April 23, 2009

Collateral Damage and Force Protection

Tom Engelhardt writes thoroughly in TomDispatch.com about the deaths of civilians in US operations in Afghanistan and the various approaches for handling the cases by the military brass.
Admittedly, there's been a change in the assertion/repeated denial/investigation pattern instituted by American forces. Now, assertion and denial are sometimes followed relatively quickly by acknowledgement, apology, and payment. Now, when the irrefutable meets the unchallengeable, American spokespeople tend to own up to it. Yep, we killed them. Yep, they were women and kids. Nope, they had, as far as we know, nothing to do with terrorism. Yep, it was our fault and we'll pony up for our mistake.

This new tactic is a response to rising Afghan outrage over the repeated killing of civilians in U.S. raids and air strikes. But like the denials and the investigations, this, too, is intended to make everything go away, while our war itself -- those missiles loosed, those doors kicked down in the middle of the night -- just goes on.


But let's consider here just one recent incident that went almost uncovered in the U.S. media. According to an Agence France Presse account, in a raid in the eastern Afghan province of Khost, the U.S. military first reported a small success: four "armed militants" killed.

It took next to no time, however, for those four militants to morph into the family of an Afghan National Army artillery commander named Awal Khan. As it happened, Khan himself was on duty in another province at the time. According to the report, the tally of the slain, some of whom may have gone to the roof of their house to defend themselves against armed men they evidently believed to be robbers or bandits, included: Awal Khan's "schoolteacher wife, a 17-year-old daughter named Nadia, a 15-year-old son, Aimal, and his brother, who worked for a government department. Another daughter was wounded. After the shooting, the pregnant wife of Khan's cousin, who lived next door, went outside her home and was shot five times in the abdomen..."


All of this was little more than a shadow play against which the ongoing war continues to be relentlessly prosecuted. In Afghanistan (and increasingly in Pakistan), civilian deaths are inseparable from this war. Though they may be referred to as "collateral damage," increasingly in all wars, and certainly in counterinsurgency campaigns involving air power, the killing of civilians lies at the heart of the matter, while the killing of soldiers might be thought of as the collateral activity.

Pretending that these "mistakes" will cease or be ameliorated as long as the war is being prosecuted is little short of folly. After all, "mistake" after "mistake" continues to be made. That first Afghan wedding party was obliterated in late December 2001 when an American air strike killed up to 110 Afghan revelers with only two survivors. The fifth one on record was blown away last year. And count on it, there will be a sixth.


Let's for a moment assume, however, that our safety really was, and remains, at stake in a war halfway across the planet. If so, let me ask you a question: What's your "safety" really worth? Are you truly willing to trade the lives of Awal Khan's family for a blanket guarantee of your safety -- and not just his family, but all those Afghan one-year olds, all those wedding parties that are -- yes, they really are -- going to be blown away in the years to come for you?

Tom correctly identifies the huge costs of trying to obtain maximum safety. Unfortunately he misses one important aspect of safety in war that plays a very important role in actually promoting the deaths of innocent civilians: force protection.

Force protection has been put into a prime position in the list of priorities for the US military, ever since the mistaken perception that the Vietnam War was lost for the loss of morale at home. Troops are trained to shoot first and ask questions later to avoid potentially hazardous situations that could be triggered by the extra few seconds or minutes that would be needed to adequately asses the threat. This is well highlighted by the case of the cousin of Awal Khan mentioned in the quote above. She most probably received five bullets in the abdomen “just in case”, simply to protect the US troops involved from even theoretical risks.

Overreliance on air power is the most awful measure of force protection. Air raids are safe for the military, but disastrous for the civilian population in anti-insurgency warfare.

This is simply wrong. Soldiers should be bearing the risks to protect the civilian population, not engaging in reckless endangerment and voluntary manslaughter on a massive scale. In this case, it is not even a case of enemy civilians, but the very civilians that the soldiers are supposed to be protecting.

Giving the safety of soldiers priority above that of the civilian population is not only wrong, but stupid as well. It unnecessarily enrages the population and enhances the popularity of the insurgency. If US soldiers are not ready to risk their lives in protecting foreign nationals, they should not engage in wars of “liberation” in the first place.

See also my post from October 2007: “Human Terrain Teams and Dehumanization of Civilians”.

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