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McChrystal: We've Shot 'An Amazing Number' Of Innocent Afghans

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As reported in the New York Times last week, a significant number of innocent Afghans continue to be killed by US and NATO forces despite new rules issued by Gen. Stanley McChrystal meant to help reduce civilian casualties. Indeed, the number of Afghans who have been killed or hurt by troop shootings at convoys and military checkpoints has basically remained the same since McChrystal announced his directives.

"We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat," said McChrystal during a recent video-conference with troops, the Times reported.

Talking Points Memo has obtained a longer transcript of McChrystal's statements, which you can read in full here.

McChrystal spokesman Tadd Sholtis tried to place the general's comments in context in an email to TPM: "The general was urging his forces to exercise courageous restraint (by suggesting that it is unlikely that erratic behavior at a checkpoint constitutes a threat) while also expressing sympathy for the confusing and threatening situations in which both soldiers and Afghans find themselves" Sholtis wrote.

From McChrystal's remarks:

We really ask a lot of our young service people out on the checkpoints because there's danger, they're asked to make very rapid decisions in often very unclear situations. However, to my knowledge, in the nine-plus months I've been here, not a single case where we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it and, in many cases, had families in it. That doesn't mean I'm criticizing the people who are executing. I'm just giving you perspective. We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force.

Since taking command last summer, McChrystal has worked to limit the killing of innocent civilians, which fuels resentment among Afghans and threaten to undermine local support for NATO's mission in the country.

And yet the numbers remain essentially the same year over year:

From the Times:

Shootings from convoys and checkpoints involving American, NATO and Afghan forces accounted for 36 civilian deaths last year, down from 41 in 2008, according to the United Nations. With at least 30 Afghans killed since last June in 95 such shootings, according to military statistics, the rate shows no signs of abating.

Despite McChrystal's efforts, Michael Cohen of Democracyarsenal.org argued earlier this week that the news that civilian deaths remained high shouldn't come as a surprise, given that a directive from even a top commander or a more people-focused counter-insurgency strategy is unlikely to be able to fundamentally alter the reality on the ground.

The incessant mantra we've heard about population centric counter-insurgency and making "protecting civilians" the top priority of US efforts in Afghanistan is just incredibly deceptive. 

It's not that we shouldn't try to protect civilians - or even that the American military shouldn't take the issue incredibly seriously. We should and we do. But by placing 100,000 troops in Afghanistan we are actually increasing the likelihood that ordinary Afghans will be killed - no matter how much effort is expended to spare their lives.  Our soldiers are trained to protect themselves and use overwhelming force when they are threatened.