Last week, an Afghan government air strike targeting Taliban militants in western Herat province killed 45 people, including civilians. In an unprecedented move, the United States condemned the strike and called for an investigation. It was an act of breathtaking hypocrisy from a nation whose bombs have killed thousands of Afghan men, women and children, and whose leaders have gone to great lengths to avoid accountability for all the death and destruction their 19-year war has caused.
"In Herat, photos and and eyewitness accounts suggest many civilians including children are among the victims of an Afghan airstrike," the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation tweeted on July 22. "We condemn the attack and support an investigation."
That special representative is no other than Zalmay Khalilzad, a name instantly familiar to longtime observers of US intervention not only in Afghanistan but also Iraq and elsewhere. Khalilzad, who grew up in Kabul, has played a key role in US policy and action in Afghanistan since the Reagan administration. He was a staunch booster of the mujahideen militants fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Many of those fighters, most notably Osama bin Laden, would go on to form militant groups including the Taliban and al-Qaeda, America’s two main enemies during much of its unending global war on terrorism.
Before the Taliban were America’s Public Enemy Number One they were its business partners. Mass murder, public beheadings and other human rights horrors aside, the Taliban brought relative stability to Afghanistan after decades of war. Afghanistan was open for business and Unocal, a US oil company where Khalilzad worked as a risk analyst, decided it wanted to build pipelines through the country. In 1997 UNOCAL brought the Taliban to Governor George W. Bush’s Texas to strike a deal.
"The good Lord didn’t see fit to put oil and gas only where there are democratically-elected regimes friendly to the United States," explained Dick Cheney, who was CEO of the oil services giant Halliburton at the time.
During this period, Khalilzad served as director of strategy at the RAND Corporation, a military-industrial complex think tank, where he authored more than two dozen papers, many of them advocating a more muscular US foreign policy. He was also a core member of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), an influential neoconservative group that called for regime change wars in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries.
Leading PNAC foreign policy hawks included Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz and Eliott Abrams. Many of them were senior officials in the George W. Bush administration, including Khalilzad, who served in various posts including ambassadors to Iraq, Afghanistan and the United Nations.
Khalilzad was deeply involved in planning the overthrow of both the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. As a core member of the Bush administration and as a strident supporter of regime change, he surely bears a share of the responsibility for the deaths of what experts concur are hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan alone.
According to the Brown University Watson Institute Costs of War Project, more than 43,000 Afghan civilians have been killed during the 18-year US-led war. Taliban militants have killed the most civilians, but thousands of men, women and children have also been killed by US, allied and Afghan government bombs and bullets.
The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported in 2012 that US warplanes and drones in Pakistan have deliberately targeted emergency responders attempting to aid air strike victims, as well as the funerals of suspected Taliban militants killed in air strikes. Hundreds of Pakistanis were killed by US drone strikes during the administration of Barack Obama, who infamously re-defined "combatant" to mean all military-age males in a strike zone in a bid to undercount civilian casualties.
Civilian casualty events were commonplace during the Obama years, which included some high-profile atrocities like the October 2015 bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières charity hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. MSF called the attack, which killed 42 patients and staff, a "war crime" meant to "kill and destroy."
Air strikes – and civilian casualties – have soared in Afghanistan and the six other countries under US attack since President Donald Trump, who has fulfilled his campaign promise to "bomb the shit out of" Islamic State militants and "take out their families," entered office in 2017. The president has loosened rules of engagement meant to protect civilians and has even suggested that using nuclear weapons in Afghanistan might result in a quick US victory, even while admitting that "tens of millions of people would be killed."
No matter the administration, impunity and lack of accountability have been constants. The typical US response to civilian casualties has followed a predictable pattern. First, claim that only enemy fighters were killed in a strike. Then, when presented with evidence of civilian deaths, blame the enemy for them. Next, when shown proof that the US killed civilians, dispute the number of people killed. Finally, issue statements of regret while claiming to take great care to avoid killing civilians and, in some cases, make "condolence payments" to victims’ relatives.
While US troops are now withdrawing from Afghanistan following the historic but fragile US-Taliban peace deal signed in February, Afghan government air strikes continue to kill civilians. However, it is the height of hypocrisy for Khalilzad, who has so much blood on his own hands, to condemn his Afghan partners for doing something the US has done far more of over the past two decades.
Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace.