Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

America attempting a more “humane war” in Afghanistan

February 21, 2010
(A U.S. Marine in Marjah, picture by Goran Tomasevic)

(A U.S. Marine in Marjah, picture by Goran Tomasevic)

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.


I think that a ‘humane war’ reads like a total oxymoron at first. But, I think the change in tenor is both welcome and necessary. The previous tone of triumphalism and attempts to paint this conflict in black and white have been so counter-productive it isn’t even funny. Afghanistan has been a graveyard for so many geopolitical strategies down the years that you have to fear, but…


A more “humane war”?

Oh, come on. As long as it’s a war for profit, like all of America’s wars, there’s nothing humane about it. Nor will there ever be. With clowns like McChrystal in charge of it, it’s designed to go on and on forever. Putting a happy-face slogan on it now is simply adding insult to injury.

Posted by The Bell | Report as abusive

As John Arbuthnot Fischer said, “The essence of war is violence. Moderation is idiocy”.

Posted by Brennan | Report as abusive

If the US could clearly define some goal to motivate the conflict, the war might be fought to victory. But there is no such goal. The US cannot even destroy the opium poppy fields without alienating the Afghans.

The insurgents must be aware that the US is so over extended economically that end will come sooner rather than later. Afghanistan was a wicked blow to the Soviet empire. And now it is bleeding America.

Posted by D. Roberts | Report as abusive

And its not working because war is not humane nor are Predators firing Hellfire and Damanation missiles. War does not bring peace, it brings more war and more death and more destruction. Wars of occupation by domination and force are particularly fruitless in someone else’s home country. The indigenous people are the ones who get the benefit and sympathy always.

Posted by wildthing | Report as abusive

What nonsense! War is hell and should be prosecuted with 110% of the means available. If the Afgans are concerned with civilian casualties, they would move their men out of the cities to fight their battles. Too bad, collateral damage is a cost of war. After Dresden & Hiroshima, the Germans and Japanese found their manners. Perhaps the middle east needs a little of that treatment and they’d find their civilized side.

Posted by Erik | Report as abusive

Really? You quote Lara M. Dadkhah as some sort of expert whose bloodthirsty amorality is somehow relevant? Did you even Google her name? If so, you would have discovered a great deal of concern over why the Times chose to solicit an op-ed from this unknown, who is apparently an intern at a defense contractor. Why don’t you just quote the crazy homeless guy outside your office and make him to an expert whose views deserve careful consideration? He would have just as much credibility as Ms. Dadkhah.


While it is of course extremely desirable to cut civilian casualties to a minimum, this is an extremely risky strategy in the face of US public opinion. If denying air support to front-line troops leads to unnecessary American deaths, that will more greatly feed the perception that the war is being ineptly led far more than civilian casualties.

Ms. Dadkhah is right in that trying to win the war in as short a time as possible with every advantage available is the key to avoiding unpopularity and stagnation. No war can be considered clean and the only recourse is to win it quickly and decisively, rather than prolong the misery for all parties by attempting to sanitize it.

The side without such pretensions will have a far easier time of it.

Posted by Peter Carleton | Report as abusive

Josh Partlow’s revealing and serious “Washington Post” story reports on this continuing war crime by the corporate/financial/militarist Empire, that controls ‘our’ country by hiding behind the facade of its TWO-PARTY, ‘Vichy’ sham of democratic government (aided by its equally ‘Vichy’ propagandist corporate media).

For any who watched the NBC TV propagandist ‘cover story’ last night, Partlow’s truth about the “US Special Forces helicopters targeted a convoy of buses traveling along a main road … seven miles from the nearest coalition soldiers, … and killed 27 civilians, including women and children … for the third time this month”, explains the fear and frustration that the Afghani civilians ‘at the tip of this Empire’s spear’ must feel.

The arrogant Global Empire, claims it’s going to rigorously investigate and prosecute those responsible just as forcefully as it prosecuted the dirty ‘torture lawyers’, John Yoo and Jay Bybee, who guilefully enabled the same murderous Global Empire to ignore all laws domestic and international.

Imagine the angst, frustration, and anger that an Afghan father feels holding his dead wife and child, with no possible chance to confront the ‘tip of the Global Empire’s spear’ that killed them with an inhuman drone missile, and then ask yourself, “Why do they hate us?” Can it really be “because of our freedoms?”

Then ask yourself, how soon before the ‘tip of the Empire’s spear’ points inward?

“Empire abroad (always) entails tyranny at home”, as Hannah Arendt presciently warned of all Empires.

It’s time to join a peoples’ ‘Anti-Empire’ club, league, or movement in your area and confront the “cancer of Empire” — unless, of course, you believe the Empire’s deceptive Glenn Beck, that the “cancer on America is progressivism”.

Alan MacDonald
Sanford, Maine

Posted by Alan MacDonald | Report as abusive

Oh, come on. As long as it’s a war for profit, like all of America’s wars, there’s nothing humane about it. Nor will there ever be. With clowns like McChrystal in charge of it, it’s designed to go on and on forever. Putting a happy-face slogan on it now is simply adding insult to injury


I wonder how long it would take for the American back to bend and breakdown. Is Afghanistan the lost active combat for the marines? Not bad to go down in history being defeated by the Pashtoos!! Their name would be included with heroes from Britain and the Soviet Union.
the tempo of the war has never been controlled by the foreigners, the Pashtoons could decimate the force which is now there, but strategically they have always allowed their opponents a very long duration and enough rope so that they hang themselves.

Posted by rex minor | Report as abusive

The Taliban and Al Quaeda are using women and children civilians as human shields. They don’t worry about anything except victory as they obviously do not care an iota for the “people” who they themselves wish to conquer and control. McChrystal is intelligently switching from all out war to winning Afghan popular support through respect for, and protection of, the general Afghan people. In the long run McChrystal’s approach will most definitely defeat a very sick and misguided distortion of a fifth century doctrine upheld and promoted by a minute yet highly destabilizing group who believe their interpretation of an otherwise peaceful religion should take over the world by force. ( That means us!!!) The scariest part of it all, is that they are supported by Iran, a fifth century thinking theocratic state, who will continue to thumb their noses at the world in general until they are taught to obey the modern world’s realties.
McChrystal may soon be moved to the Iran front after he succeeds in Afghanistan.

Posted by uncleted | Report as abusive

See this video and read the translated lyrics

In Afghanistan, a black tulip,
C in a glass of vodka, we sail silently over the land
Groznaya bird across the border
By Russian lightning is our brothers home.
In the black tulip those with jobs
They’re coming home dear land to lie.
In indefinite leave, torn to shreds,
And never, never warm to hug the shoulders.
When the oases Dzhellalabada
fallen down on the wing, tulip our fallen.
We cursed all his work.
Again the boy summed up the loss company
In Shindand, Kandahar and Bagram
Again, per capita put a heavy stone
Again carry home the heroes
Which is 20 years of digging graves
Which is 20 years of digging graves
But you have to get up, must come
If you break, you can run up and then
Bullets fly, Stinger flies
If you break, you guys die a second time
And we are not like home
Where are all for us long ago familiar
Where are the corpses they see once a year, pilots,
Where the clouds are not chopping down helicopters
And we go, gritting his teeth with rage
Dry vodka wetting his lips
They come from Pakistan caravans
And, therefore, have a job for “tulip”
And, therefore, have a job for “tulip


One must be complete ignorant to believe in the usual propaganda that the enemy is using W and C as human shields. Particularly in aftermath of US treatment of civilians and the prisoners of war. Remember the word ‘collateral’ used by the US secretary of State. This word has probably been added to the Geneva convention statute on wars.The US was the signatory after the ww2 and US is the first one to break it. What a sad end of a great nation when its leaders do not follow the coventions and rules. Many scottish ancestors of Mcchrystal perished in the valleys of Afghanistan. They used similar strategy and failed. It is not a secret that the US wants to set up bases first in Afghanistan but now in Pakistan for its geo strategic interest to sorround China, the new Super Power of the world. The only problem is that the US do not have any more dineros. Have a nice day.

Posted by rex minor | Report as abusive

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