February 15, 2010

Moshtarak Loses Margin of Error

8,308, and counting.

That is the number of yesterday's news articles devoted to Afghan civilian casualties - each a Taliban bullet or mortar. US and NATO officials have claimed early success, which is their job. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm Mike Mullen, said the assault is, "off to a good start.”

Afghanistan Flag Flies over Taliban Capital.

So Marjah's a capital now? Reality is rarely so pretty.

Success and similar words are ambiguous in themselves. An operation is termed a success if it unfolds as planned, even if the expectation is protracted, hit and run guerrilla warfare. Success is born when US and UK forces heli-drop into Marjah with little resistance. With few direct engagements interrupting the frequent sniper rounds, a day is termed “success” even though 12 Afghan civilians are killed by two US rockets.

But how can the words “success,” “progress,” or “good” be spoken so soon when the objective of Operation Moshtarak is to protect the population?

General McChrystal quickly attempted to mitigate criticism by saying, “It's regrettable that in the course of our joint efforts, innocent lives were lost. We extend our heartfelt sympathies and will ensure we do all we can to avoid future incidents."

The problem is that McChrystal made the same promise before the operation, fully aware that civilian casualties are the dominant concern, and these 12 Afghans are dead on day two of the operation. Nor had the Taliban drawn fire into the target. America owns these deaths.

A NATO statement confirmed that two rockets were fired by a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) at insurgents who attacked U.S. and Afghan forces. “The projectiles veered 300 yards off target” and destroyed a house in the Nad Ali district.

This account implies a weapons malfunction, and McChrystal told a later briefing that the HIMARS has been suspended pending further investigation. This raises the question: why use the HIMARS at all? Why use air-strikes right now? Why shell? At the end of the day America is still putting its soldiers' safety above the local population's.

Good for national interest, bad for counterinsurgency.

Marjah’s tribal elders had voiced reservations during the meeting before the operation, citing minimization of civilian casualties as the precondition of their support. Why risk their support so early into the battle? 12 dead Afghan civilians are a spectacular defeat from a political and propaganda standpoint. The military realm - once again - is left as the only area where America shines, but two losses outweigh a victory.

"It's actually very difficult to predict [the end],” said Mullen. “We have from a planning standpoint talked about a few weeks, but I don't know that.”

The worst part, military-speaking, about dead civilians so soon into the operation is that it threatens its speed and aggression. The margin for error is already gone now; the Rules of Engagement will feel even tighter. Everyone has to slow down even more and be extra careful, which will further increase tensions. US and NATO generals are surely debating this problem as we speak. What speed is now acceptable? What level of force? A dilemma is taking shape not unlike the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. Western generals face a similar decision as the Olympic committee who, somewhat justifiably, overreacted to a tragic error and watered down their course.

Brig Gen. Larry Nicholson said Sunday, "That doesn't necessarily mean an intense gun battle, but it probably will be 30 days of clearing. I am more than cautiously optimistic that we will get it done before that."

This from a man who admitted the Taliban laid more mines than he expected. The BBC's Frank Gardner’s claim that, "homemade bombs have been planted in far greater numbers than NATO had anticipated."

America still possesses the upper hand in Marjah, due to the fact that the Taliban's advantage turns to a disadvantage during the operation. Having to scatter physically ensures only US and Afghan forces engage the elders of the city. Unless the Taliban has players deep inside Marjah's tribal politics America will hold the advantage of mingling with local personalities. Obviously civilian casualties on yesterday's magnitude, broadcast world wide on Sunday, could detonate ties with Marjah's local population. Thus every precaution must be taken not to spoil the advantage.

12 dead Afghans gave away a victory to the Taliban. Falling behind schedule will give away another.

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