Civilian casualties: a problem more troops won’t solve
People hoped the US would come and release them from the violence of the Taliban but all the US does is attack us… The US only blames the Taliban, but the US has the technology. They should hit specific centers of the Taliban, not civilians.
-Afghan farmer speaking to Human Rights Watch, July 25, 2007.
Increasing civilian casualties in Afghanistan are a problem the US has a moral and strategic obligation to solve. Bombing wedding parties and destroying people’s homes is unconscionable and dangerous for stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The anger at the 40% increase in civilian casualties in 2008 is palpable in Afghan street protests against raids and bombings. Popular unrest is particularly dangerous for the fragile government in Pakistan, where protesters held a banner in a recent protest reading, “Bombing on tribes. Obama’s first gift to Pakistan.” A recent poll showed that only 18% of Afghans support sending additional US troops, and 77% find bombings that cause civilian casualties “unacceptable.”
Many proponents of the troop escalation argue that the answer to civilian casualties is more “boots on the ground,” which would decrease the need for air strikes. However, a Human Rights Watch report from 2008 calls this assumption into question:
If the most civilian casualties are happening when troops are engaged with insurgents (whose zeal will be galvanized by more “boots on the ground”), it’s hard to imagine that more troops will lead to a decrease in civilian casualties.
It’s disappointing but not surprising that voices from within Afghanistan have been marginalized in the debate about the US approach. The media, Congress, and the public have little grasp on the devastation caused by injuries, death, displacement and loss of property and livelihood in Afghanistan. The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict puts a human face on the occupation of Afghanistan in its report, “Losing the People: The Costs and Consequences of Civilian Suffering in Afghanistan”:
-Man’s wife was killed by US Marines in an escalation of force incident in 2007
“When I arrived at the house, I saw that a bomb had hit it directly…. I could see all the dead and injured bodies. My son’s wife was horribly injured. My son had injuries on his feet and the force of the blast had thrown him over the tree. Another daughter was blasted into so many pieces that we still have not been able to find her body.”
-Father lost seven members of his extended family in 2008 airstrike in Wardak; living as IDP in Kabul
“I feel bad and angry when I see international soldiers. I thought that they were coming to help and bring peace but they aren’t paying attention to civilians.”
-15-year-old boy lost his sister in a US airstrike on a wedding party in Nangarhar,
It’s not hard to understand how this kind of tragedy would easily overshadow anything else the US does in Afghanistan. Even from the cold perspective of security strategy, the US government can’t just think of these people as “collateral damage.” They are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, and the people they leave behind are potential recruits for extremist groups who are united by opposition to the foreign occupation.
The Christian Science Monitor reported this week that 50 members of the Afghan parliament have formed a working group to oppose the troop escalation. Our Congress needs to do its part to exercise real oversight of President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy and provide a platform for alternative voices who oppose the military strategy and have strong ideas for nonmilitary approaches. Those of us here in the US owe it to the Afghan people to put pressure on our own government to give the Afghans agency in planning their future and promote a strategy that brings peace and stability, not more tragedy, to Afghanistan.