An ugly little story has been leaking out of Afghanistan during the past few days.
On December 27, US-led forces in eastern Kunar province dragged eight children from their beds and executed them, some after they had been handcuffed. The youngest child was eleven years old. The deaths have been confirmed by the United Nations chief in Afghanistan, Kay Eide.
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's National Security Council concurs: "International forces entered the area and killed ten youths, eight of them school students inside two rooms in a house, without encountering any armed resistance."
A Western official was also scathing. “There’s no doubt that there were insurgents there, and there may well have been an insurgent leader in the house, but that doesn’t justify executing eight children who were all enrolled in local schools,” he said. Rahman Jan Ehsas, the local headmaster, told The Times that seven of the students were handcuffed before they were shot. A local farm labourer and a shepherd boy were also killed, he said.
Karzai is furious, but you'd never know it reading most of the media, which have steadfastly avoided reporting on this Afghan My Lai. That task has been left to the venerable Times of London, and to various independent commentators.
There seems little doubt that a cold-blooded war crime was committed. Karzai's security chiefs have demanded that the US hand over the gunmen responsible for the murders. Demonstrations against the US are taking place across Afghanistan. But NATO's International Security Assistance Force is shrugging the matter off, claiming that "non-military Americans" were involved, on a "sanctioned operation," and had only returned fire in self-defence.
Even if the killers involved were "non-military," however, this doesn't get the ISAF off the hook. The operation, we are told, was "sanctioned." Who sanctioned it? The buck stops with NATO.
There are 10,000 or so private guns-for-hire wandering around Afghanistan at the moment, operating with relative impunity. Think of Blackwater/Xe's "contractors" (sounds much better than "mercenaries," doesn't it?), and their record of operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The CIA is also busy as usual, playing its spooky little games.
The usual suspects will explain this latest atrocity away, of course, as they have brushed away the question of mistreatment of "detainees." The alibis are pre-formed: An isolated incident. Wasn't us. There were insurgents in the area. Fog of war. But for the average Afghan citizen, caught between two implacable and deadly forces, a dead child is a dead child.
And so President Karzai, beset on all sides by his own political problems, is facing yet another crucial test. He wants the killers handed over and punished. If NATO forces refuse to comply, which is likely, it will once again be clear who is really in charge in Afghanistan, and who, on the other hand, is providing less and less respectable cover for an army of occupation and its "non-military" agents.