On Wednesday and Thursday, May 6 and 7, Barack Obama will host Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari at the White House for this administration’s first trilateral summit.
The Indian news agency, Press Trust, says the summit “is considered to be a crucial element in the US' 'war against terror' in the region, especially in Afghanistan where the US is sending thousands of troops this summer to fight the Taliban.”
The summit is also meant to bind Karzai and Zardari ever closer to the US approach to waging war in their countries. According to White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, President Obama intends to lecture his colleagues about their “responsibilities” in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
I really hope not. As Commander-in-Chief of the military that killed hundreds of Afghan civilians last year alone, Obama does not enjoy the moral high ground here.
When the US began bombing Afghanistan in October 2001, it did so without authorization from the UN Security Council, making this war every bit as illegal as the war against Iraq. Within just a few weeks of the invasion, the civilian death toll in Afghanistan had greatly exceeded the number of people killed in the US on 9/11.
Civilian casualties soared again when the US tried a “troop surge” in 2007. Yes, the current “surge” is a do-over of a policy that already failed once. The first time around, when US/NATO troops were beefed up by 45 percent, more Afghan civilians were killed than during the previous four years combined. In fact, every year that the US occupation has dragged on, more Afghan civilians have been killed than the year before. Last year alone, more than 2100 civilians were killed, a 40 percent jump over the previous year.
Every compassionate person can imagine the human suffering that lies behind these numbers. But not everyone is aware that the raw grief caused by US air strikes quickly hardens into support for the Taliban.
One Afghan man, interviewed by The Guardian in a video feature about the impact of civilian deaths in his country puts it succinctly: “The people who are fighting with the Taliban are the sons, the brothers and the uncles of those killed by the Americans.”
That fact is well understood by all Afghans, including President Karzai. That’s why Karzai made this forceful statement the day after Obama was elected president: “This is my first demand of the new president of the United States - to put an end to civilian casualties.”
Karzai is not exactly a great humanitarian. His government is riddled with warlords whose track record on human rights is arguably as bad as the Taliban’s. MP Mohammad Mohaqiq, for example, is accused of nailing prisoners to walls. In 2007, Karzai granted Mohaqiq and his fellow warlords a general amnesty for their crimes. Yet, Karzai worries about the mounting civilian death toll precisely because he understands that each killing makes his government weaker and the Taliban stronger.
Every US killing of a civilian in Afghanistan is a grave human rights violation. It’s also the surest way for Obama to undermine his own agenda in the region. Maybe Karzai should take the opportunity of Obama’s first trilateral summit to lecture the US President about his responsibilities.
*Cross-posted at Afghan Watch.