NATO helicopter gunships killed nine young boys in Afghanistan on Tuesday while they collected firewood in the northeastern province of Kunar. It was at least the third instance in two weeks in which the U.S.-led NATO force was accused of killing a large number of civilians. We speak with independent journalist Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films, who has extensively reported in Afghanistan. "The strategy on which the surge was built, and billed, is over and has failed," Rowley says. "By every measurable means, the U.S. is losing the war." [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to Afghanistan, where NATO helicopter gunships killed nine young boys on Tuesday while they were collecting firewood near their home in the northeastern province of Kunar. The boys were all between the ages of nine and 15. The dead included two sets of brothers.
The one survivor of the attack was an 11-year-old boy named Hemad. He told the New York Times, quote, "The helicopters hovered over us, scanned us and we saw a green flash from the helicopters. Then they flew back high up, and in a second round they hovered over us and started shooting." The boy went on to say the helicopter gunships "shot the boys one after another."
It was at least the third instance in two weeks in which the Afghan government accused NATO forces of killing large numbers of civilians in air strikes. An Afghan government panel is still investigating claims some 65 people, including 40 children, were killed in a U.S.-led attack last week.
AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, top NATO commander, General David Petraeus, issued an unusual apology for the attack on the nine boys. In a written statement, Petraeus said, "We are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologize to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and most importantly, the surviving family members of those killed by our actions."
But Petreaus has refused to apologize for other apparent NATO attacks on civilians. Last month, Petraeus shocked his Afghan counterparts when he suggested in a closed meeting that pro-Taliban Afghans might be burning their own children or inventing stories to exaggerate claims of civilian casualties.
To talk more about Afghanistan, we’re with Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films, independent journalist who’s been to Afghanistan a number of times, only recently returned.
This latest attack and the apology, Rick?
RICK ROWLEY: Well, I mean, I think the apology is clearly happening because of the outrageous comments that Petraeus is reported of making to Karzai, that Afghan parents are burning their children in order to get the few thousand dollars in money that the U.S. military gives out in condolence payments.
But really, what this string of attacks shows — of air attacks shows is that the strategy on which the surge was built, and billed, is over and has failed, that this — you remember, one year ago, when the surge was launched, I mean, this was — the people were the prize. We were going to end air strikes. We were going to move in, and at great personal risk to our own soldiers, we were going to prove that we were there to protect the population and slowly build our counterinsurgency around that. It was called "population-centric counterinsurgency," or COIN. And I mean, I made three trips to Afghanistan last year: once at the very beginning of the surge; mid-surge, I was with the Marines in Marjah; and then in September and October. And by the end, Afghans were just — Afghan villagers were coming up and asking us why the air strikes started again. I mean, they were noticing this sort of uptick before it was even reported in the press. So, what happened was, after the surge was bogged down and COIN was failing in both Marjah and Kandahar, the U.S. has turned to a firepower-intensive kind of combat, where — you know, I mean, every metric is trending against the Americans now. By every measurable means, the U.S. is losing the war there now. And so, now we’ve moved to a tactic that doesn’t have a strategy behind it. I mean, the theory behind COIN in the beginning was, you know, that you’ll slowly win hearts and minds by going in and protecting the population. You know, the Marines are bringing tanks into Marjah. They’re resorting to air strikes. Night raids have risen to an astronomical level where there’s a thousand raids a month happening, up from 30 raids a month in 2008. I mean, after — decades after Vietnam, one decade into this war, we’ve gone back to body counts as our only way of measuring any kind of progress in the war. So, I mean, what these attacks show is that the strategy that the surge was built around is over.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Gates made a very unusual comment, the Secretary of Defense, about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is what he told an audience of West Point cadets on Friday.
DEFENSE SECRETARY ROBERT GATES: In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined, as General MacArthur so delicately put it.
AMY GOODMAN: "Should have his head examined." This is the Secretary of Defense when we’re in the midst of two wars.
RICK ROWLEY: I mean, certainly that shows the sea change that is happening inside the military establishment itself. I mean, there’s been no public announcement about this change in strategy. I mean, as far as the Obama administration’s public pronouncements about what’s going on there, you know, it’s still the surge, still population-centric COIN, still the same hearts and minds campaign. But it is clear from the way the military is operating on the ground in Afghanistan that that strategy is over.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And isn’t this an implicit recognition that the Obama strategy — that the surge will happen for a short period of time, and then the withdrawal will begin — that it has basically fallen apart?
RICK ROWLEY: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that started to become clear over the summer, when the time lines kept being rolled back for both Marjah and Kandahar, and had become completely clear, now that — now that we’re striking from the sky again, we’re bringing in tanks. And they’re doing — I mean, there have been a whole series of other really startling reports that came out late last year, like in December, they were — it came to light that in Kandahar, in the Arghandab Valley, the U.S. military was routinely leveling villages that it can’t clear. There was a village called Tarok Kolache, or Kolache, where — I mean, there’s aerial photographs of the village before and after. They dropped 20,000 pounds of munitions and erased this village off the map, because it was so strong with IEDs, they claim, that they couldn’t clear it. And that, apparently, is not an isolated incident. They develop new weapons around this. They have a directional charge that blows, you know, a 300-600-meter trench that’s the width of a tank or an MRAP, so that they can just blow a path through a field instead of driving through it. I mean, that is not a hearts and minds campaign. That is not a population-centric campaign.
AMY GOODMAN: Rick, I want to turn for a moment to a recent piece you did for Al Jazeera, the segment which includes interviews with Jeremy Scahill and Matthew Hoh, one of the highest-level embassy people to quit over the war in Afghanistan. He was serving in Afghanistan. They discuss recent changes in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and the reasons for the increase in civilian casualties.
MATTHEW HOH: The philosophy at this time was supposed to be a population-centric campaign. That quickly morphed and much more dependent on Special Operations raids, much more dependent upon targeted assassinations. So I think you’ve seen that shift, which is, you know, borne of desperation.
RICK ROWLEY: Publicly, the military clams that its counterinsurgency strategy remains unchanged, and embedded journalists are still presented with small-scale development projects, as if they were America’s core military mission. But outside of camera range, the U.S. as ratcheting up a covert campaign of night raids and air strikes.
JEREMY SCAHILL: It’s been a very effective campaign. A tremendous number of Taliban commanders and Haqqani Network leaders have been killed by the United States. At the same time, a dramatic number of civilians have also been killed. This killing campaign has had a ricochet effect that actually undermines the entire notion that the U.S. is in Afghanistan to actually engage in any nation building.
RICK ROWLEY: Jeremy Scahill is The Nation magazine’s national security correspondent and has reported extensively on the rapid expansion of the role of U.S. Special Operation Forces worldwide. Special Operations Forces raids in Afghanistan have risen from 30 a month in 2009 to around 1,000 a month by the end of 2010. Scahill argues that while the raids may be successful in killing Taliban leadership, they represent a shift away from a nation-building and counterinsurgency strategy.
JEREMY SCAHILL: You can’t overstate the impact that these night raids have in undermining the stated U.S. goal of counterinsurgency or winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan. They’re taking people that may have been inclined to be against the Taliban and flipping them immediately against the U.S. It’s actually increasing the ranks of the Taliban, and it’s growing the indigenous support for insurgency, in general.
NIGHT RAID SURVIVOR: [translated] We thought thieves had come from the desert. We went outside to see what was happening, and the Americans were on top of the walls. They killed five of us. When I saw my daughter wounded, all I could think about was putting on a suicide jacket.
JEREMY SCAHILL: The endgame of a targeting killing campaign is just that you’re going to keep having to kill, because you’re not building any stability. And with every insurgent leader that you kill, the collateral damage, so to speak, from those attacks, the innocent people that are killed, creates a whole new generation of people that are going to fight you. There is no endgame.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Jeremy Scahill and, before that, Matt Hoh, as well as Afghan civilians. A final comment, Rick Rowley?
RICK ROWLEY: Well, I mean, we’ve reached a moment where, I think, as you see in those last sort of comments there, that the covert, dark war has eclipsed completely the conventional war right now, that special forces is now killing and capturing, in completely covert, untransparent operations, more Taliban and Afghans than the entire conventional NATO force. And what it means is that we know almost nothing about what actually goes on, that it’s a — journalists are not allowed to embed on those missions. They are classified. And even internally, ISAF and NATO doesn’t know what is going on there. So, we’re entering a very dark phase in the war right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Rick Rowley, thanks so much for your work and for coming in. Rick Rowley, independent journalist with Big Noise Films.