The Deeper Crime: the Invasion Itself

By Paul Street.  ZNet, March 19, 2012. Any decent American or world citizen should be outraged at recent terrible actions by U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. I am referring to the release of a YouTube video showing U.S. Marines urinating on dead Afghans last January, to the burning of Muslim Korans by American troops at Bagram Air Force Base last February, and above all to the wanton massacre of 16 Afghan civilians (including 9 children and 3 women) in Kandahar Province last week – this by an unnamed butcher (or butchers) who has (or have) already been flown to Kuwait.[1] There are no words to adequately capture the stupidity and above all the horror of this sort of conduct by U.S. military personnel. The rage of the Afghan people that has followed in the wake of these incidents is more than understandable. 

At the same time, however, we should be equally outraged by the way the dominant U.S. political and media culture frames these terrible events as isolated “mistakes” within a broader legitimate military campaign. We also should be concerned about how the dominant-frame discussion focuses on the terrible behavior of individual troops, diverting focus away from ultimate perpetrators in Washington. Notice that Afghanis have not simply or merely called for apologies and justice (including a murder trial and punishment under their own customs and laws) against front-line criminals in the latest incidents. They are also and above all calling for an end to the illicit occupation of their nation by the world’s only superpower. 

They do so with good reason. The consistently absent, doctrinally deleted ingredient in the mainstream American discussion of what the U.S. does in Afghanistan is the simple (the list of atrocities is long indeed),[2] brazen, and imperial criminality of America’s presence there in the first place. There is no discussion outside marginal left circles of the fact that the initial bombing and invasion of the Afghanistan took place in bold defiance of international law forbidding aggressive war. Sold as a legitimate defensive response to the September 2001 jetliner attacks, it was undertaken without definitive proof or knowledge that that country’s Taliban government was responsible in any way for 9/11. It occurred after the Bush administration rebuffed offers by that government to extradite accused 9/11 planners to stand trial in the U.S. It sought to destroy the Taliban government with no legal claim to introduce regime change in another nation. It took place over the protest of numerous Afghan opposition leaders and against the warnings of aid organizations who expected a U.S. attack to produce a humanitarian catastrophe. U.S. claims to possess the right to bomb Afghanistan – an action certain to produce significant casualties – raised the interesting question of whether Cuba and Nicaragua were entitled to set off bombs in the U.S. given the fact that the U.S. provided shelter to well-known terrorists known to have conducted murderous attacks on the Cuban and Nicaraguan people and governments.[3]  

The United States’ attack on Afghanistan met none of the standard international moral and legal criteria for justifiable self-defense and occurred without reasonable consultation with the United Nations Security Council. “The invasion of Afghanistan was as illegal as the invasion of Iraq,” prominent legal scholar Marjorie Cohn noted in July of 2008. The U.N. Charter requires member states to settle international disputes by peaceful means. Nations are permitted to use military force only in self-defense or when authorized by the Security Council. After 9/11, the Council passed two resolutions, neither of which authorized the use of military force in Afghanistan. Assaulting that country was not legitimate self-defense under article 51 of the Charter since the jetliner assaults were criminal attacks, not “armed attacks” by another country. Afghanistan did not attack the U.S. and 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, there was no “imminent threat of an armed attack on the United States after September 11 or Bush would not have waited three weeks before initiating his October 2001 bombing campaign.” As Cohn added, “The necessity for self-defense must be ‘instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.’ This classic principle of self-defense in international law has been affirmed by the Nuremberg Tribunal and the U.N. General Assembly.”[4] 

Not surprisingly, an international Gallup poll released after the bombing was announced showed that global opposition was overwhelming. In 34 of the 37 countries Gallup surveyed, majorities opposed a military attack on Afghanistan, preferring that 9/11 be treated as a criminal matter rather than as a pretext for war. Even in the U.S., just 54% supported war.[5] “In Latin America, which has some experience with US behavior,” Noam Chomsky noted, “support [for the U.S. assault] ranged from 2% in Mexico, to 18% in Panama, and that support was conditional on the culprits being identified (they still weren’t eight months later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported) and civilian targets being spared (they were attacked at once). There was an overwhelming preference in the world for diplomatic/judicial measures, rejected out of hand by [Washington, claiming to represent] ‘the world’.” [6] 

Barack Obama built his “progressive” presidential brand partly around a distinction between the “bad” and “mistaken” war that George W. Bush launched in Iraq and the “good” and legitimate war that Bush supposedly launched “in response to the jetliner attacks” in Afghanistan. He campaigned on a promise to escalate the American military presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan (co-joined as “Af-Pak”) – a promise he quickly fulfilled in ways that have led to the officially un-scandalous deaths of untold thousands of Pashtun civilians, including many women and children. Ask the people of Bola Boluk. In the first week of May 2009, U.S. air-strikes killed more than 140 civilians in Bola Boluk, a village western Afghanistan’s Farah Province. Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by U.S. explosives were children. Just 22 were males 18 years or older. As the New York Times reported: 

“In a phone call played on a loudspeaker on Wednesday to outraged members of the Afghan Parliament, the governor of Farah Province, Rohul Amin, said that as many as 130 civilians had been killed, according to a legislator, Mohammad Naim Farahi. Afghan lawmakers immediately called for an agreement regulating foreign military operations in the country.” 

“‘The governor said that the villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred,’ Mr. Farahi said.” 

“’Everyone at the governor’s office was crying, watching that shocking scene.’” 

Mr. Farahi said he had talked to someone he knew personally who had counted 113 bodies being buried, including those of many women and children. Later, more bodies were pulled from the rubble and some victims who had been taken to the hospital died, he said.”[7]  

The initial response of the Obama Pentagon to this horrific incident – one among many such mass U.S. aerial killings in Afghanistan since October 2001 – was to absurdly blame the civilian deaths on “Taliban grenades.” Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed deep “regret” about the loss of innocent life, but the administration refused to issue an apology or acknowledge U.S. responsibility for the blasting apart of civilian bodies in Farah Province.[8]  

By telling and sickening contrast, Obama had just offered a full apology and fired a White House official because that official had scared New Yorkers with an ill-advised Air Force One photo-shoot flyover of Manhattan that reminded people of 9/11.[9] The disparity was extraordinary: frightening New Yorkers led to a full presidential apology and the discharge of a White House staffer. Killing more than 100 Afghan civilians did not require any apology. Nobody had to be fired. And the Pentagon was permitted to advance preposterous claims about how the civilians died – stories that were taken seriously by mainstream (corporate-imperial war and entertainment) media [10] 

Obama’s rule that the U.S. never apologizes (since it’s so good) has been suspended for the Koran burnings and the Kandahar massacre – an indication of how grave the recent transgressions are and/or the administration’s desire to prevent wider “insurgency” in an election year. Ron Paul might be a racist-sexist-property rights dinosaur, but he alone among the presidential candidates has had the elementary decency to note that such apologies are irrelevant as long as the U.S. continues to think it has the right to “invade countries that never did anything to us.” [11] 

There’s an obvious analogy from “the Vietnam War”: My Lai. When it was belatedly reported in 1969, the infamous massacre of more than 400 unarmed civilian villagers in March 17th of the previous by U.S. soldiers under the command of Second Lieutenant William Calley provoked shock and outrage in the mainstream U.S. media and politics culture. But anger and disgust over the supposedly anomalous My Lai episode (Calley’s commanding officer Oran Henderson later observed that “every [American military] unit of brigade size has its My Lai hidden someplace”[12]) tended to deflect attention from the many other atrocities committed by the U.S. in Vietnam and from the broader criminal nature of “the Vietnam War” – the one-sided U.S.-imperial “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Noam Chomsky) that killed 3 million Indochinese (mainly through “normal” impersonal  military operations like the bombing of Bola Boluk) between 1962 and 1975. 

It’s terrible when a deranged Mafia hit man kills a victim in an especially vicious and horrifying way but the bigger point is that the Mafia is a murderous and criminal enterprise. So are the American petro-Empire and its one-sided and deeply racist war and invasion reign in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. 

Only a small  share of  that empire’s almost countless direct-force victims have been killed through such openly murderous methods as those employed in My Lai 44 years ago (I am by chance writing on the actual anniversary of that event) and Kandahar Province last week. The great majority have perished through even more murderous “normal” military operations like the one that blew apart the children of Bola Boluk in the first spring of Barack Obama’s drone-happy presidency. Those deaths and so many more (including the killings of My Lai and Kandahar 2012) trace ultimately to the Don Corleones – the imperial commanders-in-chief (Democrats Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama) – that sign off on criminal invasions in the name of liberty. 

Paul Street’s many books include The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied, 2007), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio), Crashing the Tea Party (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at 


[1] “An arrest, a presidential apology, local outrage and anger, a plea for calm and the promise of investigations — that’s the usual rapid-reaction scenario after incidents like the apparent slaughter of 16 Afghan civilians, 9 of them children, by an American sergeant….What is almost never considered, however, is a trial of the perpetrator in the country where the crime took place. It’s one of the reasons the United States ‘unjoined’ the International Criminal Court and forces other countries to sign bilateral agreements that protect American soldiers from prosecution abroad.” I quote Mark McDonald, “Why Not a Massacre Tribunal in Afghanistan?” International Herald Tribune Rendezvous blog  (March 12, 2012) at 

[2] Alexander Cockburn,  “Massacre Fatigue in Afghanistan,” Counterpunch  (March 16-18, 2012) at .Cockburn notes  “a constant diet of [U.S.] atrocities” and concludes that  “We can brace ourselves for more horror stories like the one that came to light last Sunday until NATO’s beaten armies clamber onto the planes and head for home.” 

[3].Noam Chomsky, Hegemony Over Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (New York: Metropolitan, 2003), pp. 199-206. See also Rajul Mahajan, The New Crusade: America’s War on Terror (New York: Monthly Review, 2002), p. 21.  

[4] Marjorie Cohn, “End the Occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan,” ZNet (July 30, 2008), read at defenders of the invasion, Democrats as well as Republicans, upheld Bush’s right to attack prior to UN consultation by making the analogy of a maniac who had broken into your house and already killed some residents: “do you sit and around a negotiate with the murderers while they kill more or do you go in and take them out?” But, as Mahajan argued, “the analogy to the U.S. action would have been better if the maniac had died in the attack, and your response was to bomb a neighborhood he had been staying in, killing many people who didn’t even know of his existence – even though you had your own police force constantly on the watch for more attacks.” By the analogy, the U.S. would have also been allowed to bomb the German neighborhoods in which many of the 9/11 conspirators planned their operation. 

[5] Abid Aslam, “Polls Question Support for Military Campaign,” Inter Press Service, October 8, 2001; Gallup International, Gallup International Poll on Terrorism (September 2001); Edward S. Herman and David Peterson,  “‘ Obama’s Foreign Policy Report Card’: Juan Cole Grades His President – and Very Positively,” MR Zine (November 9, 2009), at  

[6] Noam Chomsky, “The World According to Washington,” Asia Times (February 28, 2008). 

[7] Carlotta Gall and Taimoor Shah, “Civilian Deaths Imperil Support for Afghan War,” New York Times, May 6, 2009. 

[8] Gall and Shah, “Civilian Deaths.”

[9] Christina Boyle, “President Obama Calls Air Force One Flyover ‘Mistake’ After Low-Flying Plane Terrifies New York,” New York Daily News, April 28, 2009; Michel Muskai, “Presidential Plane’s Photo-Op Over New York Coast as Much as $357,000,” Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2009; Peter Nicholas, “Louis Caldera Resigns Over Air Force One Flyover Fiasco,” Los Angeles Time, May 9, 2009.

[10] Paul Street, “Niebuhr Lives, Civilians Die in the Age of Obama,” ZNet (June 15, 2009), read at

[11] Josh Feldman, “Ron Paul: Obama’s Apology for Quran Burnings Isn’t Wrong But ‘“Its Pretty Much Irrelevant,’ “ Mediaite (March 4, 2012 ) at 

[12] Howard Zinn, “The Impossible Victory: Vietnam” (from The People’s History of the United States, 1980), excerpted at

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By | 2012-03-19T11:24:39+00:00 March 19th, 2012|Articles|