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Genocide from 30,000 feet


Hamid Karzai is finally angry. The U. S. government and its NATO front have been unable to consolidate control across Afghanistan, and into the tribal borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In lieu of effective on the ground strength, the NATO forces have taken refuge in their means of first and last resort: aerial bombardment. In one week in late June, NATO forces killed 90 Afghan civilians. The actual count of total civilian deaths is not available. This is itself scandalous. The United Nations’ press officer in Kabul said (on June 2, 2007), “The number of [civilian] deaths attributed to pro-government forces [i.e. NATO] marginally exceeds that caused by anti-government forces.” Without a public tabulation of figures, this is simply verbiage. I still have the clipping from the “Guardian” which shows that as a consequence of the invasion of 2001 between 20,000 and 49,600 people died (May 20, 2002). By that measure, it is impossible for the Taliban and its associated allies to have wrought as much death as the U.S. forces and NATO. It is this context that led Karzai, normally very pliant, to complain in the strongest words, “Innocent people are becoming victims of reckless operations.” To those who defend U.S.-NATO tactics, Karzai had this to say, “You don’t fight a terrorist by firing a field gun 37 km [24 miles] away into a target. That’s definitely, surely bound to cause civilian casualties.”

In response, NATO’s Jaap de Hoop Scheffer quietly blandly pointed out, “Each innocent civilian victim is one too many. Unfortunately it happens.” He knows a thing or two about aerial bombardment: in the 1970s, he used to be in the Royal Netherlands Air Force. De Hoop Scheffer is one of those Old European establishment people who eagerly climbed on to the Iraq invasion (he is a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Appeal party). The phrase “unfortunately it happens” is an assault on reason and the imagination. If you know that your actions will carry “unfortunate” results (such as the deaths of vast numbers of civilians), is the action worth it? What price is worth paying for such an act and who will pay the price? This callousness is reminiscent of U. S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s response to Lesley Stahl on the half million children dead as a result of U.S. led sanctions against Iraq, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price we think the price is worth it.”

In the NYT Book Review (July 29, 2007), liberal establishment scholar Samantha Power made a more sophisticated, but substantially similar defense of aerial bombardment. Power, who teaches at Harvard University, quoted Columbia University anthropologist Talal Asad’s claim that there is “no moral difference between the horror inflicted by state armies (especially if those armies belong to powerful states that are unaccountable to international law) and the horror inflicted by insurgents.” Then Power responded, “There is a moral difference between setting out to destroy as many civilians as possible and killing civilians unintentionally and reluctantly in pursuit of a military objective.” Power, whose book on the genocide in Rwanda is a forceful attempt to defend the concept of “humanitarian interventionism,” perhaps relies for her claim on the word “intent” in the 1951 Genocide Convention. It defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” How does one establish “intent,” given the lack of a smoking gun in most such cases? Neither Hoop Scheffer nor Albright say that they intend to wipe out the Afghan or Iraqi people, but both recognize that vast numbers of people are killed because of their policies. If they knew that their policy would result in death of this scale, then did they not “intend” to kill so many people, regardless of their motivations? They are not motivated to kill, but they surely intended to kill the thousands or hundreds of thousands?

We don’t have a fly on the wall of the Clinton White House when the “humanitarian interventionists” discussed the sanctions on Iraq or the war on Kosovo. Nor do we have a fly on the wall of NATO headquarters, to hear Hoop Scheffer talking to his team of advisors. But we do have the tapes from the Nixon-Kissinger conversation and the paper trail of Kissinger’s phone call to General Alexander Haig (Kissinger’s military assistant, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army). When the U. S. war in Vietnam continued to falter, Nixon and Kissinger cooked up Operation Menu to blast Cambodia. Nixon wanted to unleash the beast, to use the full power of the U.S. to “crack the hell out of them,” to use aerial bombardment “to hit everything.” Kissinger told Haig, “He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. It’s an order. It’s to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves.” There is an established pattern for this kind of racist disregard. A senior officer in General Douglas MacArthur’s command hoped that the U. S. bombing of the northern Korean peninsula would “give these yellow bastards what is coming to them.” Assaults by air destroyed irrigation dams that provided three quarters of North Korea’s food. A U.S. air force document took the time to tally up the consequences, “The subsequent flash flood waters wiped out [supply routes]. The Westerner can little conceive the awesome meaning which the loss of [rice] has for the Asian starvation and slow death.” [I document some of the long history of the consequences and intentions of aerial bombardment in ZNET column from November 2001: http://www.zmag.org/aerialprashad.htm].

Power’s defense of aerial bombardment is obscene given the context within which it occurs. We’re not talking about an abstract or theoretical campaign, but of campaigns that are ongoing and genocidal in consequence. Afghanistan is ruined, as much as Lebanon was ruined by the Israeli assault (total cost will be up there between $4 billion and $15 billion). We have new concepts for this: if not genocide, then sociocide or politicide, whose consequences are no less shattering. The destruction of the ability of a people to create a society or to craft a polity is a slow death sentence. The 1951 document does not include the intent to destroy a people who are united by a politics (so that the U. S. backed and Indonesian-run massacre of a million Communists and sympathizers in 1965 does not count as a genocide). We need to revisit and clarify the concept “genocide” which has been muddied by the powerful and their complicit liberals (viz. in the case of the ongoing troubles in Darfur). Power hides behind the motivations of the powerful, which we are always to assume is benevolent. This is what is most shocking, that a liberal intellectual would once more peddle the dangerous view that we, the public, should put our trust in the good faith of those who have the reins of power. Karzai has to be accountable to his population, which seethes with anger at the ongoing assault on their lives and society. He too has turned to outrage. Samantha Power is protected from such accountability. When will she see through the eyes of the victims, many of whom already know that the architecture of U. S.-NATO military assaults inevitably result in the deaths of many, too many civilians?

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