Islamabad — The week I was in Afghanistan this winter, two big stories hit the international press. The first involved the publication of photographs of German NATO troops apparently “desecrating” the remains of dead Afghans. The second was about the accidental killing of up to two hundred Afghan civilians in an allied airstrike. Both stories were sensational, unfairly reported, and illustrative of one of the most intractable difficulties that face the NATO-led ISAF Coalition in Afghanistan — and, indeed, the West generally in the “war on terror.”
The photographs of the Bundeswehr squad posing with shiny, white skulls
and bones were immediately said to reveal an “atrocity.” More than two years old when they first surfaced in Germany at the end of October, the photos provoked a predictably anguished debate, both there and in other NATO states, about the brutalization of war, the foolishness of the mission in Afghanistan, and so forth.
Jumping to Conclusions
The accusation that 21st-century German soldiers were desecrating Muslim graves was a possibility transmuted into fact by a media that all too often — consciously or unconsciously — assumes the worst of Coalition forces and their mission in Afghanistan.
First of all, it was far from clear from the photos and initial reports whether the bones in question had been dug up by the soldiers or merely found on the ground. It is not hard to find skulls littering the rocky earth in the Konduz area where the Germans have their main base. The wrecked vehicles scattered about Konduz bear witness to the many battles fought in this part of Afghanistan over the years. Indeed, though the Northern Alliance battled the Taliban on a number of occasions here, it is most likely that any skulls the Germans found were actually those of Soviet troops — the mujahedeen did not usually trouble themselves to bury the bodies of their slain enemies. In other words, the remains that the Germans posed with were probably neither Muslim nor obtained by grave robbing, but had been bleaching under the sun for up to two decades before they inspired a juvenile digital photo-op.
The damage, however, was done. Though the “atrocity” might one day be refuted — most likely in some little-publicized investigation that takes months to unfold — the news had flashed around the world that German Coalition troops were treating Muslim corpses with contempt. The Western journalists who reported the story with such concerned relish may not have realized that by treating the photographs as prima facie evidence of a genuine scandal they were undermining the Coalition in Afghanistan, supporting the myth of “Islamophobia,” and fomenting anti-Western hatred. They probably thought they were just doing their jobs in the normal, “neutral” fashion.
The second story is even more illustrative of the nearly impossible task faced by the Coalition — and the way the media make it even more difficult. In the last week of October, British and Canadian troops fighting the Taliban in Kandahar province were attacked near the Sperwan Ghar patrol base. As night fell on October 24, the NATO troops called in close air support against Taliban positions. According to local chiefs, a large number of civilians were killed in the bombing. Over the next couple of days the claims of civilian fatalities ranged from 20 to 200 — a telling discrepancy, and one that probably reflects the tendency of predominantly oral cultures like that of rural Afghanistan to foster rumor and exaggeration. ISAF spokesmen admitted that, of an estimated total 70 fatalities, some civilians might have been killed in the strike out (four wounded civilians were taken to Kandahar airbase for treatment). They doubted the “at least 89” number quoted by most media outlets, which was usually followed by the point that this was the largest number of civilian deaths in a single incident since 2002.
As NATO officers privately complained, no one could be sure of the truth in the immediate aftermath of the air strike. Because of the Muslim practice of burying the dead within 24 hours, there are often no bodies to be found in incidents like this. Moreover it is the standard operating procedure of the Taliban to “sanitize” or remove weapons from the corpses of any slain or wounded members they don’t take away — so you can be sure that a civilian fatality really is a civilian only if the corpse is that of a small child or a woman.
A knowledgeable, thoughtful, and clear-eyed reporter might also consider that local civilians in areas dominated by the Taliban almost always claim that there are no Taliban, and have never been any Taliban, in their area. They make this claim out of either fear or loyalty. During fierce fighting in September in the same Panjwayi area, the local elders also claimed, absurdly, that there were no Taliban around, even though more than 500 of them were killed in pitched battles there and the area is at the center of the movement’s heartland.
More important, it is standard operating procedure of the Islamists in Afghanistan — as it is in Lebanon and Gaza and Iraq — to claim that all casualties on their side are civilians. Indeed, the Taliban would be grossly incompetant at asymmetric and information warfare if they didn’t make that claim. (Just as al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers would be foolish if they did not cry “torture” when detained at Gitmo or elsewhere.)
After all, it would be a huge propaganda victory for the Taliban and their allies to create the impression that Coalition troops routinely or increasingly kill large numbers of civilians. Once established as a media “fact,” such an impression would not only undermine the Afghan government and ISAF, but it could also affect the strategic, and very real, battle for hearts and minds in Europe and the United States.
Make no mistake, the Taliban and their allies, like the Sunni insurgents in Iraq, know perfectly well that they don’t have to defeat the Coalition militarily; all they have to do is undermine the political will of the Western electorates.