Sunday, March 04, 2007

On Not Winning Hearts and Minds

Marines in Afghanistan come under attack, and then open fire on passing civilians:

At least eight Afghan civilians were killed Sunday in eastern Afghanistan when U.S. Marines traveling in a convoy were hit by a car bomb and responded by firing in a way that some witnesses called reckless.

The incident, which the U.S. military said resulted from a "complex ambush," was followed by angry demonstrations in which hundreds of Afghans took to the streets, many chanting anti-government and anti-American slogans.

According to Afghan and U.S. accounts, the Marine convoy was struck by a van packed with explosives as it traveled along a roadway connecting the eastern city of Jalalabad to the Pakistani border, in the district of Mohmand Dara. The portion of the road where the explosion occurred is flanked by shops and was crowded at the time of the blast.

Immediately afterward, the convoy was attacked by "small-arms fire from several directions," said Lt. Col. David Accetta, a U.S. military spokesman. "The coalition forces returned fire in self-defense. It's unclear whether the casualties were from the car bomb blast or from the small-arms fire."

The Associated Press quoted several wounded Afghans as saying that the Marines fired indiscriminately as they fled the scene.

"They were firing everywhere, and they even opened fire on 14 to 15 vehicles passing on the highway," Tur Gul, 38, told the AP. Gul was standing on the roadside near a gas station and was shot twice in his right hand. "They opened fire on everybody, the ones inside the vehicles and the ones on foot."
One might be inclined to dismiss these witnesses as biased, or as exaggerating what happened. However, this article would seem to indicate that the soliders knew that they had over-reacted:

Afghan journalists covering the aftermath of a suicide bomb attack and shooting in eastern Afghanistan Sunday said U.S. troops deleted their photos and video and warned them not to publish or air any images of U.S. troops or a car where three Afghans were shot to death.

A freelance photographer working for The Associated Press and a cameraman working for AP Television News said a U.S. soldier deleted their photos and video showing a four-wheel drive vehicle in which three people were shot to death about 100 yards from the suicide bombing. The AP plans to lodge a protest with the American military.

The photographer, Rahmat Gul, said witnesses at the scene told him the three had been shot to death by U.S. forces fleeing the attack. The two AP freelancers arrived at the site about a half hour after the suicide bombing, Gul said.

"When I went near the four-wheel drive, I saw the Americans taking pictures of the same car, so I started taking pictures," Gul said. "Two soldiers with a translator came and said, 'Why are you taking pictures? You don't have permission.'"

It wasn't clear why the accredited journalists would need permission to take photos of a civilian car on a public highway.

Gul said the U.S. troops took his camera, deleted his photos and returned it to him. The journalists came across another American, showed their identification cards, and he agreed that they could take pictures.

A Western military official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to release the information said the troops were Marine Special Operations Forces, the Marine Corps component created in February 2006 of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

"The same soldier who took my camera came again and deleted my photos," Gul said. "The soldier was very angry ... I told him, 'They gave us permission,' but he didn't listen."

Gul's new photos were also deleted, and the American, speaking through a translator, warned him that he did not want to see any AP photos published anywhere. The American also raised his fist in anger as if he were going to hit him, but he did not strike, Gul said.
I understand that our soldiers in combat operate under great stress, and perhaps the shooting was justified, and provoked by fighters firing on them. But trying to conceal what happened, if there's nothing to conceal, is bad, bad public relations. Trying to conceal something that happened that shouldn't have is just flat out wrong, and there's no excuse for it, whoever you are, and wherever you are. This instinct to immediately cover-up anything that reeks of wrong-doing, anything that could be damaging, is a disease that afflicts our military. The only cure seems to be oversight and punishment for concealing and deception, but these are rare characteristics to be found in the Bush administration.

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