05/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Breaking the Silence and Bearing Witness: The Wages of the Afghanistan War

Last night, on a cool clear night lit by floodlights, a Boeing 747 touched down in Dover, Delaware. In a solemn 20-minute-long ceremony, a team wearing white gloves and camouflage fatigues carried a flag-draped casket off the plane. The casket carried the remains of Staff Sgt Phillip Myers, who was killed when an improvised explosive device exploded in Helmand province. This ceremony, with its media witnesses, ended an 18-year ban on covering the return of fallen U.S. service members.

President Obama is to be commended for ending the ban and for increasing the emphasis on diplomatic and civilian approaches to the war in Afghanistan. But wielding the American military is so expensive and complex it remains to be seen how much of a shift from the status quo Obama can accomplish.

With the ban ending, the wages of the Afghanistan war become more visible to American eyes. This marks an appropriate time for a careful examination of the costs of this widening war. At a time when our nation's focus is elsewhere, we need to bring the human costs of the Afghan war into the "field of our moral vision." That phrase comes from Martin Luther King Jr. who called for bringing another war into moral focus forty-two years ago in his "Break the Silence" speech.

For American soldiers and their families, last year was the deadliest since the beginning of the war. In the first three months of 2009, eighty coalition troops died, almost twice as many as in the same period in 2008. Sadly, an escalating troop presence is bound to result in more ceremonies much like the one at Dover last night.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, people in villages across the country are having their own solemn ceremonies. According to the United Nations 2,118 civilians died last year, a 40 percent increase over 2007. Deaths by U.S. and NATO airstrikes have been spiking sharply upward with 552 civilian deaths in 2008 almost double the deaths in 2007.

Last week a report expressed concern that troop increases could lead to increased civilian suffering unless there is a major transformation in how soldiers operate. Matt Waldman, head of policy for Oxfam International on Afghanistan, said:

"Despite taking steps to reduce civilian casualties, and repeated calls for restraint, too many military operations by foreign troops involve excessive force, loss of life and damage to property."

Civilian casualties and deaths also come at checkpoints and through night raids and detentions.
A report by the group CIVIC points out:

Civilians are killed and their property damaged by [NATO and US forces] and other Afghan security or military forces during "night raids." Witnesses typically report groups of armed men in military uniform, usually a mixture of Afghans and foreigners, entering houses at night and sometimes forcibly. According to investigations by the AIHRC [Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission]: "A common pattern reported to AIHRC was for the armed men to separate the men from the women in the household, tie up the men and often take one or more of the men with them when they left. There have been incidents where men were not taken but simply shot on site."

"We are lost," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates said earlier this year, unless the United States can find a way not to kill so many civilians in the pursuit of militants in Afghanistan. With more troops heading to Afghanistan we will remain "lost" until we weigh the short-term military gains of detentions, night raids, and aerial bombardment against losses in the ultimately more important competition for Afghan hearts and minds.

There is a better way. After seven years of war most terrorism experts do not feel that war has succeeded is making Americans safer. A better way to fight Al-Qaeda is through policing and intelligence that has historically been the tools that break up the cells of the relatively small network of terrorists. The RAND Corporation issued a report last year demonstrating that only 7% of the terrorist groups that ended were brought down by military force.

What we need to bring into the field of our moral vision is a fundamentally different approach: one that instead emphasizes regional diplomacy, political reform and anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan, supporting that country in building its local security forces, and carefully targeted development aid. This recipe for helping Afghanistan is truly sustainable in terms of the human and financial costs.

You can bear witness to the human costs of the war in Afghanistan and here at home. Help to bring a new approach for Afghanistan into America's field of moral vision by clicking here to become an Afghanistan Witness.