Last week, a suicide bomber in northern Afghanistan attacked a photo-op for visiting parliamentarians from Kabul.
An estimated 77 people were killed, and about 100 seriously wounded.
Most of the casualties were children.
The Taliban, who make a point of claiming successful suicide attacks as victories for the resistance, denied responsibility for this one, leading to speculation it may have been the result of internecine struggle between the narco-warlords who with NATO support currently control most of the country.
One of the bombing victims was both a member of the government, and a well-known Northern Alliance warlord.
Media reports described this as the worst suicide bombing in Afghanistan’s history, but according to a prelim report released this week by the UN, it was nothing of the sort.
Approximately 2/3 of the deaths and injuries were the result of gunfire.
The bodyguards of the Afghan “lawmakers,” blinded by the smoke of the explosion, sprayed the crowd of schoolchildren, teachers and local dignitaries with automatic-weapons for “up to five minutes.”
Among the dead were 61 children and five teachers.
This is not the first time Canada’s allies in Afghanistan have reacted to an attack by slaughtering innocent civilians.
Last March, US marines killed between eight and 16 people and wounded close to 30 more in a sustained revenge attack after their convoy was hit by a suicide car-bomber near Jalalabad.
Roaring up and down a 16-kilometre stretch of road in three Humvees, they appear to have been shooting at anything that moved.
One victim was a 16-year old girl, another a 75-year old man. The platoon has allegedly been “reassigned” back Stateside for bad public relations.
It’s depressingly reminiscent of the massacre at Haditha, in 2005.
In what’s been described as Iraq’s Mi Lai, a platoon of marines, hit by a roadside bomb that killed one and injured two others, went on a rampage, murdering 24 civilians in nearby houses.
Among the Haditha dead were women who had used their bodies to shield their children, as well as the children they tried to protect, aged 14, 10, 5, 3, and 1.
As in both the other cases reported here, authorities at first tried to cover up the massacre, describing the slaughtered civilians as “insurgents” and making believe the marines had simply “returned fire.”
When a videotape surfaced the next year exposing these lies, the military was forced to proceed with charges — at first only against the grunts who committed the atrocities, but later against officers who participated in the cover-up.
This month the damage has spread to a lieutenant colonel who “failed to properly investigate” Iraqi reports of the slaughter.
So far, Canadian forces have sustained more than 500 casualties, dead and maimed, in Afghanistan without facing any such accusations.
In fact, Canada‘s military has kept a clean reputation, at least in our own national press, since 1993, when members of the Airborne regiment tortured and beat Somali teenager Shidane Arone to death.
Canadian soldiers have killed civilians in Afghanistan, but they have always been able to claim self-defence.
In the context of modern war, the potential for suicide bombing is so high that to drive too close to a military convoy is to invite death.
You get one shouted warning and then you get bullets. How else can soldiers protect their own lives?
The same logic applies when Canadian ground forces call in air strikes in which civilians are killed.
In a firefight against Taliban fighters secreted in villages, the air power that gives our soldiers their strongest advantage can hardly help but claim innocent lives.
Without the bombing that has killed thousands of Afghan civilians since the war began, many hundreds of NATO soldiers might have died instead.
This explanation doesn’t do much for the maimed, or the dead or their relatives, but it is less disturbing here at home than if Canadian soldiers stood accused of deliberately slaughtering families, or large groups of schoolchildren.
But there’s no getting around the fact that our principal allies in this war have done exactly those things.
We sent troops to Afghanistan in support of the US, and we remain there in support of the Afghan government, and when either commit crimes against humanity, we share the responsibility.
Canada is in an insupportable position in Afghanistan.
When our soldiers take prisoners, there is nothing they can do with them that complies with international human rights standards.
When they patrol the streets they face the probability of being forced to shoot any car that strays too close, when they go into battle they know that supporting air strikes are murdering innocents.
Worst of all, no matter how detestable our enemies nor how honourable our soldiers, we are part of an alliance that commits crimes against humanity.
Our troops may be good guys, but with friends like these, we’ll never be the Good Guys.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.