Not long before Election Day, but thousands of miles away in the Afghan village of Bouz Kandahari, 30 to 36 civilians died (including a significant number of children and infants). Those deaths took place in a war Americans had largely filed in the library of forgotten events, though the conflict there is still fiercely underway. In a firefight with the Taliban near the northern provincial city of Kunduz, two U.S. Special Forces advisers died and American air power was called in, evidently killing those innocent Afghans. Within days, there were protests by angry villagers burying their dead. As Mawlawi Haji Allahdad told a Reuters reporter, "My brother and three of his children were killed. My brother had no connection to any group. He was a laborer. Did you see which of those infants and children who were killed by the Americans were terrorists?"
Behind this incident lies a 15-year-old pattern evident at least since the U.S. wiped out much of a wedding party, killing more than 100 villagers in Eastern Afghanistan in late December 2001. It was certainly well documented in those 50 shock-and-awe "decapitation" strikes the Bush administration launched to take out Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party leadership in March 2003 as the invasion of Iraq began. Those strikes killed not a single targeted leader, but -- according to Human Rights Watch -- did kill "dozens of civilians." (In the following two months, almost 3,000 Iraqi civilians would die under American bombs and missiles.)
In these years, this American version of "precision bombing" has never ended in the Greater Middle East, which means that it was an ongoing reality of Election 2016, not that you would have known it. For instance, since September2014 when the Obama administration sent U.S. air power against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, just as the American primaries were first gearing up, Amnesty International reports that at least 300 Syrian civilians have died (including, of course, children). Other groups monitoring the situation have put the toll significantly higher -- at up to 1,000. (The Pentagon has acknowledged only "a few dozens" of civilian deaths in both countries in this period.)
More recently, there were the 15 civilians killed in a late September drone strike aimed at ISIS supporters in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, but which evidently struck a celebration of a tribal elder's return from his pilgrimage to Mecca. Some weeks later, there were civilians killed or wounded (again including children) in an air attack on what was believed to be the home of a Taliban commander in the same province. There were also the 15 to 20 civilians killed when a funeral procession on the outskirts of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk was hit, evidently by planes from the U.S. coalition.
If none of this crossed your radar screen, don't beat yourself up for it. Such stories aren't significant news in America. The eight wedding parties reportedly wiped out by U.S. air power between 2001 and 2013 in Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, to offer but one example, passed almost unnoticed here. (Just imagine the 24/7 media attention that would be given to a terrorist attack on a single American wedding, no matter the casualties.) Despite the impressive efforts of groups like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there is essentially no way of knowing how many civilians in and out of official war zones U.S. air operations have killed across the Greater Middle East and Africa in the last decade and a half. Not that it matters, since it's a reality about which Americans could care less -- and yet, as with those angry villagers in Bouz Kandahari, the air war on terror has proven to be a powerful recruitment tool for extremist groups spreading across that disintegrating region.
It's not that we never pay attention to such deaths. The Russian air attacks in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria, for example, have gotten real attention here. They were even part of the election discussion, as well they should have been. The Russians entered the Syrian conflict in the American fashion by letting "precision" air power loose against schools, hospitals, and civilian targets of all sorts (with a significant number of children dying). In the American media, these are often termed "war crimes," but similar acts by Americans naturally fall into a different category, so no point in dwelling on them. You can count on one thing, though: this isn't going to end in the "new" Trump era soon to be upon us. So it seems appropriate amid the post-election rancor and uproar to offer some space for TomDispatch regular Mattea Kramer to think about what it really means to be an American in such circumstances. Tom
On the Road With Our American Selves
Or How to Feel Like a Jerk in Mombasa
By Mattea Kramer
The fluorescent circus of Election 2016 -- that spectacle of yellow comb-overs, and orange skin, and predatory p*ssy-grabbing, and last-minute FBI interventions, and blinking memes hewn by an underground army of self-important Internet trolls -- has finally come to its unnatural end. I had looked forward to this moment, only to find us all instantly embroiled in a new crisis. And unfortunately, it's easy to foretell what, or rather who, will move into the bright lights of our collective gaze now: we're going to (continue to) focus on... well, ourselves.
We are obviously not, for instance, going to redeploy our energies toward examining the embarrassing war that we're still waging in Afghanistan, now in its 16th year -- something that went practically unmentioned during election season, even as fighting heated up there. (You can be sure that Afghans have a somewhat different perspective on the newsworthiness of that war.) We are also not going to spend our time searching for the names of people like Momina Bibi, whom we've... oops... inadvertently annihilated while carrying out our nation's drone kill program.
For his part, Donald Trump has pledged to "take out" the families of terrorists, a plan that sounds practically ordinary when compared to our actual drone assassination program, conceived by President George W. Bush and maintained and expanded by President Obama. And while I don't for a moment pretend that Trump's electoral victory is anything less than an emergency for our republic -- especially for the most vulnerable among us, and for every American who believes in justice, equity, or basic kindness -- it's also true that some things won't change at all. In fact, it's prototypically American that an overlong and inward-looking election spectacle (which will, incidentally, have "big-league" international implications) will be supplanted by still more inward-looking phenomena.
And it jogs my memory in a not very pleasant way. I can't help but recall the moment, years ago and 8,000 miles away, when I was introduced to my own American-centered self. The experience left an ugly mark on my picture of who I am -- and who, perhaps, so many of us are, as Americans.
No, Not Us...- Advertisement -
Eight years before I heard about a guy in Yemen whose cousins were obliterated by an American drone strike in a procession following his wedding celebration, I gleefully clicked through the travel site Kayak and pressed "confirm purchase" on one-way tickets to Kathmandu. It was 2008, shortly before Barack Obama would be elected, and my boyfriend and I, a couple of twenty-somethings jonesing to see the world, were about to depart on what we expected to be the adventure of our lives. Having worked temporary stints and squirreled away some cash, we packed our belongings into my mom's damp basement and prepared ourselves for a journey meant to last half a year and cross South Asia and East Africa. What we didn't know, as we headed for New York's Kennedy Airport, our passports zippered into our money belts, was that, whatever we had left behind at my mom's, we were unwittingly carrying something far heftier with us: our American-ness.
Adventures commenced as soon as we stepped off the plane. We glimpsed ice-capped peaks that rose majestically out of the clouds as we walked the lower Everest trail. Then -- consider this our introduction to the presumptions we hadn't shed -- we ran into a little snafu. We hadn't brought along enough cash for our multi-week mountain trek; apparently we'd expected Capital One ATMs to appear miraculously on a Himalayan footpath. After we dealt with that issue through a service that worked by landline and carbon paper, we took a bumpy Jeep ride south to India and soon found ourselves walking the sloping fields of Darjeeling, the leaves of tea shrubs glinting in the afternoon light. Then we rode trains west and south, while through the frame of a moving window I looked out at fields and rice paddies where women in red or orange or turquoise saris worked the land, even as the sun set and the sky turned pink and reflected off the water where the rice grew.
Things would, however, soon get significantly less picturesque, as in some strange, twisted way, the farther we traveled, the closer to home we seemed to get.