The strategic harm of civilian casualties
The news today that the number of NATO induced civilian casualties have actually doubled this year in spite of a reduction in the use of air strikes is a terrible reminder of the humanitarian cost of the war in Afghanistan. But it also underlies one of the most fundamental strategic failings of the operation, the unavoidable damage made against any war effort that comes from unavoidable harm to innocents.
For every civilian that dies in Afghanistan, we are shoved back one step further away from “winning” the war. This is a truism that even General Stanley McChrystal realized last July when he issued a directive limiting the use of the “close air support” strikes that, among other things, have been responsible for some of the most highly publicized instances of NATO induced civilian casualties
The operation in Marja has been an experiment in that strange counterinsurgency mix of battle and public relations which, as I argued previously, illustrates the absurdity of the approach. When most of the fighting was over, 28 civilians had been killed and thousands were displaced. Worse, the Taliban presence remains strong in Marja, two months since the operation first began.
But there is nothing wrong with the premise of McChrystal’s argument – that what Afghans think of the US determines the extent to which the US can be helpful in Afghanistan. McChrystal has correctly identified civilian casualties as not only “a legal and moral issue” but also “an overarching operational issue – clear eyed recognition that loss of popular support will be decisive to either side in this struggle. The Taliban cannot militarily defeat us – but we can defeat ourselves.” However a fundamental flaw of the US winning hearts and minds strategy (WHAM) is that because the Taliban are tightly woven into the fabric of Afghan society, no matter how carefully we wage the war against them, innocent civilians will be hurt and we will continue to work against ourselves. And that’s why we need a wholely different approach in Afghanistan.
Nothing undermines popular support in Afghanistan more than killing innocents. Some 1000 civilians were killed in the first six months of 2009 alone, according to a UN report. Each death takes a considerable toll on the Afghan populace, not only emotionally, but also economically, because families who have lost their breadwinners cannot support themselves. Moreover, no matter what US or NATO forces offer these families in compensation, the dead cannot be brought back to life. In turn, discontent with civilian casualties often manifests itself to the detriment of US and NATO strategic interests, in several ways.
First, civilian casualties directly fuel insurgency recruiting and violence by undermining trust and breeding anger. In turn, civilians become more amenable to Taliban demands and less likely to resist attempts at intimidation. This often happens not because civilians support the insurgents or their cause, but because they feel like they have no other choice. The situation is probably best described in this New York Times Op-ed by David Kilcullen, a former counterinsurgency advisor to Gen. Petraeus, with regards to the effect civilians casualties from drone strikes in Pakistan have on trust in NATO forces.
Imagine, for example, that burglars move into a neighborhood. If the police were to start blowing up people’s houses from the air, would this convince homeowners to rise up against the burglars? Wouldn’t it be more likely to turn the whole population against the police? And if their neighbors wanted to turn the burglars in, how would they do that, exactly? Yet this is the same basic logic underlying the drone war.
Kilcullen goes on to argue that situation with airstrikes is the same: Apache rockets kill too indiscriminately and can’t protect civilians effectively without putting them in the crosshairs too.
Moreover, because collateral damage also destroys livelihoods and retards development, desperate Afghans become more likely to join the Taliban, again, because they have no choice. Each errant missile strike becomes a propaganda coup for insurgents, and fuels months of escalated violence, an effect that has been observed in a study by the US army, according to General Stanley McChrystal. “‘When we cause [civilian casualties], they generate a serious uptick in violence for up to five months,’ [McChrystal] said. ‘When the Taliban causes them, they generate an uptick in violence for about three months.'”
Second, civilian casualties also lead to political ramifications within Afghanistan and among our allies. Because of the wide spread and highly publicized nature of civilian casualties in the country, collateral damage has become a sticking point in relations with the Afghan government. Moreover, it undermines the legitimacy of the central government in the eyes of the people. According to the Economist, discontent with civilian casualties was one of the biggest issues on people’s minds during last year’s elections and it continues to find expression in public protests.
Civilian casualties of the fighting, of which there have been over 1,000 this year, are another source of resentment—and another motive for the insurgency in Pushtun society, where vengeance is justice. Nearly 60% of these deaths were in fact caused by the Taliban and allied Pushtun militants, through their increasing use of terrorist tactics, including over 90 suicide-blasts in Afghanistan this year. But misdirected American air strikes, which have many times destroyed wedding-parties and sleeping villagers in Afghanistan are the main focus for Afghan rage. Acknowledging this, Hamid Karzai, the president, on the campaign trial has often been critical of foreign troops.
Further, civilian casualties have also begun to strain our relations with NATO allies. In Germany, for example, a NATO airstrike that resulted in the death of 30 civilians embroiled the government there in controversy, and led to the resignation of the defense minister. All this hinders efforts for future cooperation and impairs the deployment of nationally organized and locally manned civilian forces, such as police.
It’s true that the Taliban, through the indiscriminate use of suicide attacks and human shields, are responsible for more civilian casualties than US and NATO forces, and that they are unpopular with a majority of the population, according to a Human Rights Watch report. But the US receives most of the blame for civilian casualties in Afghanistan, in part because of the Taliban’s underdog status. In an interview for Human Rights Watch report, one farmer said, “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.” The Afghan people cannot understand why the United States, with all its resources, cannot avoid the slaughter of innocents. Nor can we.
Instead of following the Taliban’s example, we should learn from their mistakes and use their negligence to our strategic advantage. But the way to do this is not through a military escalation, as President Obama has proposed, because the use of force would only increase the number of civilians caught in the crossfire. The more intense and widespread the fighting, the greater the chance that a badly targeted bomb or bullet will harm innocents. Even McChrystal’s efforts to limit the use of air strikes and other tactics especially harmful to civilians, while laudable, has only had limited success, according to a UN report. In 2009, for example, the number of civilians killed by airstrikes still amounted to 61% of civilian deaths by pro-government forces, totaling 359. As a whole, pro-government forces were only able to reduce their share of the responsibility for civilian casualties to 25% from 28% a year ago. The absolute number of deaths reduced were greater, at 596 deaths in 2009 from 828 in 2010, but it is the relative distribution of responsibility that, in the Afghan public’s mind determines the blame. Moreover, as the number of operations have increased this year, total civilian casualties have increased proportionately.
The way out of this quandary is to adopt a less bloody alternative that does not rely on the use of force, but on civilian and local solutions. In fact, we outline such a strategy here. It’s only when the President recognizes the absurdity of trying to reduce civilian casualties using violent means that we will really be able to claim that we are working to protect civilians in Afghanistan. Perhaps then, finally, we will be able to say that we are succeeding in Afghanistan.