This week I've had a lot of meetings at the Kabul headquarters for the NATO mission here, ISAF. Everyone in Kabul, but especially the military types, are humming about a new "comprehensive strategy" for Afghanistan.
A quick survey of the event coverage and op-ed sections of most US newspapers suggest a similar buzz is going on an ocean away. On Thursday, scholars Max Boot, Frederick Kagan, and Kimberly Kagan argued that more troops and a large-scale presence in Afghanistan was the only way to get accurate intelligence for targeting insurgents. "The only way to get the intelligence we need is from the residents, and they won't provide it unless our troops stay in their villages to provide protection from Taliban retribution."
Unfortunately in the past, placing troops closer to Afghan populations has not often led to greater protection. As a result, it has often produced more resentment and anger than trust and good intelligence.
A few months ago, I spoke with a community from Helmand province that had fled to Kabul to avoid repeated fighting. They said their community was targeted by the Taliban because of the proximity of nearby troops, and when the Taliban entered their village, rather than protecting them, the troops fired on them. "We don't have any power to prevent the Taliban from fighting in our village and bringing this conflict to us," one leader told me, "We blame the Taliban for [bringing] the fighting to our village, but we also blame ISAF that it doesn't recognize who is the enemy and who is a civilian."
To add insult to injury, following the bombardment, ISAF troops failed to reach out or help the community rebuild the lives that had been shattered by aerial bombardments and Taliban harassment. Every civilian who witnessed or heard about the treatment of this community walked away with the impression that international troops recklessly attacked a civilian community, and then ignored the deaths of their loved ones.
The folks I've met with at ISAF this week have been quick to point out new tactical directives designed to limit civilian losses. Equally encouraging, they pointed to efforts made to improve the tracking of civilian losses, and to promptly recognize and make amends for harm caused. In January 2009, for example, following three different instances where US Special Forces night raids led to civilian losses, US representatives promptly acknowledged the losses and provided condolence payments to those harmed.
This is a sea change from last summer, when the standard reaction to claims of civilian losses was immediate denial and no follow-up. But there's still a long way to go from past conduct with regard to civilian losses and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon's suggestion to the Security Council Friday, that the security of the Afghan people must be troops' "primary goal."
For a true strategic rethink, we'll have to do more than dust up around the margins. More troops alone will not win back Afghans' trust. We're going to have to earn it. Part of that will be showing that potential civilian losses are a central concern when tactical decisions are made. And when losses do occur, we need to show that they matter, by responding promptly with apologies and condolences. More proactive responses by individual troop contributing countries, like the US, are a positive development. But in a coalition, we have to get better together. ISAF needs to take on more coordinated approach the issue of civilian losses in conflict and ensure that all international troops respond promptly with apologies and help when harm does happen. If it doesn't, all the troops NATO can muster will not win back the one ally who really matters in this war -- the Afghan people.