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Afghan Lives Matter

By Khaled El-Rouayheb, Contributing Opinion Writer
Khaled El-Rouayheb is the James Richard Jewett Professor of Arabic and Islamic Intellectual History in the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations.

On Sept. 17, the U.S. military admitted what had become clear to everyone in the preceding days, thanks to heroic investigative journalism by New York Times reporters. The U.S. drone strike on Aug. 29 that was first announced as successfully targeting ISIS had actually killed an Afghan aid worker and nine other innocent civilians, including seven children.

The drone hit when the aid worker — Zemari Ahmadi — returned home, and his children were rushing to greet him in his car. The car was not speeding toward the airport where the U.S. military felt there was a threat, so it is difficult to see why the military deemed the situation so urgent that it called for a strike then and there in a residential district of Kabul. It is natural to conclude that the military, perhaps prodded by a hard-pressed administration, wanted to project power after the Kabul airport bombing on Aug. 26. Therefore they decided, based on seriously flawed intelligence, to launch a drone strike on a suspect, with callous disregard for the lives of civilian Afghans who would die in such a strike in a city of 4.6 million inhabitants.

Three years ago, another airstrike in Afghanistan wiped out the family of Masih Ur-Rahman Mubaraz, including his wife Amina, their seven children, and four relatives. It took the tenacious efforts of the Bureau for Investigative Journalism and the New York Times to establish — against initial Pentagon stonewalling and denials — that the strike had taken place and that it had killed an innocent woman and eleven children aged four to 16.

These are far from isolated incidents. According to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, the U.S. launched more than 14,000 drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen in the past 10 years. The death toll is estimated to be somewhere between nearly 8,900 and 16,900 people, of which roughly 10 percent are civilian casualties. Airwars, a London-based, nonprofit organization that attempts to track casualties of airstrikes more generally (and not just drone strikes), estimates that more than 22,000 innocent civilians have been killed by U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen since 2001.

The total number of deaths resulting from the U.S. invasion and botched “nation-building” effort in Afghanistan has been estimated by the Costs of War Project at Brown University to be 176,000, of which over 46,000 are Afghan civilians. Another 24,000 civilians have died from the spill-over of the Afghan war into Pakistan.

Last year, decent humans throughout the world were horrified by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police. Demonstrators took to the streets, and many public figures — including Harvard’s leadership — issued public statements denouncing the killing. The policemen responsible were charged and convicted. Is it too much to hope that similar scrutiny and accountability be extended toward the all-too-common cases of U.S. military actions leading to the deaths of innocent civilians in the Middle East?

America is a democracy; its citizens are therefore morally complicit when they know of crimes and atrocities committed by their government and army and nevertheless choose to shrug their shoulders and do nothing. Americans have a duty to speak out and — more importantly — bring those who are responsible to justice. Harvard’s voice here is essential, both as a leading educational and cultural institution in the country and as the alma mater of many leading figures in current and recent administrations.

The drone incident should be condemned and investigated precisely as if it had killed 10 innocent American civilians, including seven children. It is not enough that the military conducts its own internal investigation of the recent drone massacre. There should be an independent, bipartisan commission whose task is to find out precisely what happened, who was responsible for the intelligence and for the decision to strike, and if there was any political pressure on the army to act after the airport bombing.

Those who killed Zemari Ahmadi, Amina Mubaraz, and their families have as little right to remain anonymous or evade justice as those who killed George Floyd.

Afghan Lives Matter.

Khaled El-Rouayheb is the James Richard Jewett Professor of Arabic and Islamic Intellectual History in the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations.

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