U.S Gen. Stanley McChrystal, left, commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan and U.S. Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith, center, NATO’s director of communications in Kabul, are surrounded by Afghan and German soldiers as they visit the site where villagers reportedly died when American jets bombed fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban, outside Kunduz, Afghanistan.

In between two interesting discussions with foreigners, who both brought up the question of what they term accountability issues with regard to Sri Lanka, I was sent by a friend in Australia a plethora of information about American misbehaviour in Afghanistan. It was all rather horrifying, because the articles I received described not only the shooting of civilians but also, in one instance, sordid efforts at covering up evidence, including the removal of bullets.  

This, if it occurred, seems to have been done to allow for a deceitful press release from the International Security Assistance Force, as NATO’s force in Afghanistan is known. That had claimed, in trying to throw blame elsewhere, that ‘three women had been discovered bound and gagged, apparently killed execution style.’ A certain Admiral Smith was reported as having said that Afghan forces fired the shots in the compound and, in expressing regret for the deaths of two ‘innocent males’, added that “The women, I’m not sure anyone will ever know how they died….I don’t know that there are any forensics that show bullet penetrations of the women or blood from the women.” He said they showed signs of puncture and slashing wounds from a knife, and appeared to have died several hours before the arrival of the assault force. In respect for Afghan customs, autopsies are not carried out on civilian victims, he said.   

The New York Times however reported that ‘All the survivors interviewed insisted that Americans, who they said were not in uniform, conducted the raid and the killings, and entered the compound before Afghan forces.’   

That was on March 15th. Then, on April 5th, the New York Times noted that ‘After initially denying involvement or any cover-up in the deaths of three Afghan women during a badly bungled American Special Operations assault in February, the American-led military command in Kabul admitted late on Sunday that its forces had, in fact, killed the women during the nighttime raid. The admission immediately raised questions about what really happened during the Feb. 12 operation and what falsehoods followed, including a new report that Special Operations forces dug bullets out of the bodies of the women to hide the nature of their deaths. A NATO official also said Sunday that an Afghan-led team of investigators had found signs of evidence tampering at the scene, including the removal of bullets from walls near where the women were killed. On Monday, however, a senior NATO official denied that any tampering had occurred.’   

This was the same Admiral Smith, the deputy chief of staff for communications for General McChrystal, the head of the operation who is also reported as trying to bring US  Special Operations forces ‘under his direct control for the first time, out of concern over continued civilian casualties and disorganization among units in the field.’   

Now we in Sri Lanka are aware that collateral damage can occur. No force dealing with terrorists can avoid it, but it is the duty of any such force to train its soldiers to minimize such occurrences, to avoid using disproportionate force in areas where civilians might suffer, and above all not to engage in offensives without clear evidence that enemy operatives are the target. Sadly, in all three instances involving American offensives that were described in the first Times article, these imperatives seem to have been ignored. The particular ‘raid’ in which five civilians died, and only civilians, was on a compound in which a birthday party was being held for a small child.   

We are also aware in Sri Lanka that mistakes do occur. In such cases there is a temptation amongst youngsters who have made mistakes to cover up, but this should not be encouraged. And it is very sad when senior officials are involved. One of the arguments put to me when I suggested that the Western obsession with persecuting us about possible war crimes was hypocritical, given the far greater amount of collateral damage committed by Western forces in other countries, was that the West thought there was a qualitative difference. In Sri Lanka, they claimed, senior officials in Sri Lanka were not just aware of, but also ordered, what is described as far as American misdemeanours are concerned (as though endearingly) as ‘bad things’.   

I found the allegation against our senior officials disturbing, since no evidence was produced for it. I pointed out the involvement of senior American officials, including for instance Karl Rove, in activities that President Obama, bless his soul, has found regrettable. However it was more than a coincidence I think that almost immediately afterwards I was sent an account of a senior official from America coming out with what it is now admitted were prevarications. True to his title, in the strange world of doublespeak that it seems is not dead despite the end of the Cold War, this ‘deputy chief of staff for communications’ continues to deny that there was tampering, even though the military command now grants that the women were shot by the same forces that shot the men, whereas he earlier claimed ignorance of ‘any forensics’ showing bullet penetration or blood.   

I have no idea whether Admiral Smith will be dealt with firmly for what to me seems morally reprehensible, and it is certainly not our business to tell the Americans what they should be doing in terms of fulfilling their own strategic objectives whilst also abiding by international law. But I do find it pretty strange that Americans dealing with Sri Lanka still continue to make sanctimonious pronouncements, and also pressurize others in positions of authority to criticize and embarrass us on the basis of unsubstantiated generalizations.   

Parallel to the strange use of language to describe the murder of three women, and the digging out of bullets from their bodies, and the lying about what happened, was the touching claim that America has ‘a government of laws, not of men’. I have no idea whether the insinuation was that Sri Lanka has a government of men and not laws, but going beyond the attempt to score brownie points was the failure to understand that all over the world laws have to be interpreted and implemented by men. And while we all love President Obama, he himself knows only too well that even those to whom he has to entrust the most exalted responsibilities are fallible.   

There is still no suggestion that America feels its capacity to investigate its own possible breaches of law is vitiated by continuing abuses. I cannot see Britain noting its failure still to produce the results of its decades long inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings, and requesting Ban ki Moon to put the poor victims of ‘bad things’ out of their misery by appointing a Commission of Inquiry. But since hypocrisy has long been, not just an Anglo-Saxon vice, but also an immensely effective tool of diplomacy, I suspect we will have to put up with sermons for months to come, while the poor civilians of Afghanistan (along with those of the Chagos Archipelago and many others) continue to suffer.

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