Monday, January 3, 2011
Ron Smith: Who fired on the ambulance?
What was largely absent from the media reports was any consideration of what the evidence might have been for the claims made and, thus, what confidence we might have in the commentary that was offered. Common practice in this sort of military engagement is to prepare an ‘after-action report’, given that the military force concerned had control of the scene. Such a report (if it was done and reported) would have answered a lot of questions. By merely picking up and identifying spent shell cases and noting where they were found, it could have been determined how many shots were fired, from what location and from what kind of weapon. As matters stand, this data is not available and we are largely left with presumption and whose account we choose to believe. As far as presumption is concerned, we also may presume that an after-action investigation was conducted and that the official account was based upon it. We might also understand why, in the course of an on-going conflict, such material is not released
As has been well publicised, the Rules of Engagement (ROEs) for NATO forces in Afghanistan only permit the return of fire. On this basis it might be thought unlikely that disciplined forces like the SAS would have fired first. Of course, this is not the same as knowing that they did not. Indeed, it might be argued that the present ROEs are unduly restrictive and (to speak generally) ought not to be followed, since they have contributed to greater losses amongst the NATO troops and diminished military effectiveness. Again, this tells us nothing about what happened on this occasion and we do have an unequivocal account from our own Defence Force; the SAS soldiers came under fire.
But after all this there is the ambulance. Not quite a formal after-action report but clearly one of the few pieces of actual evidence that is in the public domain. Television reports of the incident featured an ambulance which had clearly been shot at. There were multiple bullet holes along its side. Who do we suppose fired these shots? If we take it that it was not the SAS (does anybody seriously think that they did?) then it is clear that there were other armed parties present. This seems to me to make the claim that the NATO force was fired at, altogether more plausible. Of course, this does not prove that it was the armed security guards (who were subsequently shot) who fired the initial rounds which invited return fire. On the other hand, if they were in any way allied to those who did initiate the firing, they might be considered (in the words of the Geneva Conventions) to have been ‘participating in hostilities’. On this basis, they would not have been ‘innocent citizens’ but rather ‘combatants’.
If it were the case that the security guards were not at all associated with the other armed party (on the face of it, unlikely, in my judgement), then they would have been yet more unfortunate collateral harm in a war that continues to kill many civilians. In this connection, it might be noted that a recent UN report concluded that most of this innocent killing is being done by the Taliban and its associates and, moreover, this latter killing is for the most part intentional killing of civilians. This is an important distinction. Whatever else we may conclude about the events in Kabul in late December, we surely cannot think that our troops went to that warehouse with the intention of killing arbitrary Afghan civilians. The most we might conclude is that in the course of a security operation they shot persons who might not have been shooting at them. But they were persons who were armed and on the premises where the action was taking place and who might well have had some association with the insurgent activity that resulted in a shot-up ambulance. In the greater context, not a major story, one might think.
at 2:30 PM