Enough civilian body parts to fill two tractor-trailers remained after an incident in Farah province of Afghanistan Monday, according to the NY Times today. Afghan civilians blame US airstrikes for 100+ civilian dead; the United States is investigating the possibility that the Taliban executed the civilians with grenades in order to blame US forces.
Either scenario is pretty plausible; but either way the PR fiasco falls in the lap of the international forces, so the bottom line is the US needs to rethink its counterinsurgency strategy.
The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict released a report last month entitled Losing the People: The costs and Consequences of Civilian Suffering in Afghanistan. Based on interviews with 143 civilians harmed by conflict operations in the country since 2001, the report (p. 11) details both “lawfare” deployed by the Taliban, in which civilians are intentionally used as shields, and massive casualties from US “collateral damage.”
In November 2008, villagers attending an Afghan wedding party in Kandahar provice said insurgents entered the area, fired on international forces, and then forcibly prevented the villagers form fleeing the area before IMF retaliated with an air-strike that left 37 members of the wedding party dead.
Haji Nasaib lost nine family members and suffered significant property loss due to an IMF air-strike in Wardak province. “I could see all the dead and injured bodies. My daughter was baking bread inside the house when the bomb hit. Due to the blast, she was thrown into the oven. Her body was totally burned. She was taken to the hospital, but she died… My son had injuries on his feet and the force of the blast had thrown him over a tree. Another daughter – she was blasted into so many pieces that we still have not been able to find her body.”
The first example is a war crime; the latter, unless the result of intentional targeting of civilians, is not. But the difference is lost on the civilian population of Afghanistan, and ultimately it is the US who pays the political price. The popularity of the international troops in the country has been plummeting since last year, and there is a resurgence of anger since this week’s incident.
In fact, given the regularity of such incidents, one wonders why the Afghani people have not risen up more forcefully already to kick out the occupiers – who on the one hand are seen as cowards who fight from the skies, and on the other hand have been ineffective at protecting them from militias?
Currently, international forces maintain the moral high ground in three ways. First, they kill fewer civilians than insurgents and pro-government forces in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International data suggest the number of casualties from IMF mistakes has been around 25% of the overall total for the past three years; the Afghan NGO Security Office numbers are slightly lower for 2006. Second, they often apologize when they make mistakes, unlike the Taliban who sometimes target civilians directly. And third, they often compensate the families of civilians who are killed or maimed through carelessness.
But international forces also fight an uphill battle in other respects: they are outsiders, their disproportionate power is resented, and they are seen as out of touch with the needs of the Afghan people. It is clear that the US and other ISAF countries will need to take greater steps to reduce the “collateral damage” associated with Operation Enduring Freedom, and to streamline the programs in place to mitigate the unavoidable effects on civilians.
CIVIC’s report outlines a variety of such measures, including quicker apologies (not “regrets,” not “excuses,” but apologies); better coordination of existing compensation policies so that families don’t fall through the cracks; quicker public acknowledgement of errors, and more transparent investigations; and “the establishment of a Pentagon position to strategically address potential and actual civilian casualties.”
In my view, an important item should be added to this list: the ISAF, led by the US, should rethink the use of airpower and strafing as a legitimate means of waging a counterinsurgency war within areas populated by civilians. Even with the most discriminate means available – precision targeting by unmanned drones – the civilian/combatant death ratios we are seeing in Afghanistan and Pakistan are ridiculously disproportionate. It’s time to put our money where our mouths are and fight insurgents on the ground.