Civilian casualties: a problem more troops won’t solve

 In Afghanistan

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:

Broadly speaking, airstrikes are used in two different circumstances: planned strikes against predetermined targets, and unplanned “opportunity” strikes in support of ground troops that have made contact with enemy forces (in military jargon, “Troops in Contact” or TIC). In our investigation, we found that civilian casualties rarely occur during planned airstrikes on suspected Taliban targets (one in each of 2006 and 2007). High civilian loss of life during airstrikes has almost always occurred during the fluid, rapid-response strikes, often carried out in support of ground troops after they came under insurgent attack. Such unplanned strikes included situations where US special forces units — normally small numbers of lightly armed personnel –came under insurgent attack; in US/NATO attacks in pursuit of insurgent forces that had retreated to populated villages; and in air attacks where US “anticipatory self-defense” rules of engagement applied.

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”:

“We were traveling from Kabul to Pakistan for a wedding. I heard firing and I tried to push my wife down to protect her. But then I saw the blood. … Our children were there when it happened and they watched her die.”

-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,
July 2008

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.

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  • Ian C.Cree,MB(Hons.),MS,FRCS(Eng.& C.),FACS,LRCP.

    It is critical for all Americans to realize that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are just as unwinnable as were the wars in Korea and Viet Nam.
    We could not win in Korea because North Korea was supported by China which had the H-bomb, as did Russia, The same applied to Viet Nam, in which North Viet Nam was supported by Russia.
    In both these wars all that we could do was lose troops and treasure.
    We could not win in Iraq because we had no business to be there in the first place. After the Gulf war, Saddam Hussein was held in check by fly-overs which were highly effective. Only the absurd arrogance of Bush, who wanted to show off to his daddy that he could go one better, and get rid of Saddam Hussein (politely called “Regime Change”), combined with systematic lying about WMD and just about everything else started and maintained that war.
    We had “Victory after Victory after Victory”, each characterized by increased loss of life and staggering loss of National Resources. Iraq remained out of control and so remains. We are no nearer to ending this unwinnable war than when we started it. “Victory” !!!!!!!!
    Hovering in the background, as we expended our forces and trillions of dollars, was Russia, which sat idly by and watched the carnage, ready to support Iraq, if there was any real success on the part of the USA, adding intensity to the unwinnable nature of this war which only evoked more and more enemies in the Arab world.
    Afghanistan presented an even more unwinnable situation in which we again excelled in winning even more enemies. Bush failed to learn the sharp lesson taught to Russia, which was forced to leave empty handed after losing enormous numbers of troops and finances. Afghanistan remained in the hands of its people throughout the occupation by Russia which was able to only hold the major towns.
    Now history repeats itself, as the USA holds only the major towns and a portion of the roads. The countryside remains in the hands of the Taliban – now stronger than ever. Yet another unwinnable situation in which we excelled in NOT winning the hearts and minds of the people.
    We are about to embark on another bout of massive losses of our troops and billions, maybe trillions more dollars in another unwinnable war.
    In the end, after disappearing into the mountains, the Taliban will return to take control, and we will have gained nothing.
    The choice of the Secretary of Defence was a tragic error. We will be treated to more of the same at a very high price, with the ever recurring promises of “Victory”. Can we never learn that these escapades cannot be won by force of arms?
    How think you?
    Ian Campbell Cree, MB(Hons.), MS, FRCS(Eng. & C.), FACS, LRCP.

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