By Ken Hannaford-Ricardi
Awal Khan will never thank the US for its military intervention in Afghanistan. On an April day he will never forget, Khan, a Brigadier Artillery officer in the Afghan National Army stationed in the eastern province of Khost, received word that virtually his entire family had been killed by US forces. Slain were Khan’s brother; his wife; a 17-year-old daughter, Nadia; and Aimal, his 15 year-old-son. A second daughter was wounded. Colonel Greg Julian, a US military spokesman, later termed the incident an “unfortunate set of circumstances.”
On the evening of the killings, US forces conducting a night raid targeted what they believed to be four terrorists holed up in a house. The soldiers’ plan called for them to wait until it was late and then attack the hideout. The house they struck was Khan’s.
As part of the American action, a group of soldiers was positioned on the flat roof of an adjoining house, hoping to prevent the escape of anyone attempting to flee as the attack got underway. But it was directly to the roof that Khan’s family fled, perhaps fearful that the rampaging soldiers were armed robbers.
There has been considerable vocal debate about the killing of civilians during the decade-long war in Afghanistan. Legitimate questions have been raised about so-called “targeted” killings, aimed at eliminating one or more known or suspected anti-coalition terrorists. The mistaken slaughter of Brigadier Khan’s family seems to fall into this category. There is also what has been termed the “indiscriminate killing” of civilians by NATO forces, the Taliban, and others. Was this what actually happened to officer Khan’s family? Did American troops open fire at anyone who appeared on that rooftop? Did even one of the soldiers stop to doubt if those four frightened people actually were terrorists? Many would claim that this was what occurred. No one wondered; no one cared.
Well-known activist and cofounder of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Kathy Kelly, is fond of observing, “Where you stand determines what you see.” The soldiers waiting across from officer Khan’s home that fateful evening probably saw the killing of those emerging onto the roof as a tragic, horrible mistake and nothing more. Mr. Khan’s neighbors, though, probably saw those same killings in an entirely different light.
Soldiers in battle are often themselves caught in a crossfire. On one side are the senior officers issuing orders; on the other are those intimately, sometimes fatally, affected by the commands. Aside from incidents such as the well-documented “Kill Team” murders in southern Afghanistan, where the perpetrators unquestionably knew they were operating outside the bounds of moral law, most soldiers are not privy to the reasons behind the orders they receive, and they are taught not to ask those reasons.
Outrages such as those carried out by participants in the “Kill Team” murders or by US soldiers at the My Lai massacre in Viet Nam are correctly labeled indiscriminate attacks against innocent citizens. Much as we might wish it were the case, however, the same cannot be said of the soldiers who killed officer Khan’s family. If anyone on that rooftop questioned the morality of what he was ordered to do, he was obligated to refuse to fire his gun. Apparently none of them did.
Whether an attack can be labeled “indiscriminate” rests largely on the intent of those ordering, and in some cases carrying out, the assault. In the instance of the NATO helicopter gunners who killed nine children gathering firewood in the mountains near their village in eastern Afghanistan in March of this year, the only people who know for a certainty whether the attack was indiscriminate violence against the innocent or a decision to fire on what they thought was a group of insurgents are the soldiers themselves. No matter how many times we view the video, no matter how often we read the eye-witness statements, only those inside those helicopters knew why they fired. All the rest of us can do is guess.
Whether indiscriminate acts of violence are committed – many times over – during this or any war no one has to ask. Unfortunately, all we have do to is listen to the news in order to realize this type of behavior is everywhere, in our homes, on the streets, or on the battlefield. One thing is for certain, though. Attacks such as these can never be attributed to “battle fatigue” or a few “bad apples” who somehow found their way into the military. There is no scientific way of determining who is going to perpetrate such killings. The only way to eliminate them is to eschew war as a way of solving conflicts. That won’t be just a start; it will mark an end as well.