Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bombing Civilians

The New York Times magazine has a long profile of Stanley McChrystal, written by Dexter Filkins, who made the effort of embedding with a number of American fighting units in Helmand last summer, before talking to the usual suspects Stateside.

He appears to be an impressive man, does the General. I especially liked this little snippet
Yet for all his asceticism, McChrystal displays a subtlety that suggests a wider
view of the world. “If you were to go into his house, he has this unreal
library,” Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, McChrystal’s intelligence chief and longtime
friend, told me this summer. “You can go over and touch a binding and ask him,
‘What’s that one about?’ And he’ll just start. His bad habit is wandering around
old bookstores. He’s not one of these guys that just reads military books. He
reads about weird things too. He’s reading a book about Shakespeare right now.”

Indeed, weird.

President Obama hired him for his present job, and I'm unabashedly hoping Obama will let him try to do his job as he understands it. Still, here's a story about how the war in Afghanistan was waged for its first eight years, and apparently sometimes still is, in spite of the General's attempts to change things. It's a story about a standard morning conference with the five generals who serve directly under McChrystal - an American, a German, an Italian, an Dutchman and a Frenchman:

One by one, the generals scrolled through the events from the day before: a
roadside bomb in Khost, small-arms fire in Ghazni, a British soldier killed in
Helmand Province. Then one of the European generals started talking about an
airstrike. A group of Taliban insurgents had attacked a coalition convoy, and
the soldiers called for air support. A Hellfire missile, the European general
said, obliterated an Afghan compound. The general — he cannot be named because
of the confidentiality of the meeting — was moving on to the next topic when
McChrystal stopped him.
“Can you come back to that, please?” McChrystal said. McChrystal’s voice is higher than you would expect for a four-star general.
“Yes, sir,” the European general said.

“We just struck a compound,” McChrystal said. “I would like for you to explain to me the process you used to shoot a Hellfire missile into a compound that might have had
civilians in it.”
The European commander looked at an aide and muttered something. The killing of Afghan civilians, usually caused by inadvertent American and NATO airstrikes, has become the most sensitive issue between the Afghans and their Western guests. Each time civilians are killed, the Taliban launch a campaign of very public propaganda.
“Were there civilians in that compound?” McChrystal asked. He was leaning into the microphone on the table.
The commander started to talk, but McChrystal kept going. “Who made that
decision?” McChrystal said.
An aide handed the European general a sheaf of papers.
“I’m sorry, but the system is not responsive enough for us to get that kind of information that quickly,” the general said.
McChrystal’s face began to tighten. Generals tend to treat one another with the utmost deference.
“We bomb a compound, and I don’t know about it until the next morning?” McChrystal said. “Don’t just tell me, ‘Yeah, it’s O.K.’ I want to know about it. I’m being a hard-ass about it.”
The European general looked down at his papers. “It seems it was not a Hellfire missile but a 500-pound bomb,” he said.
McChrystal took off his reading glasses and looked around the room — at the video screens and the other American officers.
“Gentlemen, we need to understand the implications of what we are doing,” he said. “Air power contains the seeds of our own destruction. A guy with a long-barrel rifle
runs into a compound, and we drop a 500-pound bomb on it? Civilian casualties
are not just some reality with the Washington press. They are a reality for the
Afghan people. If we use airpower irresponsibly, we can lose this fight.”

A European general. We're not told his nationality, but I'd love to know how the ambassador of his nation voted last week at the UNHRC as it tore into Israel for the way it wages war.


Anonymous said...

well there was a German of the rank of colonel I think who ordered the bombing - at least an incidence that sounds like the one described here was all over our newspapers recently including McChrystal being furious at a German.
If and why they then keep mum about the contingent the "European" general speaks for is beyond my civilian mindset.
btw I liked best the story that McChrystal stopped wine and beer swilling by Europeans where he could - after all we (Europeans, Germans) always brag about our much superior sensitivity to the mores of locals but when it comes to giving up on beer - well that's another matter, isn't it? ;-(

Lila said...

It was a German, yes. By the way a well-read man, too, if you believe the sympathetic treatment in German papers.

I can't recall at the moment whether the same sensitive treatment was awarded to Israeli generals, too.... my poor memory, you know.

Lila said...

Two links to German articles about the German colonel Georg Klein.

The Anti-Rambo:

and in the infamous BILD Zeitung:
Nato attacks German colonel