August 11, 2010

The Perception of Civilian Casualties

Today Clayton Swisher of Al Jazeera, posed a number of “serious questions” in Afghanistan. While his reporting on US political weakening and Kandahar’s alternatives - one of which is civil war - deserves its own analysis, Foreign Policy responded directly to Swisher’s question regarding civilian casualties. The UN recently held the Taliban responsible for 76% of civilian casualties in 2010.

US officials, at least in public, voice optimism that General David Petraeus’s minimization of casualties will translate into support for US troops and the Afghan government, according to the theory of protecting the population. They estimate that 60% to 70% of Afghans want US forces to remain in the country and believe, if nothing else, that the Taliban will lose what support it has left.

But to believe Afghans automatically absolve US troops from blame is to ignore Afghanistan’s history and present.

“Talking with some folks familiar with the Taliban thinking,” writes Swisher, “it is even more distressing to ponder that maybe a large number of the population here just might accept the Afghan civilians killed by fellow Afghans in the name of expelling the foreign occupier.”

While the Taliban harm their own cause as civilian casualties rise in relation to America, the very presence of US and NATO troops mitigates the direct damage. Though the Taliban may spark the actual incident, not every Afghan is willing to blame the Taliban if they don’t believe US troops should be in Afghanistan to begin with. Whether Afghans are ultimately safer with or without US troops in the country remains an unsolved mystery.

The Kabul government makes for an easy scapegoat too.

Writing in Foreign Policy
, Erica Gaston explains of the phenomenon, “My organization, Open Society Foundations, conducted research across all regions of Afghanistan in the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010, asking community elders about their views of the different warring parties, and what they saw as the causes of the conflict. Despite the fact that more civilian harm is caused by insurgents, Afghans tend to blame insurgents and international forces equally, and in many cases they hold international forces to be more responsible for the harm caused to them.”

Although Gaston lists propaganda and the hardened bias against foreigners as partial causes, she attributes their feelings to an even greater threat to the US mission. While blaming the Taliban for specific acts, “they hold the Afghan government and the international community responsible for a situation that is rapidly deteriorating and increasingly dangerous for ordinary Afghans.”

It would seem, no matter how America tries to circumvent him, that the US mission ultimately boils down to Hamid Karzai’s governance and reputation.

Protecting the population theoretically has few holes. As a battle of wills, insurgents and counterinsurgents must compete for the populace’s approval and the best way is to keep them safe and provide a stable livelihood. But protecting the population also runs into numerous practical dilemmas. This isn’t the theory’s fault so much as knowing where to fight. Protecting the populace is obviously easier in a neutral country than one with historical animosity towards foreign intervention and an unpopular government propped up by America.

Of course al-Qaeda is deliberately leading America and the West exactly to these hotspots.

Limiting civilian casualties is necessary for the West to have any hope of avoiding a decisive defeat in Afghanistan - and remains a staple in any counterinsurgency - but the tactic’s effectiveness varies by conflict. If Kabul continues to provide middling service to the majority of its people, who in turn blame America by association, then Petraeus could win his tactical battle while losing the strategic overview.

Conflicting information has led some US officials and media figures to doubt the concept of counterinsurgency in light of Afghanistan's persistent destabilization, but the country makes for a poor measuring stick. Just because America can’t get large-scale COIN to work doesn’t mean COIN is a myth or dysfunctional. US COIN doctrine has yet to mature and Afghans are naturals of guerrilla warfare. Another country like China, were it culturally aware, might even succeed in Afghanistan with similar tactics and strategy, minus the baggage.

And despite anti-Western tendencies, America and NATO could potentially turn Afghan opinion around if they enjoyed an unlimited amount of time and eventually delivered on their promises. But that’s a big part of the COIN problem.

After nine years the West’s time and resources are running out.

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