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Civilian Casualties: Generics, Specifics, Apologies and Rhetoric

Can someone please bring an element of coherence to U.S. policy on civilian casualties in Afghanistan? The New York Times reports that a military inquiry into a May 4 bombing in Afghanistan’s Farah Province — in which dozens of civilians (the number is disputed) were killed — has uncovered that U.S. forces failed to follow their own procedures for confirming targets. But a spokeswoman for the USFOR-A, the U.S. military command in Afghanistan, nevertheless tells Danger Room’s Noah Shachtman that “There is nothing — in the story, or that we’ve seen or heard elsewhere — that says our actions led to additional collateral damage or civilian casualties. … The fact remains that civilians were killed because the Taliban deliberately caused it to happen.” That comes despite several Obama administration apologies for the bombing, as Noah reminds us. This raises the question of how seriously USFOR-A really takes the civilian casualty issue.

Recall that in January, Defense Secretary Bob Gates told the Senate that the U.S. military needed to adopt a policy of “first apologiz[ing]” when civilian casualties are said to occur, *then *investigating. An onerous burden, perhaps. But Gates articulated the broader importance of such a policy: “We have to get the balance right with the Afghan people or we will lose this war.” In a war that requires the active or passive support of the Afghan people, U.S.-caused civilian casualties aren’t just tragedies, they’re strategic facts that count in the Taliban’s favor. Speaking yesterday about how he’ll judge the success of the war effort, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the probable next commander of the war, cited one metric in particular: “the number of Afghans shielded from violence.” That can’t just be violence caused by the insurgency.

But as far as I’ve been able to determine (or, more accurately, not been able to determine), USFOR-A doesn’t follow Gates’ apologize-first instruction. Obviously the United States. doesn’t intend to kill civilians; and obviously in war civilians will be killed. But when these tragedies occur, USFOR-A should ask itself whether its strategic goals are better advanced by owning up to its errors or by pushing the blame for them onto the Taliban, *even when *the Taliban is morally responsible for provoking the act that led to the civilian deaths. Clearly the first-order priority is to take measures to minimize civilian casualties. But when they occur, what certainly won’t serve U.S. interests is to pay generic lip service to the idea that civilian casualties are huge strategic setbacks while deflecting blame for them in each particular instance — especially in instances where official investigations indicate U.S. culpability.

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