A Pakistani Army soldier patrols in South Waziristan on November 17, 2009. South Waziristan is one of many areas where US attacks have continually devastated people’s lives and homes, but remain invisible in most US media. (Photo: Tyler Hicks / The New York Times)
On April 13, 2017, the Trump regime dropped the GBU-43 massive ordnance air blast (MOAB) also known as the “Mother of all Bombs” in the Achin district of Nangarhar in Afghanistan. While the official statement from the Headquarters of the United States Forces in Kabul, Afghanistan, notes that the military “took every precaution to avoid civilian casualties” in what White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called on Thursday morning a remote, mountainous area, the Achin district is, in fact, home to a population of 150,000 and sits a little over 20 miles from the capital of Nangarhar, a province in Eastern Afghanistan with a population of almost 1.5 million. This population now has to endure, at the very least, the lasting psychological effects of witnessing a massive mushroom cloud rising from their backyards, as well as the ongoing threats to their safety.
Bilal Sarwary, a journalist based in Afghanistan who spoke to locals in the area after the bombing, told BBC Friday morning that “their doors are destroyed or damaged and every single window or glass is broken … [they felt] more like doomsday … like the sky is coming down.” Fresh bombings in Achin continued through this morning, according to local sources. Nangarhar has been noted by many Afghans as one of the more beautiful parts of the country, with perpetual spring-like weather.
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The US government and mainstream media’s failure to mention the presence of unmistakably large civilian populations — and the fact that these populations were placed in immediate physical and psychological dangers — is not at all an uncommon practice. Much like the history of physical, rhetorical, ideological and academic erasure of Indigenous people from North America, there is a continual erasure of mass populations in the Middle East and Africa, who are frequently invisibilized and deemed irrelevant by those who wish to craft a narrative that excuses violence and mass destruction.
Afghanistan carries a deep history of being designated as a testing ground for Western and Russian military weaponry (as India, Ghana and other Asian and African countries are for Western medicine). Although its population is significantly larger than that of Berkeley, California, Achin is portrayed as empty and vacant — a place where the dropping of a never-before-used, 30-foot-long, 21,600-pound bomb filled with 18,000 pounds of explosives is portrayed as carrying no risk of civilian casualties.
Beyond recognizing the continual erasure of civilians and populations at the state’s discretion, it is important to ask: According to the US government, who is classified as a “civilian”? Who is not considered a “civilian,” and is instead marked with the ever-shifting and contagious label of “enemy combatant”?
To answer this question, we must turn toward the foreign policy hallmark and legacy of the Obama administration: drone strikes.
According to The Drone Papers, secret CIA and military documents leaked to The Intercept under Obama’s term, anyone on the ground is largely deemed guilty until proven innocent — and proving as much is a near-impossible task when the suspect in question has been conveniently killed and is therefore unable to speak or go to trial and the only statements provided are given by the US military personnel who conducted the strikes. Drone strikes are supposedly designed to assassinate only those posing a “continuing, imminent threat to US persons,” yet this threat is determined based on minimal or poor “intelligence” gathered from phones (which constantly shift hands) and emails in undeclared war zones, such as Yemen and Somalia, unreliable government watch lists, and information gathered by machines and subject to fallible human interpretation.
Anyone unfortunate enough to be passing through the targeted area (however ambiguous or random it may be) at the time of a drone strike is deemed “guilty by association” and designated by the military as an “enemy killed in action” or EKIA, and therefore no longer a civilian. Therefore, not only are those killed by drone strikes more often than not simply unintended victims targeted based on faulty evidence, but determinations of guilt or innocence are largely arbitrary and contextual.
Ultimately, the distinction between enemy and civilian is irrelevant when there is no trial, little evidence, and virtually no follow-up in response to casualties. Despite the ambiguity or messiness of official labels, at the end of the day, anything seen through a drone scope is deemed utterly worthless.
On March 17, 2017, US-led coalition airstrikes hit Mosul, Iraq, killing the highest number of civilians in one blow since the start of the 2003 invasion.
The same day, a US airstrike targeted a mosque and religious school in Syria (which the US later denied, despite photographic evidence) while 300 people were praying. Forty-two people were killed and many more were injured.
Although it has recently escalated, the murder of civilians in the ongoing “war on terror” is not new. Consider the US’s targeting of Yemen, where, according to a UN News Center report last year, “children are paying the heaviest price.” Salon reported that ongoing US-backed Saudi bombing “intentionally targets food production” and Truthout has analyzed how strikes have continually worsened the ongoing famine in Yemen.
According to comments given to The Intercept by a source within the intelligence community wishing to remain anonymous, official reports of civilian casualties from the US government are “exaggerating at best, if not outright lies.”
This all, of course, fits plainly and clearly into a larger structure of the physical and ideological “war on terror,” in which anti-Muslim racism is funded by weapons manufacturers looking to profit from consequent anti-Muslim violence both domestically and abroad; by Zionist groups working to maintain an ethno-supremacist apartheid regime in Israel; and by other individuals and organizations seeking to maintain and increase their power and privilege, politically, socially and economically.
Certainly, erasing populations, designating them as test subjects and retroactively applying “enemy” labels to hide mistakes have become normalized strategies of US foreign policy. These strategies are tied to systems of profit and privilege, as well as to political popularity. From Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Wars to Donald Trump, airstrikes, bombings, coups, wars and violence against the AMENSA (Africa, Middle East, Muslim, South Asia) region have been seen as quick fixes for low presidential approval ratings.
In this tweet from 2012, Trump forecasted that then-President Obama would conduct airstrikes against Muslim countries as a way to increase his approval rating, a tactic that Obama used and now-President Trump has adopted as well.
No single drone strike or bombing should be seen in isolation, but rather within this larger context of a social, political, military and economic anti-Muslim system. There are people and organizations that profit off of the erasure and destruction of Muslim bodies and bodies of color. This profit-driven murder becomes infinitely easier to carry out when Afghan, Iraqi, Somali, Yemeni and other voices and narratives are intentionally and consistently excluded from Western spaces and conversations.
AirWars.org – an independent body monitoring and documenting civilian casualties from airstrikes from various countries. In the past few months they have been overwhelmed with such high numbers they are only focusing on victims of US airstrikes. They also provide daily reports and email updates.
Hoda Katebi is a Chicago-based Muslim Iranian author, community organizer and radical fashion blogger. She graduated from the University of Chicago where her research focused on the politics of the underground fashion movement in Iran and the intersections of feminism, resistance, fashion and nationhood. She is the author and photographer of the book Tehran Streetstyle, the first-ever in-print collection of street-style photography from Iran aimed at challenging both Western Orientalism and domestic Iranian mandatory dress codes. In 2013 she started JooJoo Azad, an online platform focusing on self-representation and narrative reclamation through an intersection of mediums (fashion, photography, writing) and issues (Islamophobia, Orientalism, Black Lives Matter, etc.). Hoda’s work has been featured in various online, print, radio and television media internationally. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram: @hodakatebi, hodakatebi.
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The contents of Rise Up Times do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editor.