Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
America attempting a more “humane war” in Afghanistan
One of the reasons the big U.S.-led offensive in Afghanistan’s Marjah area has slowed down is because the Marines are trying to avoid civilian casualties at all costs, according to military commanders. So use of air power, the key to U.S. battle strategy, has been cut back because of the risk of collateral damage from strikes.
Lara M. Dadkhah, an intelligence analyst, in a New York Times op-ed says troops under heavy attack in Marjah have had to wait for an hour or more for air support so that insurgents were properly identified. “We didn’t come to Marjah to destroy it, or to hurt civilians,” Dadkhah quotes a Marine officer as saying after he waited 90 minutes before the Cobra helicopters he had requested showed up with their Hellfire missiles.
The new approach flows from U.S. and NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy that the war in Afghanistan can only be won by winning the full support of the Afghan people, not just by killing or capturing militants. As he says in this counter-insurgency guidance issued last year, ”security may not come from overwhelming firepower, and force protection may mean more personal interaction with the Afghan people, not less.” Thus the use of air power and long range artillery, which can lead to civilian casualties, can only be authorised under very limited and prescribed conditions.
The new strategy has already unfolded on the ground, and Marjah is no exception. Dadkhah says analysis of U.S. military data shows that while the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan has more than doubled since 2008, the number of close air support sorties which are usually in aid of troops under fire grew by only 27 percent. It can only mean 1) troops are calling for air support less often than before McChrystal’s directives 2) that even when they do, their requests are denied.
While killing innocents or destroying towns cannot be an objective of the operation to take Marjah, Dadkhah says the emphasis on civilian protection is putting U.S. soldiers on the defensive in what is intended to be the war’s biggest offensive. No army, not even the United States, can expect to win if it gives up its advantages, and air power is certainly one of them. Over a longer term, the whole idea that war can be conducted in a just manner and without causing any civilian casualties is dangerous.
“General McChrystal’s directive was well intentioned, but the lofty ideal at its heart is a lie, and an immoral one at that, because it pretends that war can be fair or humane, ” says Dadkhah. “Wars are always ugly, and always monstrous, and best avoided. Once begun, however, the goal of even a ‘long war’ should be victory in as short a time as possible, using every advantage you have.”
But there are others who say that criticism of General McChrystal’s approach is itself short-sighted. While there can be a tactical logic for continuing the use of air power and heavy artillery to win the immediate battle, this is a high-risk strategy over the longer term. It’s a game of perceptions and McChrystal is right in trying to win it that way, argues Julia Mahlejd writing in Registan, a blog focused on Afghanistan and Central Asia. “The use of air power causes the least number of civilian casualty incidents and kills or wounds the least number of Afghans per year. But when such incidents do occur they are invariably spectacular. No wonder they cause the most outrage. And that outrage diminishes Afghan support for the mission,” she writes.
It’s not just holding back America’s deadly air power. It’s also about ensuring that the number of road traffic accidents involving foreign military convoys are brought down, again because they feed into the narrative of trigger-happy 19-year-olds driving these vehicles as they please around the country. You got to increase public support for your mission, Mahlejd says, and if that means passing up the tactical advantage of your superior firepower then so be it.