June 3, 2009

COIN 101

Finally a long awaited admission of guilt by the American government. A military investigation revealed that on May 4th, American troops broke protocol while commencing their bombing runs on the Bala Buluk district of Fatah province in Afghanistan. In particular, one warplane doublebacked but failed to reconfirm its target. American officials admitfewer civilians would have died if the rules of engagement had been followed.

Afghan officials claim over 100 civilians died in the attack. America has admitted to 30, while a separate UN investigation concluded roughly 60.

This incident is bad enough in isolation. For years the American military has told the Afghan people that it takes every precaution to limit civilian casualties. The facts speak otherwise as events like Bala Buluk and Azizabad continue to occur, as if unstoppable. Though civilian deaths have been avoided in numerous attacks, guerrilla warfare is not a scale; good actions don't negate bad actions. These errors are simply unacceptable and American promises to do better ring hollow with each dead body.

But everything is interconnected in guerrilla warfare, as the bombing of Bala Baluk demonstrates. At the time of the attack, President Obama was readying the White House for Afghan president Hamid Karzai and Pakistani president Asif Zardari. Instead of staying on message the debate was sidetracked by the news, turning the trilateral summit into damage control.

Here we are a month later, with these new reports surfacing the same day as President Obama's speech at Cairo University. Terrible timing once again. His message to the Muslim world has been hijacked before he takes the stage. He can spin his golden rhetoric, but it won't change the ground in Afghanistan. Actions speak louder than words.

The original attack and reports detailing its errors are both military and propaganda failures, suggesting that America's counterinsurgency strategy still has deep flaws. And America's explanations have holes too.

American officials tried to bounce the blame back on the Taliban for putting civilians in danger. They claim that the Taliban fired from civilian buildings in order to provoke an air strike. The Taliban most certainly could have done so and they share the blame, but has America has forgotten that it's fighting a guerrilla war? These are guerrilla tactics and they clearly work because America fell into the trap. Who's fault is that?

Even more problematic is the discrepancy of death tolls between Afghanistan, America, and the UN. Beyond signaling disarray on their part, the Taliban is still clearly in control of information. How does the death toll become so high? Either Taliban agents or supporters in the government, in the police and army, in the press, in the villages. America has no one to manage information except at its bases.

America is always behind. Body counts automatically come out high leaving America at the immediate disadvantage of chipping them down, through flimsy excuses like the Taliban grenading houses (which American officials later dropped) or technical jargon like military satellite video. Few Afghans are privy to this evidence. They're left only with the memory of an American air strike that killed dozens fellow Afghans.

Now they remember these deaths could have been prevented.

Many of America's problems aren't flaws or aberrations either, but a manifestation of guerrilla warfare. Counterinsurgency is difficult enough when executed perfectly. Commit errors and failure is inevitable.

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