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U.S. Troops Kill Kandahar Civilians in Bus-Borne COINFail

About an hour ago, the NATO command in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force, sent out a disturbing release expressing “dee[p] regrets” for an incident outside the southern city of Kandahar — soon to be the scene of a major military offensive. What happened? As too many of these things often do, the incident occurred on the roads:

Before dawn this morning, an unknown, large vehicle approached a slow-moving ISAF route-clearance patrol from the rear at a high rate of speed. The convoy could not move to the side of the road to allow the vehicle to pass due to the steep embankment.

The ISAF patrol warned off the approaching vehicle once with a flashlight and three times with flares, which were not heeded. Perceiving a threat when the vehicle approached once more at an increased rate of speed, the patrol attempted to warn off the vehicle with hand signals prior to firing upon it. Once engaged, the vehicle then stopped.

Upon inspection, ISAF forces discovered the vehicle to be a passenger bus.

ISAF says four people, including one woman, are dead on the scene, and five others received ISAF on-scene medical treatment; 13 others with “minor injuries” are in hospitals. The New York Times has reporters at the scene interviewing bus passengers, including the apparent bus driver, and they say the bus attempted to pull over to get out of the ISAF convoy’s way:

“I was going to take the bus off the road,” said the man, Mohammed Nabi. Then the convoy ahead opened fire from a distance of 60 to 70 yards.

“It is a huge bus full of passengers, and if they think we were a suicide bomber, we are sad that the Americans have killed innocent people,” he said. “We don’t feel safe while traveling on the main highways anymore because of NATO convoys.”

Mr. Ayoubi, the provincial spokesman, said, “We strongly condemn this action carried out by NATO forces, and we want a thorough investigation of the incident, to find out why they targeted the civilian bus.”

That last quote, from Nabi expressing unease driving on the same roads as NATO forces, has to catch Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s attention. In August, he issued guidance for his troops about waging a counterinsurgency that specifically instructed them to be as solicitous as possible of Afghan civilians driving along the country’s (barely-paved, if at all) roads. Its very first page offers this parable:

An ISAF patrol was traveling through a city at a high rate of speed, driving down the center to force traffic off the road. Several pedestrians and other vehicles were pushed out of the way. A vehicle approached from the side into the traffic circle. The gunner fired a pen flare at it, which entered the vehicle and caught the interior on fire. As the ISAF patrol sped away, Afghans crowded around the car. How many insurgents did the patrol make that day?

That’s a hypothetical example and not what happened in this case. (The ISAF convoy doesn’t appear to have sped away; it provided medical support to the civilians it mistakenly shot at.) But McChrystal has said that what’s important in 2010 is the right output. If Afghan bus drivers do not feel safe driving near NATO convoys lest their buses get riddled with what the Times thinks may be “scores or even hundreds of rounds,” that’s the exact opposite output he is trying to yield.

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