Running low on strikes with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, NATO recently held an international conference to address “the Issue of Civilian Casualties,” and refill its margin of error. The only way to increase that buffer, though, is to minimize civilian casualties. Death continues to rise year over year, thanks mostly to the Taliban, but NATO’s collateral is also swinging upward. And as many studies have concluded, Afghans roughly split the blame with foreign forces because of their presence alone.
Oddly obvious statements won’t get NATO anywhere. British Army Colonel Paul Harkness, ISAF Chief of Operations and organizer of the conference, explained, “Civilian casualties aren’t simply a military issue; it is also an Afghan issue. We need to consciously see the issue through Afghan eyes. We need ensure our dialogue is continuous. We know a great deal about the issue, but we can always learn more.”
NATO still doesn’t seem to “know” how to accept responsibility.
The second step to countering local blowback is admitting casualties upfront, as General David Petraeus ordered his officials to do upon landing in Kabul. Except NATO is having difficulty changing its old ways. According to government officials, the latest night-raid in Khost province has left six civilians dead; according to NATO’s Capt. Justin Brockhoff, "I don't have any indication that we killed civilians... As the security force was clearing a compound in the area, multiple insurgents armed with AK-47 rifles and pistols, opened fire on the force.”
What NATO either fails to take into account (or else ignores out of habit) is Khost’s heightened sensitivity. Last week a civilian massacre had triggered anti-American protests in the Domandera district, where tribal leaders claim an air-strike killed three women and six children. NATO officials eventually confirmed their deaths but pinned them as family members of the Haqqani network, and said the local commander had been killed as well. Regardless of the circumstances (and Taliban can be considered part of the social fabric), members of the Zadran tribe rallied a protest Afghanistan’s foreign occupation.
Thus a second botched raid builds on the pressure of the first, demanding additional sensitivity in responding.
Instead NATO has chosen denial in Toora Worai. ISAF claims, “An Afghan-led combined security force killed six Haqqani network fighters including one armed adult female during a security operation in Khost district, Khost province, yesterday.” Meanwhile Mubarez Zadran, a spokesman for Khost’s provincial government, told reporters, "The coalition last night ran an operation in that village and unfortunately they were acting on an incorrect report that there was a meeting of Haqqani network commanders going on. The operation left six civilians dead."
Gul Mohammad Zazi, a provincial council member, further claimed that “international troops stormed into the village at midnight and fired into the windows of houses.” True or not, resident Asif Khan said all of the dead were civilians, and local school spokesman Sayed Musa Majro said the dead included a teacher and two students. Again Afghans spilled into the streets carrying the bodies of the dead on their shoulders, demanding justice and chanting anti-American slogans.
The government and NATO’s versions don’t leave much room in the middle, and it won’t be surprising if ISAF slips its line. As a hub for the Haqqani network and an exceptionally hostile region for foreign troops, Khost is a major cog in Petraeus’s eastern shift. Needless to say, ripping off a string of civilian casualties and trying to cover them up isn’t the path to "victory." Admitting guilt is more likely to pay dividends over time.
Otherwise America and its dwindling NATO allies run a grave risk of winning Afghanistan’s military battle and losing its political war.