One wedding, many funerals

What has the US airforce got against Afghan wedding parties?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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The Pentagon is sending a fact-finding mission to Afghanistan after an American bomb ‘went astray’ in the south of the country, killing ‘at least 30 civilians’ at a wedding party (1).

The US military claims that B-52 bombers came under heavy artillery fire from the ground in the early hours of Monday morning, and responded by dropping bombs. But they admit that one bomb was ‘errant’ and ‘we don’t know where it went’, and have offered condolences to ‘all those who lost loved ones’ (2).

Afghans claim that wedding guests had fired AK-47s into the air in celebration shortly before being bombed. Or as a New York Times headline subtly put it: ‘Afghans link civilian deaths to US bomb….’ (3)

But this isn’t the first time allied forces in Afghanistan have attacked a wedding party. On 29 December 2001, a wedding in the Qalai Niazi village in eastern Afghanistan was bombed, killing dozens of civilians. The UK Guardian claimed that the wedding guests had been ‘vapourised’. The United Nations says 62 civilians were killed in the December wedding bombing, while others put the figure as high as 107.

In early May 2002, Britain’s Royal Marines launched Operation Condor after Australian troops had allegedly come under fire from al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, and called in American bombers to launch an attack. But according to an Afghan press agency, the men ‘engaged’ by the Australian troops and later bombed by US forces in fact ‘belonged to a wedding party, whose traditional AK-47 firing celebrations had been mistaken for offensive fire’. A British newspaper reported that ‘11 members of the wedding party were killed [by American] bombing’ (4).

Now, a third wedding bombing has resulted in civilians being killed, again after guests allegedly fired celebratory shots into the air. What do allied forces have against Afghan weddings?

The bombing of wedding parties reveals much about the directionless and aimless war in Afghanistan. This is a war seriously lacking in intelligence, where allied forces seem to have spent more time bombing rocks and caves than pursuing a known enemy. A key Afghan commander complained earlier this year that ‘the Americans never contact us…they are just doing it themselves’ (5). US forces’ failure to go in on the ground to sound out potential allies for information and ideas has resulted in a dearth of intelligence.

America has fought the war largely from the air – particularly in the wake of Operation Anaconda in early March 2002, its first combined ground-and-air offensive, which resulted in nine dead Americans and no sign of al-Qaeda. US forces flying overhead, with little clue of what’s happening on the ground, can’t seem to tell one ‘towel-head’ from another.

This was captured in American boasts in February 2002 that they had killed a man who ‘was over six feet tall and wearing Arab clothing’, suggesting that the man might have been bin Laden. In fact, he was a peasant gathering scrap metal. As a group of Afghans told an American journalist, ‘the Americans do not really know who they are aiming at’ (6).

Flying over dangerous, alien territory that they are fearful of getting too stuck into, and unclear about where the enemy is (or even who the enemy is), US forces must see large groups of Afghans as immediately suspect. Large groups of Afghans shouting and cheering, as wedding guests do, must look even more suspicious. As for large groups of Afghans shouting and cheering and firing AK-47s into the air….they may as well have signed their own death warrants.

Yet still US forces claim that the Afghan war is ‘the most accurate ever’ – arguing that ‘as many as 75 to 80 percent of bombs and missiles hit their targets’ (7). One reason for this could be that the targets are so big. For much of December and January, when US forces stepped up their bombing campaigns in southern and eastern Afghanistan, they largely targeted cave complexes, even though they were uncertain whether the caves contained any enemies. B-52 bombers can hardly miss when the target is a mountain.

Commentators say that where only about half of the bombs dropped in the Gulf War of 1991 and the Kosovo War of 1999 hit their targets, we should be grateful that 75 percent of bombs have hit their targets in Afghanistan. In fact, even the 50-percent accuracy claims of both the Gulf and Kosovo wars was later found to be exaggerated, as no doubt the accuracy of this war will be to.

But in the Gulf and in Kosovo, many bombs were targeted at densely populated cities and towns, running a high risk of blunders and civilian casualties. By contrast, most of the Afghan bombs have been dropped in sparsely populated desert areas – yet still allied forces can’t get it right, with a quarter of the bombs ‘going astray’ and killing hundreds of people.

The latest wedding bombing illustrates that a dumb war is still a deadly war – and that while the war drags on, it’s dangerous to get married in Afghanistan.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

War against what?, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) US examines Afghan bombing ‘blunder’, BBC News, 2 July 2002

(2) US examines Afghan bombing ‘blunder’, BBC News, 2 July 2002

(3) ‘Afghans link civilian deaths to US bomb’, New York Times, 2 July 2002

(4) US bomb blunder kills 30 at Afghan wedding, Guardian, 2 July 2002

(5) US accused of killing anti-Taliban leaders, Guardian, 28 January 2002

(6) ‘Likeness to bin Laden may have doomed poor Afghan’, Washington Post, 11 February 2002

(7) Afghan bombing ‘most accurate ever’, BBC News, 10 April 2002

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Topics Politics


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