USA: ‘Sorry about the slaughter’

The massacre of several hundred Taliban prisoners in a fortress outside Mazar-e-Sharif shows that a confused war is not a soft war.

Josie Appleton

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‘We are sorry that so many people did die in Mazar-e-Sharif’, said Kenton Keith, the USA’s chief spokesman in Islamabad, Pakistan.

The world was shocked by the massacre of several hundred Taliban prisoners in a fortress outside Mazar-e-Sharif by US bombers and Northern Alliance fighters, after some of the prisoners attempted a revolt. We have all seen the disturbing images of the ground littered with bodies, some with their hands tied behind their backs.

This episode is a striking illustration that, in the West’s confused and chaotic war in Afghanistan, slaughter and insincere expressions of sorrow go hand in hand. Unwilling to commit substantial numbers of troops and unsure about its war aims, the USA is predisposed to lash out when faced with a threatening situation. So a CIA man gets killed in a prison and all hell breaks loose.

But after lashing out, the Western alliance has been completely unable to justify its actions. In the past, these killings of Taliban fighters would have been seen as acts of war. Today, the terms of humanitarian intervention used by the West to justify the war invites questions from all sides. The media have expressed their deep discomfort in coming face to face with so many dead bodies; Amnesty International is calling for an inquiry into the event; the United Nations has expressed its disquiet; and there has even been talk of setting up a House of Commons select committee in the UK.

After apologising, US spokesman Kenton Keith tentatively tried to put forward the argument that the bombing was ‘not a massacre…not a reprisal’, but a ‘pitched battle’. A UK government source made a similarly defensive call for people not to be ‘too squeamish’. That government representatives feel the need to self-consciously point out that this is a war – and that people die in wars – is testimony to the fact that they are unable to justify the killings as acts of war at all.

This is a war where deaths happen, but nobody knows why. The West panics, bombs, then apologises for it afterwards. The West’s lack of conviction in Afghanistan does not make for a ‘soft’ war. Indeed, the out-of-control character of the conflict can make it all the more dangerous – as those on the receiving end are discovering to their peril.

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

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spiked-issue: After 11 September

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