kill fewer Afghan civilians’,

United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, Human Rights Unit ‘ Afghanistan : Mid Year Bulletin on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, 2009’,


UNoCHA IRIN 12 Nov 2009 'AFGHANISTAN: Over 2,000 civilians killed in first 10 months of 2009',

Guardian 11 Jun 2009 ‘Insurgents are back in force in Afghanistan – and British troops are bearing the brunt’,

Between Azizabad and Farah

= 11 Jul 2008 ‘US air strike wiped out Afghan wedding party, inquiry finds’,

NYT 21 Jul 2008 ‘U.S. and NATO Forces Kill 13 Afghans in Strikes Said to Be Mistakes’,

(9 Afghan police officers killed according to NATO after hit by airstrike when mistaken for Taliban; NATO says 4 civilians killed, 4 wounded by NATO mortar fire, deaths of 3 others “not confirmed” according to NATO)

Sources : After Farah, before Kunduz

Andronkis International - AKI (Rome, Italy) 20 May 2009 ‘Afghanistan: NATO airstrike kills civilians in south’,

AKI 5 Aug 2009 ‘Afghanistan: NATO disputes civilian casualties’,

AP/MSNBC 10 Aug 2009 ‘Western airstrikes kill fewer Afghan civilians’, ,

United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, Human Rights Unit ‘ Afghanistan : Mid Year Bulletin on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, 2009’,

Sources : Kunduz

Reuters 04 Sep 2009 ‘After Afghan strike, charred flesh and burning rage’, (survivors of airstrike on fuel tankers say many of dead civilians)

NYT 04 Sep 2009 ‘NATO Strike Magnifies Divide on Afghan War’,

Al Jazeera 05 Sep 2009 ‘Scores dead in Nato raid on Kunduz’,

LA Times 05 Sep 2009 ‘Afghan officials say NATO airstrike killed mostly civilians,,0,166919.story (US military claim most of those killed by bombing hijacked fuel tankers were Taliban)

CNN 07 Sep 2009 ‘U.S. general sure Afghan civilians wounded in airstrike’,

Guardian 11 Sep 2009 ‘Victims' families tell their stories following Nato airstrike in Afghanistan’,

Al Jazeera 05 Sep 2009 ‘Scores dead in Nato raid on Kunduz’,

LA Times 05 Sep 2009 ‘Afghan officials say NATO airstrike killed mostly civilians,,0,166919.story (US military claim most of those killed by bombing hijacked fuel tankers were Taliban)

CNN 07 Sep 2009 ‘U.S. general sure Afghan civilians wounded in airstrike’,

Voice of America 07 Sep 2009 ‘Afghan Rights Group Says Mostly Civilians Killed in NATO Airstrike’,

VOA 13 Sep 2009 ‘Afghan Commission Says 30 Civilians Killed in NATO Strike’,

After Kunduz

Globe and Mail (Canada) 29 Sep 2009 ‘Airstrike killed farmers, Afghans say’,

NYT 01 Oct 2009 ‘Afghans Say Airstrike Kills 8, Mostly Civilians’,

Afghan tribal elders said Thursday that eight people, at least five of them civilians, were killed in an airstrike in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday.’


CNN 01 Oct 2009 ‘NATO: Airstrike killed Afghan women, children’,

(UN says 1,500 civilians killed in Afghanistan Jan-Aug 2009)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The reality of US counter-insurgency so far : death squads, torture, murder, disappearances

McChrystal’s “Counterinsurgency” plan sounds good on paper – and might be that way in practice, but the reality of counterinsurgency operations so far has been death squads, murder, torture and disappearances

General Stanley McChrystal’s plan for Afghanistan says the focus should be on troops on the ground fighting a “counter-insurgency” war to “protect Afghans” and reduce civilian casualties by avoiding airstrikes. It also makes intelligent suggestions such as having troops actually leave vehicles to protect villagers ;and providing jobs to potential defectors from the insurgents. However unless it’s very different to past US and US-trained counter-insurgency operations in Vietnam and El Salvador and Afghanistan (and General McChrystals previous command in Iraq) and current ones in Iraq, Colombia and Pakistan  - it’s likely to involve death squads murdering, torturing and disappearing civilians and insurgents alike on suspicion if it goes ahead.

‘the expertise and mindset required of a “special” force if it is to be effective at counter-terrorism obliges it to function as a unit of “terrorists in uniform”’, Colin Gray, 'Modern Strategy' Oxford University Press. 1999, page 6

We burned down the thatched huts, starting the blaze with Ronson and Zippo lighters...Why were we torching houses and destroying crops?  Ho Chi Minh had said the people were like the sea in which his guerrillas swam. ... We tried to solve the problem by making the whole sea uninhabitable. In the hard logic of war, what difference did it make if you shot your enemy or starved him to death?”  Colin Powell’s autobiography ‘My American Journey’ quoted by Robert Parry and Norman Solomon (1)

A mother and her two sons hacked to death in their beds...the unidentified body of a young, man strangled, found on the shoulder of a road...the unidentified bodies of three young men, found on another road, their faces partially destroyed by bayonets, one face carved to represent a cross...bodies turn up in the brush of vacant lots, in the garbage thrown down public rest rooms, in bus stations...some are dropped in Lake Ilopango...and wash up near the lakeside cottages and clubs.” Joan Didion, Salvador (2)

Photo: An archbishop in El Salvador shows journalists the bodies of six jesuits, including the 15 year old daughter of one of them and their two housekeepers, murdered by the US backed Salvadoran military in 1989 ; photo by Father Michael Czerny

“One of the more shadowy the death squad...Membership is uncertain, but in addition to civilians we believe that both on and off duty members of the security forces are participants. This was unofficially confirmed by right-wing spokesman Major Roberto D’Aubuisson who stated in an interview in early 1981 that security forces utilize the guize of the death-squad when a potentially embarrassing or odious task needs to be performed.” US State Department Memo 15 Jan 1982 (3)

In...1981...The hamlet of Mozote was completely wiped out...the several massacres which occurred in the same area... are collectively known as the Mozote massacres. The ...sole survivor...Rufina Amaya...escaped by hiding behind trees...She testified that on Friday, December 11, troops arrived and began taking people from their homes at 5 in the morning...At noon the men were blindfolded and killed...the young women... were raped, then killed...the old women were taken next and shot...Among the children murdered were three of Amaya’s, all under ten years oldJuly 20th 1982 supplement to the Report on Human Rights in El Salvador of the Americas Watch Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union (4)

Photo: El Salvador, 1992 : Investigators excavate the skeletons of some of the people murdered in the Mozote massacre ; photo from US National Library of Medicine

‘Andrew Krepinovich, a respected strategic analyst who advises the Pentagon on Iraq, said yesterday that the El Salvador model was being actively discussed’ Guardian 17th May 2005 (5)

General Adnan, as he is known, is the leader of Iraq's most fearsome counterinsurgency force. It is called the Special Police Commandos and consists of about 5,000 troops... there were several American advisers in the room, including James Steele, one of the United States military's top experts on counterinsurgency. Steele honed his tactics leading a Special Forces mission in El Salvador during that country's brutal civil war in the 1980's... I saw about 100 detainees squatting on the floor, hands bound behind their backs; most were blindfolded. To my right, outside the doors, a leather-jacketed security official was slapping and kicking a detainee who was sitting on the ground... a detainee was led out with fresh blood around his nose. The room had enough space for a couple of desks and chairs; one desk had bloodstains running down its side.. a man began screaming in the main hall... through the window behind me, I could hear the sounds of someone vomiting...’ Peter Maas , New York Times Magazine 1st May 2005 (6)

General Adnan Thabit and James Steele

The families of 15 Iraqi Sunnis found in a mass grave north of Baghdad earlier this month...The men were arrested on May 5 when Iraqi security forces raided a vegetable market at Hayy Jameela..A shallow mass grave was discovered in an industrial neighbourhood called Kasra-Wa-Atash, not far from where they were arrested, according to the lawyers. The bodies were blindfolded and revealed such torture marks as broken skulls, burning, beatings, and right eyeballs removed.’ Guardian 20 May 2005 (7)

Photo - Bodies at a morgue in Baqouba Iraq ; photo from Morton S. Skorodin

‘I sat with him watching TV....The program we were watching was Adnan's brainchild, and in just a few months it had proved to be one of the most effective psychological operations of the war. It is reality TV of sorts, a show called ''Terrorism in the Grip of Justice... Those being interrogated on the program...tremble on camera, stumble over their words and look at the ground as they confess to everything from contract murders to sodomy’ Peter Maas, May 2005, (8)

‘ police in Mosul uncovered a mass grave containing 31 bodies... The bodies were discovered in a common grave at the Wadi Egab Cemetery, according to an Iraqi police general who commands a special antiterrorism unit called al-Theeb, or "the wolf." He said police were led to the grave by a former police lieutenant, Shoqayer Fareed Sheet, who confessed on Iraqi television Wednesday night to killing 113 people.’ Washington Post 11 March 2005,(9)

'Days after Iraq's new Shiite-led government was announced on April 28, the bodies of Sunni Muslim men began turning up at the capital's central morgue after the men had been detained by people wearing Iraqi police uniforms....Their hands had been tied or handcuffed behind their backs, their eyes were blindfolded and they appeared to have been tortured.... eyewitnesses said that many of the dead were apprehended by large groups of men driving white Toyota Land Cruisers with police markings. The men were wearing police commando uniforms and bulletproof vests, carrying expensive 9-millimeter Glock pistols and using sophisticated radios, the witnesses said....The Toyotas, which cost more than $55,000 apiece, and Glocks, at about $500 each, are hard to come by in Iraq, and they're rarely used by anyone other than Western contractors and Iraqi security forces...... Jassim's family said he was taken by a large group of men dressed and equipped like police commandos..... The man in charge of the Yarmuk morgue, who gave his name as Abu Amir, said he remembers the day the commandos brought Jassim's corpse."The commandos told me to keep the body outside of the refrigerator so that the dogs could eat it because he's a terrorist and he deserves it," Abu Amir said.' Tom Lasseter and Yasser Salihee / Knight Ridder, 28th June 2005

'Yasser Salihee, an Iraqi special correspondent for Knight Ridder, was shot to death in Baghdad last Friday.The shot appears to have been fired by a U.S. military sniper...Salihee...was driving alone near his home in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Amariyah when a single bullet pierced his windshield and then his skull.' Tom Lasseter/Knight Ridder 29 Jun 2005

“[We are] very proud of what was done in El Salvador”,  General Trombitas, US military, Iraq National Counter-Terror Transition Team, 2009 (served in El Salvador 1989-90, Colombia 2003-2005). Trombitas also told the Pentagon the training methods used in Latin America were “extremely transferable” to Iraq and other countries.( , Shane Bauer, The Nation ,3rd June 2009 ,(10)

Photo: General Simeon Trombitas, Iraq, 2009

Baghdad...He walks over to his three-foot-tall daughter ..."They took the blindfold off me, pointed the gun at her head ...saying, 'Either you tell us where al-Zaydawi is, or we kill your daughter... The men...looked and spoke like [Iraqis]but they were wearing American-style uniforms and carrying American weapons with night-vision scopes ... “We are the Special Forces. The dirty brigade”, Hassan recalls them saying.... On the same night Hassan Mahsan's house was raided, 26-year-old Haidar al-Aibi was killed... Fathil al-Aibi says the family was awakened around midnight by a nearby explosion. His brother Haidar ran up to the roof to see what had happened and was immediately shot from a nearby rooftop. When Fathil, his brother Hussein and his father, Abbas, tried to bring Haidar downstairs, they were shot at, too. For about two hours he lay lifeless on the roof while his family panicked as red laser beams from rifle scopes danced on their windows... around the same time that night, police commando Ahmed Shibli says he was also being fired on. ..The men who busted open his front door called themselves the dirty brigade, he says, and they were carrying American weapons, not the AK-47s or PKCs the National Police use. When they entered, they fired immediately. "It wasn't a warning shot...”... They fired again... fatally shooting his...63-year-old father... The effective head of the American ISOF project is General Trombitas of the Iraq National Counter-Terror Transition Team.Shane Bauer, The Nation ,3rd June 2009 , (11)

'Units of the Colombian military continue to tolerate, support, and commit abuses in collaboration with members of paramilitary groups. In 2005, there continued to be reports of abuses by members of the Army's 17th Brigade as well as by members of the armed forces operating in the region of Chocó.....In February 2005, eight residents of the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartadó, including four minors, were brutally killed. The government's immediate reaction to the massacre, prior to any investigation, was to blame it on guerrillas and deny any military presence in the area. Yet members of the community have alleged that military and possibly paramilitary groups were involved, and there is evidence pointing to military movements near the location of the massacre.', Human Rights Watch World Report 2006 (12)

Photo: A peace march and symbolic funeral at San Jose de apartado, Colombia, 2008. (See Internacional Resistentes a la guerra for more on the peace community there)

Steven Casteel, who was in charge of establishing Iraq's police commandos - and who previously trained government forces in El Salvador and Colombia on behalf of the US government. Colombia's President Uribe is a known drug trafficker and linked to paramilitary death-squads funded via US military aid.

'Two months after the Pakistani Army wrested control of the Swat Valley from Taliban militants, a new campaign of fear has taken hold, with scores, perhaps hundreds, of bodies dumped on the streets in what human rights advocates and local residents say is the work of the military..........Bodies, some with torture marks and some with limbs tied and a bullet in the neck or head, have been found on the roads of Mingora and in rural areas that were militant strongholds.......The exact number of alleged killings was impossible to calculate because the presence of human rights monitors was limited by the authorities, the commission said. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which investigates illegal killings, was ordered by the military to leave Swat last month over matters unrelated to the killings, a senior Pakistani government official and the Red Cross said.........In one case, a family filed a petition with the army command last week describing the alleged killing of their son while in military custody. ..The family of the man, Akhtar Ali, 28, said he was arrested at his electrical shop in Mingora in the early evening of Sept. 1 by a group of soldiers. Four days later, Mr. Ali’s body was returned to the family home “tortured to death,” a petition signed by his mother, Jehan Sultana, said.' New York Times 14th Sep 2009, (13)

Photo - Swat valley, Pakistan : A dancing girl murdered by the Taliban for being 'un-Islamic' - Pakistan's army and militias backed by it have been dealing out similar "justice" to hundreds of known and suspected Taliban, but have made sure no photos can be taken of the bodies; photo by Rashid Iqbal , European PressPhoto Agency

What do US counter-insurgency and counter- terrorism operations involve in practice?

Some believe that guerrillas or “insurgents” like the Taliban and NATO’s other opponents in Afghanistan can be defeated by ‘counter-insurgency’ tactics. This is often called the ‘El Salvador option’ by current and former members of the US military and Pentagon advisers (14) – (18). It’s often euphemistically (and simplistically) described as training indigenous forces to “take out the bad guys”. General Stanley McChrystal suggests it as an alternative to the reliance on big offensives and air-strikes which has led to high civilian casualties and to most Afghans disliking foreign forces as most of them hate the Taliban. Vice President Joe Biden’s plan to use small numbers of Special Forces along with missile strikes from unmanned drones would reduce the numbers of deaths involved on both sides – and of civilians - but it’s hard to see how it could reduce the proportion of civilians killed mistakenly by either the drones or the special forces.
'Counter insurgency' and 'counter terrorism' operations by militaries only really differ in scale.

Let’s be clear about what “counter-insurgency” or “counter-terrorism” actually involves. It involves death squads torturing and ‘disappearing’ (i.e murdering) anyone suspected of opposing the government the US government backs. It was used across Latin America by the US and its client regimes in the 1960s through to the 1980s, involving the virtual genocide of native Indians in Guatemala as they were killed by the hundreds of thousands and eventually millions. In El Salvador people critical of the government or the US government backing it were found as corpses dumped in rubbish tips or shallow graves or on the street, their bodies bearing the marks of torture – much like many of those in Iraq in the last 6 years or the Swat valley in Pakistan today. The US National Security Archives, historians and many other sources show the US government knew of all this and continued providing CIA and US military aid, arms and training – and often US ‘advisors’ and ‘trainers’ were present during torture and murder (19) – (22).

As the quotes above show, the American officer in charge of training the latest ‘counter-terrorism’ force in Iraq - General Trombitas - was involved in doing the same in El Salvador and says he’s “very proud of what we achieved in that country” (23). Salvadoran troops were also sent to Iraq, making Rumsfeld misty eyed for the good old days (24) – (25). John Negroponte, still an adviser to Hillary Clinton, was the US ambassador to Honduras at the height of the US-trained wave of death squads across Latin America (which has never entirely ended) (26) – (29).

The US backed government of El Salvador employed death squads to murder anyone suspected of having any connection to or sympathy for left-wing rebels. This included four American citizens - three nuns and one lay worker with a christian order - who were raped and murdered on the orders of senior Salvadoran military officers. Rather than demand justice the Reagan administration made up excuses for the murderers (who were US trained and funded and had US government political backing). Secretary of State Alexander Haig suggested that perhaps the nuns had approached a checkpoint in their car without stopping, leading the Salvadoran military to think they were rebels, though he provided not a shred of evidence for this claim. When the four soldiers responsible testified to a Truth Commission that they had acted on the orders of their superiors in 1993 Haig's successor - James Rubin of the Clinton administration said We are unclear about their veracity or the possible motivations behind them." Far from bringing those responsible to justice the US government let the Generals who are the main suspects for giving the orders retire in Florida. Robert White, who was the American ambassador to El Salvador at the time of the murders later wrote that he knew that "the CIA station had on its payroll agents intimately linked to the death-squad violence", but that the CIA refused his demands that it provide intelligence on who was responsible for death squad murders (29a) - (29b).

Photo : Nuns pray over the bodies of three American nuns and an American volunteer charity worker who were raped and murdered by the military of El Salvador in 1980, during US backing for a government that ran military death squads

One of the most useful aspects of the “El Salvador option” for governments operating the ‘training native forces to carry out the torture and death squad killings is that they have plausible deniability and can blame everything on their supposedly less civilised allies.This may or may not be part of the model General McChrystal has for ‘counter insurgency’ in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What's undeniably a fact is that a unit he commanded in Iraq – Task Force 6-26 were found to have systematically tortured Iraqis by beatings – including kicking prisoners in the spine till they passed out from pain, punching them in the stomach till they were sick, burning them and dousing them in cold water to induce hypothermia at night. A former member of the unit said he was told that McChrystal had guaranteed that the International Red Cross would not have access to the camp or the prisoners held there (30) – (32) .

While most people accepted without question or requests for evidence that all the bodies found in Iraq with torture marks and bullet wounds in the backs of their heads were the victims of Iraqi militias many of them may have been the victims of the Pentagon’s ‘El Salvador Option’ and ‘Phoenix Programme’ in Iraq. Many were seen being taken away by US-trained Iraqi police commandos before their deaths. (For more on this see Max Fuller's 'For Iraq the Salvador Option becomes Reality' , Crying Wolf, Nicola Davies' 'What is the US role in Iraq's dirty war', this article, historian Professor Greg Grandin's article on US-backed death squads from Latin America to Iraq and the sources on this link ) (33) – (34) .

(This was in 2003-2005, when the Pentagon’s focus was on targeting Sunnis on the theory that all the insurgents were just the last fewsupporters of Saddam - and before their ‘re-direction’ to target Shia in order to reduce Iranian influence in Iraq. In other cases the victims were soldiers who were operating alongside US forces – so more likely to have been killed by militias or insurgents, though Pentagon led purging of suspected insurgent infiltrators of US-allied units can’t be ruled out)

A “counter-insurgency” model resurrected in Iraq before the Iraqi Salvador Option was even discussed was ‘Operation Phoenix’, a plan first used in Vietnam – which was similar to the methods later used by the CIA and US military intelligence in Latin America – i.e torturing school teachers and other suspected “Communist fellow travellers” into becoming double agents – and killing them if they refused to change sides – failed. Professor Marilyn B. Young’s history of the Vietnam wars recounts that methods used by the CIA and US military intelligence included shutting a Vietnamese woman school teacher suspected of being a Communist sympathiser into a tiny cage and starving her; pulling out prisoners' finger nails and subjecting them to electric shocks (35).

The US lost the Vietnam War anyway, because it offered the majority of Vietnamese nothing but torture, death or poverty in concentration camps euphemistically described as “village-isation” to “protect the population”. Officers like Colin Powell, reading Mao Tse Tung’s guerrilla guide on the people being like water and the guerrillas like fish decided they would drain the water (36). It didn’t work. This didn’t stop the Pentagon organising what they called a new ‘Operation Phoenix’ in Iraq under Bush, employing many of the same secret police and torturers who had worked for Saddam (37).

So we should be under no illusions about  what “counter-terrorism” might mean in Pakistan and Afghanistan – it might mean torture, massacres, summary execution on mere suspicion without trial, the killing of people merely critical of the US and Afghan and Pakistan government, including school teachers, trade unionists and human rights activists. We already know for a fact that Pakistan military forces have tortured and killed Taliban militants and people merely suspected of being Taliban in the Swat valley. Disappearances in Pakistan have increased according to human rights groups, largely due to continuing “extraorindary rendition” (or kidnapping) in the war on terror. This is another parallel with Latin America under US-backed regimes. Many thousands were “disappeared”, most having been tortured, then killed. The largest number of disappearance have been in the province of Balochistan in Pakistan, which , co-incidentally, is the same province that most of the Pakistani part of a proposed oil and gas pipeline from former Soviet republics via Afghanistan to the ports of Pakistan (with another branch to India) would go through (38) - (45).

A woman in Balochistan at a demonstration for the disappeared

Map of proposed pipeline routes - for larger image see The Heritage Foundation

If the typical US counter-insurgency model of disappearances, torture and murder is part of McChrystal’s plan then many Afghans and Pakistanis would suffer as much as under Taliban rule - and as under the Taliban, many would pay with their lives. Under the Taliban almost anything can qualify as being 'un-Islamic', while in US led counter-insurgency almost anything can be seen as evidence of being an 'insurgent' or 'sympathiser' .

Some will object that the evidence so far in Pakistan is of Pakistan military forces involvement in torture, not American. However according to investigations by Human Rights Watch there was torture from the beginning in Afghanistan by US forces in ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ (46). In 2005 it was revealed that an Afghan taxi driver not thought to be linked to terrorism – Dilan Dilawar – and another prisoner died after torture by stress positions, beatings and in some cases being chained to the roof of their cells by their arms. This took place at the US airbase at Bagram in Afghanistan (47).We know from Colonel Lawrence Fishback’s testimony that breaking prisoners’ arms and legs with baseball bats was common in Iraq and Afghanistan (48). Despite Obama’s formal ban on torture, there is no guarantee it has ended in reality. Holding prisoners from anywhere in the world indefinitely without trial at Bagram remains a policy defended in court by the Obama administration’s lawyers (49) - (51).

Nor has Obama’s ban on torture ended torture by US or allied Afghan forces in Afghanistan. In fact Obama’s ban, by approving ‘interrogation techniques’ approved in the US army’s field manual, allows the use of sleep deprivation and psychological torture, both of which can lead to life-long mental health problems (52) – (53). The new head of the CIA, Ray Panetta, said the CIA might request Presidential authorisation for “harsher interrogation techniques” and a man kidnapped under “extra-ordinary rendition” under Obama says he was tortured using sleep deprivation, extreme cold and hooding (54) – (55). Prisoners in Afghanistan may also be handed over to Afghan army, police and warlord forces – who definitely have no interest in restrictions on torture methods (56).

Nor is a formal ban any guarantee that US and allied forces are no longer involved in other torture methods. Hooding and sensory deprivation were banned as “interrogation methods” for British forces in 1972 – they were still using them along with severe beatings and sleep deprivation of the kind that killed Baha Mousa in Iraq in 2003. Similarly the use of torture methods approved  by the notorious Gonzalez memos began before they became official policy – leaving the risk that they may continue even now they’re not official policy, just as they did for many thousands of Latin Americans tortured under the guidance of CIA officers in the 1980s.  Jennifer Harbury, whose Guatemalan husband was tortured to death under CIA supervision as part of a US backed “counter insurgency” campaign there, points out that “If CIA and US Special forces have been secretly and illegally practising torture for decades, then a mere electoral change will change nothing at all”. Her book ‘Truth, Torture and the American Way’ cites plenty of evidence that this is exactly what has been happening for decades. This is confirmed by people like former US ambassador Robert White, mentioned earlier (57).

The point Harbury makes holds not just for torture but for all kinds of war crimes – death squads torturing and summarily executing people on suspicion of being or sympathising with “insurgents” or “terrorists”, murders, rapes, massacres. These have been going on for decades in wars led by the US, just as in wars by other countries, no matter what army field manuals, laws and constitutions supposedly prevent.

Apart from how morally wrong “counter-insurgency” campaigns become in practice, the idea that they can succeed in Afghanistan also ignores a difference between insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Latin American revolutionary movements in the 1980s. Al Qaeda are an international ideological movement and have plenty of people trained by the US and Pakistan military and decades of experience of guerrilla warfare. US intelligence reports show 90% of the people they’re fighting in Afghanistan are local tribes who are neither Taliban nor even religious extremists, but just see themselves as resisting another foreign invader, like the Soviet invaders in the 1980s (58). (This should ring alarm bells on what NATO’s real motives for being in Afghanistan are). The 10% of Afghan insurgents who are Taliban are somewhere between an Afghan religious nationalist movement (mostly Pashtuns in culture) and an international ideological movement.

The Latin American Sandinistas in Nicaragua and their counterparts elsewhere were accused of being puppets of the Soviets. They were not. They were national liberation movements. They were national, not international (unlike the contras trained in Honduras by the US for attacks in Nicaragua) – and they had little training and little experience. So even if the Obama administration was gulled by euphemistic language into supporting the “El Salvador option” for “Af-Pak” there is no guarantee it would work.

British generals are fond of citing Burma as an example of success in counter-insurgency through ‘villagisation’, yet this was an exception to the rule. The Communist resistance were almost entirely from an ethnic Chinese minority and so couldn’t get the support of the majority of the population. The fact that they can’t cite any other success just underlines the fact. They may point to Northern Ireland – but the fact is that Diplock courts, torture, summary executions, the ‘El Salvador option’ of collaborating with Unionist terrorists against Republican ones and ‘suspected sympathisers’ and firing into crowds failed there over decades; only when the Blair government decided to open unconditional negotiations was any headway made.

Some will point, much too quickly, to Sri Lanka, where the military simply herded the entire population of Tamil tiger areas ahead of them using artillery barrages, airstrikes and assaults and summarily executed thousands dragged from concentration camps . As in every other situation in which these methods have been used it will just result in another generation of terrorists seeking revenge. The Tamil Tigers may currently be defeated – another generation seeking revenge through new groups is sadly not far off though. The reality of indiscriminate fire on civilians and suspects being dragged away, shot and buried in mass graves has now come out. The fact that journalists and aid workers have been banned from South Waziristan during the Pakistan military offensive, just as they were from the Swat valley, Tamil Sri Lanka, Gaza during ‘Operation Cast Lead’ and Fallujah during the 2004 offensives is likely to indicate something similar is going on now. In all of these cases civilians were indiscriminately fired on or actively targeted (59) – (70).

Maybe, if NATO does go for an ‘El Salvador option’ in Afghanistan they would be able to break the resistance of Afghans and maybe not – but if they do adopt those methods you can forget promoting anyone’s human rights or democracy or ending “brutality”.

McChrystal has made no mention of Phoenix, the El Salvador option or any of the methods involved in his report to Obama and makes many positive suggestions about actually protecting Afghans by having troops patrol villages and leave their armoured vehicles – and providing jobs for insurgents who are willing to go over to the government side for instance. However public statements and reports during the El Salvador and Nicaragua death squad campaigns in the 80s didn't mention the real methods being used, nor have statements on Iraq, so there's no reason to think similar plans would be revealed to the public today.(71)

Maybe McChrystal’s plans for Afghanistan don’t involve this and he really means what he says – or maybe the Obama administration has just returned to the better public relations of the Clinton administration for methods that in reality aren’t much different from the Bush, Reagan or Nixon administrations. Certainly if counter-insurgency in Afghanistan doesn’t keep using ‘El Salvador’ style methods it will be a break from almost the entire history of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism – including McChrystal’s recent history in Iraq. I hope that if McChrystal's plan is carried out it will be completely different.

How likely is that though? ; and even if McChrystal’s plans involve avoiding torture how long will it be before the spread of incidents like that that led to the death of Baha Mousa under torture by British forces in Iraq, which was both the result not only of “standard operating procedure” (which in theory could be changed) but also of troops seeking revenge for one of their unit who was killed by an improvised explosive device set by an Iraqi insurgent – who may well have been seeking revenge for people he knew and cared for who were killed by Coalition forces? (72).

Even Rumsfeld in Iraq ended up wondering if the use of military force wasn’t creating more insurgents than it was killing. There is no reason to expect that to be different in Afghanistan or Pakistan, whatever strategy or plan is made on paper. The Taliban are just as brutal, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, but our aim is meant to be to provide something better, by decent methods.

The latest news from Afghanistan is that McChrystal's new counter-insurgency strategy involves embedding US Special Forces with local Afghan militias. For some reason McChrystal has made this a purely US operation, with ISAF and NATO having no part in it and being given little information on it. Is this an El Salvador option for Afghanistan like the one Bush inflicted on Iraqis and Obama hasn't seemed to end? Let's hope not.(73)


(1) =  Colin Powell and Joseph E. Persico (2006) ‘My American Journey : an autobiography’ , Ballantine Books, 1996; quoted by Robert Parry & Norman Solomon ‘Behind Colin Powell’,

(2) = Joan Didion (1983)‘Salvador’ Granta Books, London, 2006, pages 15-17

(2a) = New York Times 03 Apr 1998 '4 Salvadorans Say They Killed U.S. Nuns on Orders of Military',

(3) = Joan Didion (1983)‘Salvador’ Granta Books, London, 2006, page 18

(4) = Joan Didion (1983)‘Salvador’ Granta Books, London, 2006, page 38

(5) = Guardian 13 Mar 2007 ‘Pessimistic Pentagon studies fallback options in Iraq’,

(6) = New York Times Magazine 01 May 2005 ‘The Way of the Commandos’,

(7) = Guardian 20 May 2005 ‘British lawyers to pursue Iraqi security forces over killings’,

(8)= New York Times Magazine 01 May 2005 ‘The Way of the Commandos’,

(9) = Washington Post 11 Mar 2005 ‘Suicide Bomber Kills 47 in Mosul’ ; ‘Third Mass Grave Found; Police Official Ambushed in Baghdad’,

(10) = Shane Bauer ‘Iraq’s new death squad’ in The Nation 6th June 2009,

(11) = See (10) above

(12) = Human Rights Watch World Report 2006 – Colombia,,,HRW,ANNUALREPORT,COL,,43cfae9d20,0.html

(13) = New York Times 14 Sep 2009 ‘Pakistan Army Said to Be Linked to Swat Killings’,

(14) = BBC News 27 Jan 2005 ‘'Salvador Option' mooted for Iraq’,

(15) = Times 10 Jan 2005 ‘El Salvador-style 'death squads' to be deployed by US against Iraq militant’,

(16) = Guardian 13 Mar 2007 ‘Pessimistic Pentagon studies fallback options in Iraq’, , ‘Andrew Krepinovich, a respected strategic analyst who advises the Pentagon on Iraq, said yesterday that the El Salvador model was being actively discussed

(17) = Newsweek 11 Jan 2005 ‘Death-Squad Democracy’, By Christopher Dickey,

(18) = Foreign Affairs 05 Apr 2005 ‘Salvador in Iraq: Flash Back’,

(19) = US National Security Archive, George Washington University, ‘Latin America’,

(20) = Joan Didion (1983)‘Salvador’ Granta Books, London, 2006

(21) = Professor Greg Grandin (2007) ‘Empire’s Workshop : Latin America, the United States and the rise of Imperialism’ Holt Paperbacks, New York, 2006

(22) = Jennifer K. Harbury (2005) ‘Truth, Torture and the American Way’, Beacon Press, Boston, 2005

(23) = See (4) above

(24) = Washington Post 25 Mar 2009 ‘Salvadorans Ambushed By Memories in Iraq :U.S. Had Aided Soldiers in Civil War’,

(25) = US Dept. Of Defense - American Forces Press Service 12 Nov 2004 ‘Rumsfeld Honors Vets, Salvadoran Contributions to Terror War’,

(26)= New York Times 19 Jan 1988 ‘In Human Rights Court, Honduras Is First to Face Death Squad Trial’, ... %20&st=cse and (reports that some Honduran military death squad units CIA trained and on death squad murders of civilians)

(27) = Times 10 Jan 2005 ‘El Salvador-style 'death squads' to be deployed by US against Iraq militants’, ... 410491.ece (mentions John Negroponte being US ambassador to Honduras in 1980s, use of death squads by US backed govts in Americas in 1980s, training of Contras in Honduras)

(28) = Schroeder, Michael J. ‘ “To Induce a sense of terror” : Caudillo Politics and Political Violence’ in Campbell, Bruce B. & Brenner, Arthur D.(eds) (2000) ‘Death Squads in Global Perspective : Murder with Deniability’, Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2002, Chapter 2

(29) = Independent 19 Jun 2009 ‘Democracy hangs by a thread in Honduras’,

(29a) =
New York Times 03 Apr 1998 '4 Salvadorans Say They Killed U.S. Nuns on Orders of Military',

(29b) = Washington Post 06 Feb 1996 'Call off the spies',
(preview only unless pay) and (for full version free)

(30) = Sunday Times 04 Oct 2009 ‘PROFILE: Stanley McChrystal’,

(31) = NYT 16 Mar 2006 ‘Task Force 6-26: In Secret Unit's 'Black Room,' a Grim Portrait of U.S. Abuse’,

(32) = Esquire 21 Sep 2009 ‘Acts of Conscience’,

(33) = See (7)

(34) = See (8)

(35) = Professor Marilyn B. Young (1991), The Vietnam Wars , HarperCollins, New York , 1991 , pages 144-146 , 212-213,265

(36) = Colin Powell ‘My American Journey’, cited by

(37) = Telegraph 04 Jan 2004 ‘CIA plans new secret police to fight Iraq terrorism’,

(38) = See (13)

(39) = Pakistan Human Rights Commission (HCRP) 12 Aug 2009 ‘Serious concerns over mass graves, extrajudicial killings, IDPs’ plight in Swat: HRCP’, and

(40) = Pakistan Human Rights Commission 17 Aug 2009 ‘HRCP demands independent inquiry into extrajudicial killing in Swat’, and

(41) = The International News (Peshawar, Pakistan) 19 Oct 2009 ‘HRCP reports 30 new ‘forced disappearances’ in Balochistan’,

(42) = Amnesty International 25 Feb 2009 ‘Pakistan: Resolve hundreds of Baluch 'disappearances'’,

(43) = Amnesty International 20 Nov 2009 ‘Pakistan: Amnesty International welcomes Supreme Court move to hear disappearances cases’,

(44) = Human Rights Watch June 2007 ‘Off the Record  : U.S. Responsibility for Enforced Disappearances in the “War on Terror”’,

(45) = Human Rights Watch World Report 2009 – Pakistan ,

(46) = Human Rights Watch 07 Mar 2004 ‘"Enduring Freedom" : Abuses by U.S. Forces in Afghanistan’,

(47) = NYT 20 May 2005 ‘In U.S. Report, Brutal Details of 2 Afghan Inmates' Deaths’,

(48) = Washington Post Wednesday, September 28, 2005; A21,‘ A Matter of Honor’,

(49) = Amnesty International 16 Sep 2009 ‘USA must grant Bagram detainees access to US courts’,

(50) = Amnesty International 16 Sep 2009 ‘USA: Government opposes habeas corpus review for any Bagram detainees; reveals ‘enhanced’ administrative review procedures’,

(51) = Spiegel (Germany) 21 Sep 2009 ‘Human Rights Lawyer on Bagram Prison

'The Obama Administration Has Completely Failed',,1518,650324,00.html

(52) = CounterPunch 07 May 2009 ‘Mixed Messages on Torture’,

(53) = John McGuffin (1974) ‘The Guinea Pigs’ (a book on the torture of suspected Republicans in Northern Ireland in the 1970s by the British military using beating, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation - many were mentally ill for the rest of their lives as a result)

(54) = Panetta Open to Tougher Methods in Some C.I.A. Interrogation,

(55) = Huffington Post 11 Aug 2009 ‘Target Of Obama-Era Rendition Alleges Torture’,

(56) = National Post (Canada) 18 Nov 2009 ‘Canadians handed over Afghan prisoners to be tortured: diplomat’,

(57) = Jennifer K. Harbury (2005) ‘Truth, Torture and the American Way’, Beacon Press, Boston, 2005, especially page 26 ; also see (53) above and Panorama programme transcript BBC One 13 Mar 2007 - ‘A Good Kicking ' -

(58) = Boston Globe 09 Oct 2009 ‘Taliban not main Afghan enemy : Few militants driven by religion, reports say’/ ‘Most insurgents in Afghanistan not religiously motivated, military reports say’,

(59) = Bloomberg 19 Oct 2009 ‘Pakistan Army Targets Hometown of Taliban Suicide-Bomb Trainer’,

(60) = Amnesty International 29 May 2009 Sri Lanka: UN must publicize civilian casualty figures’,

(61) = ITN 29 May 2009 ‘Sri Lanka denies 20,000 deaths claim’,

(62) = Amnesty International 14 Aug 2009 ‘Sri Lanka: attacks on free media put displaced civilians at risk’,

(63) = Channel 4 News 26 Aug 2009 ‘Sri Lanka calls 'war crimes' video a fake’,

(64) = Channel 4 News 11 Sep 2009 ‘Sri Lanka steps up death video rebuttal’,

(65) = Jerusalem Post 18 Jan 2009 ‘Pool of 8 foreign journalists allowed into Gaza’, (only 8 foreign journalists allowed into Gaza – and only towards the end of the Israeli ‘Operation Cast Lead’ offensive)

(66) = Amnesty International 15 Sep 2009 ‘Israel-Gaza: Implementation of UN Fact finding mission recommendations crucial for justice’, (includes key points of Goldstone report on Israeli and Hamas war crimes in Gaza including Israeli military targeting of civilians, torture of civilians and use of civilians as human shields)

(67) = 09 Nov 2004 ‘Western journalists quit Falluja’,

(68) = Guardian 17 Apr 2004 ‘'Getting aid past US snipers is impossible',

(69) = BBC News 23 Apr 2004 ‘Picture emerges of Falluja siege’,

(70) = Iraq Body Count 26 Oct 2004 ‘No Longer Unknowable: Falluja's April Civilian Toll is 600’,

(71) = COMISAF’s Initial Assessment – Lt. General William McChrystal 30 Aug 2009, ,

e.g  Pages 20-21  or sections/paras 2-12 to 2-13 “ISAF cannot succeed if it is not willing to share the risk, at least equally, with the people. In fact, once the risk is shared, effective force protection will come from the people.

Pages 21 or section 2 paragraph 13 “Insurgencies of this nature typically conclude through...some degree of host-nation reconciliation with elements of the insurgency...reconciliation may involve GiroA[Afghan government] –led high-level political settlements.

reintegration is...different from reconciliation...As coalition operations proceed insurgents will have three choices : fight, flee or reintegrate. [To get] “mid to low-level insurgent fighters into normal offer incentives...possibly including the provision of employment and protection

(72) = Independent 17 Nov 2009 'We did it to avenge our fallen comrades : Former Army corporal breaks ranks in evidence to Baha Mousa inquiry',

(73) = Guardian 22 Nov 2009 'US pours millions into anti-Taliban militias in Afghanistan',