The Afghan government is protesting again that a U.S. airstrike has killed a large number of civilians. The U.S. military says the strike in Azizabad in Shindand district took out 30 Taliban fighters and a long-sought commander; local villagers claim that more than 70 civilians were killed. The military says it is investigating and that “All allegations of civilian casualties are taken very seriously.”
Not seriously enough to consider changing our approach, apparently. This report could be a Xerox of numerous previous incidents; I wrote about this a year ago. Again and again we have killed civilians in airstrikes aimed at the Taliban, provoking protests among the people we are supposedly trying to protect. Now, I am aware that we are at war and that a certain amount of collateral damage is unavoidable. But damage remains collateral only as long as it is accepted by the population supposedly being protected. As long as there is a consensus that deaths are accidental and part of the price paid for the benefits of military action, the term “collateral damage” can be used with a straight face. When that damage reaches the point where the population rises in protest against it, it’s not collateral any more. It’s indistinguishable from hostile action. And the Afghans start to wonder who their real enemy is, undermining everything good we’re trying to do in Afghanistan.
Here’s a thought: maybe airstrikes are not a very good tool in counter-insurgency warfare. Maybe when the enemy is not a massed conventional army but rather an irregular force operating among the population of the country supposedly being liberated, airstrikes can do more harm than good. Counter-insurgency, as the U.S. military is rapidly learning, is a whole different ball game from conventional warfare, requiring a patient approach that gets the population of the country working with us. And reducing a village to a smoking ruin seems a poor way to win the villagers over.
This is a tactical question. I don’t question our goals in Afghanistan. The Taliban need to be defeated so they don’t come back and kill all the Afghan girls who have learned to read. But the Taliban are not considerate enough to operate on clearly demarcated battlefields. They hide in villages. And taking out the whole village only turns the next village over the ridge against us.
Forgoing airstrikes, of course, will mean a certain amount of pain for U.S. troops on the ground. Counter-insurgency is slower, harder and more dangerous to infantry and special forces than the airstrike approach. It’s a tough way to win a war. But in the long run it’s the only way. Look at the successful counter-insurgency campaigns in recent history (e.g. the British effort in Malaya), and there’s no mystery about what works, as laid out in an article by Kalev I. Sepp in the Military Review. Better military minds than mine have looked at this problem.
Somebody in the Pentagon needs to think about this. It’s not too late to save Afghanistan, but if we keep on treating Afghan villagers like furniture, it might be before too long.