Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith (US Navy photo)

In a meeting Sunday at the presidential palace in Kabul to investigate reports of multiple civilian deaths in a US operation in Konar province, General David Petraeus deeply offended those present when he suggested that Afghan civilians had deliberately burned their children in an effort to blame US attacks for their injuries. Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith, the top military spokesperson in Kabul, then provided a statement to the Washington Post suggesting that the burns were inflicted on the children as punishment. This development is remarkably similar to events last March, when Smith initially stated after Special Forces killed two pregnant women in a night raid that the women had been slashed to death by knives before the raid took place, only for a later investigation to reveal that the Special Forces soldiers had used knives to remove the bullets that they had fired into the women.

Here is the Post’s description of the military operation in Konar province:

Afghan government officials alleged Sunday that a U.S. military operation in the remote mountains of northeastern Afghanistan killed 65 innocent people, including 22 women and more than 30 children, the most serious allegation of civilian casualties in months.

/snip/

A NATO statement said that video and information from the coalition showed that 36 insurgents, who were carrying weapons, were killed. The U.S. troops involved responded to insurgent activity and fired with aircraft and an unmanned Predator drone, the senior military official said.

/snip/

Karzai, who put the death toll at 50 civilians, said in a statement that it is his responsibility to protect Afghans’ lives and property and that he “will take any steps necessary to prevent and stop civilian casualties in his country.”

Note that locals are claiming 65 civilian deaths, while Karzai states that it is 50 civilians who died. The US, however, sticks to its claim that they have video showing that they killed 36 insurgents carrying weapons. Elsewhere in the article, the spokesman claims that those killed were wearing civilian clothes but that “the majority of them” were “civilians engaged in hostilities”.  Later in the article there also is the admission that in this mountainous area, the residents are extremely isolated and don’t want US personnel present.

In the meeting at Karzai’s palace, Petraeus profoundly offended Afghan personnel present when he tried to claim that civilians had deliberately burned their children in order to make the US attack appear worse:

To the shock of President Hamid Karzai’s aides, Gen. David H. Petraeus suggested Sunday at the presidential palace that Afghans caught up in a coalition attack in northeastern Afghanistan might have burned their own children to exaggerate claims of civilian casualties, according to two participants at the meeting.

The Afghans who were present did not respond to Petraeus’ suggestion very well:

“I was dizzy. My head was spinning,” said one participant, referring to Petraeus’s remarks. “This was shocking. Would any father do this to his children? This is really absurd.”

Making matters much worse, top spokesman in Kabul Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith then provided this statement to the Post:

The U.S. military “did have initial reports that the feet and hands of the children appeared to have been burned,” Smith said. “We have observed increased reporting of children being disciplined by having their hands and feet dipped into boiling water. No one is claiming this is the case in this instance, but it may well be.”

Sadly, it appears that the military has been setting the stage to use this disgusting defense. Just last month, Stars and Stripes carried a story on suspicious burns on Afghan children, using the story to drum up hatred that appears to be a bit more broad than just against the parents who would do this:

He noted that the burn went all the way around one ankle, like a sock — a “circumferential” burn strongly indicating someone had held her leg in boiling liquid and that the child had not been able to recoil from the pain.

“More likely than not,” McCormack said, “this was punishment.”

/snip/

In the space of just three months, McCormack and his medics have treated a dozen Afghan children under 5 suffering from burns that they suspect were caused intentionally, by scalding.

“It’s a disturbing thing to see a 3- to 5-year-old that’s been abused,” McCormack said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

“I despise these people,” said a medic who declined to be named.

It seems that the Stars and Stripes article turns the hatred generated by such child abuse into a generalized hatred against “these people”, which appears to be a broader hatred than just being aimed at the parents who commit the offensive acts.

The profile of the injuries in Konar province also does not match the punishment by burning described in Stars and Stripes. The punishment cases documented all appear to have involved toddlers. The Post article states that the injured civilians were “seven injured people, including a woman and a man, both 22 years old, and five boys and girls 16 or younger”, so the age profile does not match up at all.   Smith then provides a detail that completely destroys his punishment claim, noting that the injuries included “burns and shrapnel wounds”. Is Smith next going to claim that in addition to burning their children, the Afghans are exploding bombs next to them so that they have shrapnel wounds?

Note also that this article provides clues for how one could distinguish intentional burns from burns that might have been sustained in an attack by US forces. It does not appear that either Petraeus or Smith cited evidence that would support intentional burns in the case of the injuries reported in the attack under investigation.

It is even more important to consider that by making such an offensive suggestion about injuries, Petraeus and Smith have removed the focus from the deaths which are being investigated, including the deaths of many children.

It’s really hard to understand how Smith still is employed as a spokesman, given his abject failure during the investigation of the killing of the pregnant women last February by Special Forces troops. From the New York Times on March 15:

On Feb. 12 in a village near Gardez, in Paktia Province, Afghan police special forces paired with American Special Operations forces raided a house late at night looking for two Taliban suspects, and instead killed a local police chief and a district prosecutor when they came out, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, to investigate. Three women who came to their aid, according to interviews with family members and friends, were also killed; one was a pregnant mother of 10, the other a pregnant mother of 6.

/snip/

“The regret is that two innocent males died,” Admiral Smith said. “The women, I’m not sure anyone will ever know how they died.” He added, however, “I don’t know that there are any forensics that show bullet penetrations of the women or blood from the women.” He said they showed signs of puncture and slashing wounds from a knife, and appeared to have died several hours before the arrival of the assault force. In respect for Afghan customs, autopsies are not carried out on civilian victims, he said.

Smith’s big lie was exposed by Jerome Starkey in London’s Times:

US special forces soldiers dug bullets out of their victims’ bodies in the bloody aftermath of a botched night raid, then washed the wounds with alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened, Afghan investigators have told The Times.

Starkey’s article did suggest that the Special Forces soldiers were primarily responsible for the attempted cover-up and that they lied to McChrystal, but the behavior of Petraeus and Smith in the current case fits so well with an intentional deflection that the cover-up last year now looks to have been carried out in a very similar high-level fashion.

Petraeus and Smith are trying to portray Afghan citizens as generally barbaric and medieval as they invoke rare, isolated events to make an offensive suggestion to deflect blame for barbaric acts by our own troops.  There really is no good reason that either of these men should continue to wear the uniform of our country.