Time for a Really Uncomfortable Conversation About Handling Afghan Civilian Casualties
A U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan’s Herat Province yesterday killed an insurgent leader named Ghulam Yahya Akbari. Today, the U.S. military command in Afghanistan sent out a press release about the steps that U.S. and Afghan officials are taking to respond to reports of Afghan civilian casualties. U.S. troops are inspecting the airstrike site while Afghan troops hold a sit-down with local potentates. It’s a goodwill gesture. But does it go far enough?
Explains a coalition spokesman:
“We take all reports of non-combatant casualties very seriously and investigate these claims with the assistance of our Afghan forces counterparts,” said Lt. Col. Rick Helmer, U.S. Forces Afghanistan spokesperson.
“If, during the course of investigation, it is discovered that any non-combatants were killed or injured in the strike we will take responsibility and make amends. However, it has been a past practice of the insurgents to surround themselves with women and children knowingly placing them in danger,” said Helmer.
On the one hand, it sound as if the United States is conducting a thorough and respectful process to head off a potential problem. But on the other, Defense Secretary Bob Gates recently proposed a different formula for handling reports of possible civilian casualties from U.S. military actions in Afghanistan: apologize first and investigate later.
Gates didn’t say that because he wants to humiliate U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He said it because he recognizes the delicate situation the United States is in with regard to Afghan public opinion. Favorable public opinion among Afghans toward the United States is decreasing while civilian casualties are on the way up. And now 17,000 additional U.S. troops are on the way to Afghanistan. In the struggle between the U.S.-supported Kabul government and the Taliban-led and Al Qaeda-tied insurgency, the perspective of the Afghan people isn’t an aspect of the war. It’s the entire war. Anything that jeopardizes Afghan receptivity to the United States is a strategic setback. Viewed from that perspective, it’s understandable why Gates would want any dialogue on civilian casualties — even potential civilian casualties — to begin with an apology.
None of which is to say that U.S. Forces-Afghanistan is doing anything wrong in Herat. A dialogue between Gates and Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, on the issue is only natural, and at a briefing McKiernan gave in the fall that I attended, he appeared very attuned to the damage that civilian casualties inflict on his effort. But perhaps it’s taking a while to absorb Gates’ perspective.