July 2, 2009

Natural Law

A new era dawns in Afghanistan. Your lives are more important than the Taliban’s - that’s America’s new message to Afghans, courtesy of freshly installed Army General Stanley McChrystal. In his first instructions, McChrystal ordered all US soldiers to fall back when civilian lives are at risk.

COIN 101, straight from the Army field manual: protect the populace.

For instance, instead of dropping a payload of missiles, American and coalition forces must pursue other means of eliminating Taliban targets before calling in air-strikes. McChrystal suggests contacting local tribal leaders or reconnoitering the area in greater detail before staging an operation. Obvious but sensible alternatives.

Specifically, American troops are to refrain from firing on civilian houses that Taliban militants take shelter in. Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, America’s head spokesman in Afghanistan, said, “The assumption must be there are civilians in those residences, and in those instances, he is asking commanders to think of other options in front of them.”

Good assumption. America’s new rules of engagement will be a relief if they bring real change. The rate of civilian casualties is unsustainable and needs correcting as soon as possible. The overriding alarm is why seven years passed before new rules were developed and implemented. The pressure didn’t become unbearable yesterday, Afghan president Hamid Karzai has repeated his complaints since 2002.

Roughly 3,000 civilians were killed by American and coalition forces from the invasion through 2003. Last year saw the most civilian deaths of the war, 828 out of 2,118 caused by American fire according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Over 5,000 Afghans in total have been killed directly by American weapons, probably more.

These figures tinge American statements with doubt. National Security Adviser James Jones claims, “General McChrystal has been given instructions when he left here that, in all military operations, that we redouble our efforts to make sure that innocent loss of life is minimized, with zero being the goal.”

Was zero the goal before? Reality says no. And a report by U.S. Central Command causes an eye rolling avalanche when it states, “The inability to discern the presence of civilians and assess the potential collateral damage of those strikes is inconsistent with the U.S. government's objective of providing security and safety for the Afghan people.”

McChrystal’s belated directive is depressing evidence that America has been slow to adapt in Afghanistan. McChrystal can try to soothe mistakes and make future amends, but the last seven years are lost, set in stone for everyone to see. Only now does America change, in self interest as the war nose-dives.

But fundamental problems besides Afghan skepticism will challenge the effectiveness of McChrystal’s strategy.

Operation Khanjar, “Strike of the Sword,” recently commenced in the Helmand River valley. Over 4,000 Marines have been deployed to clear and hold land in heavy Taliban country. And Operation Khanjar is presumably the opening salvo; American reinforcements mean more battles. How does America intend to reduce civilian casualties while launching major military operations?

American troops are supposed to back off Taliban militants if they run into villages, homes, or anywhere else civilians may be. Afghan lives will be preserved, but so will the militant’s. The Taliban could flourish in its new freedom. Letting militants escape to save civilians will be counterproductive if other steps aren’t simultaneously developed to stop the Taliban’s advances.

Hundreds of billions of accountable dollars must be invested in agriculture, infrastructure, and defense. Security must be established across the country, not in patches. The Afghan police force must be filtered, armed, and paid regularly. Corruption must be rooted out of the government and the opium trade must be diminished or terminated. New jobs must be created for Afghans. Schools and hospitals must be built.

These are civil issues, not martial. Afghanistan must progress as a whole, otherwise a reduction in innocent death is unlikely. Most importantly, can America minimize civilian casualties even by religiously following its rules?

America is still undermanned with 68,000 troops, so villages will continue to come under Taliban control. Helmand province covers 22,619 square miles; roughly 12,000 American and coalition troops equal a little over half a soldier for every square mile. Mountainous and forested, Afghanistan is designed for defense. America is fighting an insurgency and though rules between humans can change, the law of nature doesn’t bend.

Civilians are the prize of both sides in Afghanistan, leading to inevitable competition over them. Civilian casualties are a natural extract of guerrilla warfare; Afghans will certainly keep falling by American hands. Death can only be minimized, and the effects will be short-lived unless Afghanistan improves in every aspect.

Another decade, at the least.

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