A Military Strategy Held Hostage: Population Protection in Afghanistan

04/05/2009 10:50 pm 22:50:40 | Updated May 25, 2011

Investigators in Western Afghanistan are sifting through the rubble to determine how many civilians were killed in crossfire and airstrikes in Farah province on Monday. Current estimates range from a few dozen to well over a hundred.

Shortly after the incident, General David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told reporters that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) would begin an immediate and full investigation into civilian losses, but that strong evidence already suggested Taliban forces were responsible for the majority of the deaths. The incident and the reaction to it merit two remarks:
1) The immediate joint investigation is a sign of how far the NATO-led coalition, and the US military in particular, have come in recognizing the importance of civilian losses.
2) The fact that the knee-jerk reaction is still to shift blame suggests they have much farther to go in recognizing the central strategic and humanitarian importance of civilian losses to the situation in Afghanistan.

First, the fact that ISAF is prepared to immediately investigate and accept responsibility for any civilian losses is a sea change from eight years ago or even one year ago. In the past, the standard reaction to civilian losses was denial, if there was any reaction at all. Yet since the end of 2008, international troops, particularly US forces, have been much more responsive in investigating incidents, and providing amends and public apologies after a loss. This is a dramatic improvement and they deserve credit for their efforts.

What is still concerning is the apparent residual attitude that so long as they didn't pull the trigger, the international coalition is absolved from any responsibility for civilian losses on their watch. When I meet with Afghan families and communities who have suffered losses, they recognize when the Taliban or other insurgent groups are responsible and blame them. But they also see a failure of the Afghan government, and the international military to fulfill promises to protect them.

I spoke with one man who was disabled by an IED explosion in Western Herat province. He said he hated the people who laid such explosives, but he also had some questions for ISAF: "Why do things happen like this? ISAF has control of this country. They have the most power.... the best technology ... They can control [these attacks] so why do they not do it? They do not care about the people."

Failure to deliver on the most basic promises of security and stability not only generates resentment and disillusionment with ISAF and the Afghan government; it is the primary reason why the international coalition is losing Afghanistan, one district at a time. While the vast majority of Afghans do not support the Taliban, in the many areas where insurgents are dominant or are in control, they often have no meaningful choice. Tacit cooperation, much less support, for the Afghan government or international forces, will lead to the killing, abduction, torture, or other abuse of themselves or their family members. And they know that if targeted, no one will step in to save them.

Recognition of the importance of protecting Afghan communities is slowly gaining traction. One day after General McKiernan's remarks, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters "What is critical for the success of the Afghan government and for us is that the people believe we are here to protect them and not to hurt them. And so whenever civilian casualties occur it tends to undermine that point."

Secretary Gates, General David Petraeus, and other top military and defense officials have suggested that one of the benefits of additional forces is that they can now ensure the security of the Afghan population. The theory is that additional troops not only have the potential to reduce the number of civilian casualties caused by international military forces by decreasing reliance on air power (Human Rights Watch argued in its August 2008 report that the vast number of casualties from airstrikes happened when out-numbered and/or overwhelmed ground troops called in air cover.) but also they now have enough troops to hold and secure areas to prevent Taliban intimidation and targeting of a population.

Yet this latest incident shows the challenges to this new strategy. As international military forces push into areas that are dominated or controlled by Taliban -- like the districts in Farah -- they are likely to face stiff resistance and a new kind of scorched earth tactics. Insurgents know that all they have to do to win is to maintain an untenable security situation in these districts. The easiest way to do that is to target innocent civilians.

In a sense, it is a country with a population held hostage, and the international coalition is not well positioned to deal with that reality. We would never go into hostage situations with artillery and gunships blazing, for fear of what would happen to the hostages. Yet even with the new tactical emphasis on protecting civilians, it's difficult to see how the troops on the ground will react in any other way when provoked by enemy fire. Until ISAF figures out how to alter the basic security paradigm that the average Afghan faces by providing meaningful protection, no amount of new troops or resources will turn the situation around. Deadly incidents like the recent tragedy in Farah will only be the beginning.