America’s View on Afghan Civilian Deaths
The 17 Afghan civilians allegedly shot and burned in March by American soldier Robert Bales strained relations between the United States and Afghanistan. The media framing of the event—and the search for answers behind it—also has been very different between the two countries.
While the US media has beennarrowly focused on Army Staff Sgt. Bales and what the kiillingsmean for Americans and the war, Afghan media has been focused more on the entire event, with extensive coverage of the victims, Hamid Karzai’s press conference and some details about suspect Bales.
Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and expert on Afghanistan, explained the reasons behind the different approaches. “The focus in Afghanistan was much more on the victims and the repercussions; the focus on the US has been entirely on Bales – the perpetrator,” he said. “Bales has been treated in American media as a domestic killing, where as in Afghanistan, at least, they have had the courtesy of covering the victims.”
In the days following the rampage, bothnews medias scrambled to understand the events of that night. Errors were made. Originally it was reported that 16 civilians had lost their lives, which was later corrected to 17. The discrepancy changed when formal charges were brought against Bales the following week. Army Lt. Col. Jimmie E. Cummings Jr. told msnbc.com in an email, “At this time, the evidence available to the prosecution team indicates 17 victims of premeditated murder and 6 victims of assault and attempted premeditated murder.”
An explanation came in the Afghanistan media, according to the New York Times, from Kandahar Province Police Chief Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq, “The Americans are right and one of the females was pregnant, which is why they are saying 17.” This information was backed up by the Associated Press, but was initially denied by Cummings on msnbc.com. There has not yet been an official explanation for the additional charge in America.
The original version of events and time line changed too, when news details emerged that Bales allegedly attacked the village in two waves and not one.It was reported by Reuters and the APthat he returned to his base after the first round of shooting, and then returned to the village.
There were also reported discrepancies in what Afghan civilians received in compensation, depending on where the NATO forces are from, as reported by Reuters later in March. The United States usually pays up to $2,500 to civilians killed during lawful operations, but in this case, they paid $50,000 to relatives of each of the civilians killed in the March 11 shooting rampage. It also paid out $11,000 to each person who was wounded in the shootings, according to theAP, Los Angeles Times, CNN and the Wall Street Journal.
Rashid said views of the US in the media of Afghanistan and neighboring countries was already negative before the Bales incident. “The burning of the Quran’s has only fueled this fire,” he said. Rashid explained why Bales’ frame of mind had been largely neglected in the Afghanistan media, “Nobody in our part of the world knows about PTSD or soldiers suffering from shock. They don’t see that he could be banana’s or have gone mad, people see it as a deliberate killing,” he said.
In comparison, in America, Bales’ past military background was well reported. CNN spoke to those who knew Bales from his youth, including his neighbor, who said, “If the Bobby that I knew ever gets well, comes back to it, and realizes what has happened, and realizes that children and women were killed, I don’t think he can live with it.” Numerous profile of Bales in the following days came out in Voice of America, New York Times, Seattle Times, Fox News and CNN.
Karilyn Bales, his wife, also appeared on NBC’s Today Show, and said she found charges against him “unbelievable.” She said, “He’s like a big kid himself … he loves children, and he would not do that.”
Rashid said that America has also been shocked about Afghanistan having been more angered by the Quran burnings than the shootings. “We were taught as children, before the extremism, to have respect for all religious texts,” he explained. He recalled being taught to treat the Bible with enormous respect. “It’s in our school system that we have a natural respect for all these religions,” he said.
He reacted to what he saw as America’s misunderstanding of Afghanistan’s religious culture. “I think Afghanistan’s people were shocked at how [religious respect] was missing in the American culture,” he said, “I say, everyone in the world should be respectful. A lot of moderate Muslims and Christian would believe in the same thing.”
Afghanistan has been at war for 32 years said Rashid. “Thousands of people have been massacred in a single day, but with this killing, as horrible as it was, people are kind of immune to it,” he said.
Sasha Maria Schwendenwein is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter @smschwen