Losing Afghanistan, One Civilian at a Time
The road between the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad and the Pakistani border is one of the busiest in the country, congested with gaily painted trucks, battered taxis, buses packed to the rafters and Afghans riding bikes. One morning in early March, a suicide bomber plowed a Toyota packed with explosives into the middle of a U.S. convoy patrolling that road, killing himself and injuring a Marine. That was bad enough, but what may be the key to Afghanistan's future was what happened next.
As pedestrians scattered in the resulting confusion and chaos, other Marines opened fire as their convoy sped away, shooting at vehicles and pedestrians over the course of some 10 miles, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. They left at least 12 civilians dead in their wake and injured dozens more. "They opened fire on everybody," one wounded bystander told a reporter, "the ones inside the vehicles and the ones on foot." A court of inquiry is scheduled to convene next month at Camp Lejeune, N.C., to determine whether the Marines acted improperly. Investigations by the U.S. military and the Afghan human rights commission have already concluded that the American convoy was not fired upon after the suicide attack.
The incident near Jalalabad is part of a disturbing larger pattern in Afghanistan. Last year was the worst year for civilian casualties since the fall of the country's cruel Taliban regime, and 2007 is shaping up to be even worse. The most alarming point: As of July, more civilians had died as a result of NATO, U.S. and Afghan government firepower than had died due to the Taliban. According to U.N. figures, 314 civilians were killed by international and Afghan government forces in the first six months of this year, while 279 civilians were killed by the insurgents.
So why on Earth are the NATO and U.S. forces and their Afghan allies killing more civilians than the Taliban? One explanation can be found in the relatively low number of Western boots on the ground. Afghanistan, which is 1 1/2 times the size of Iraq and has a somewhat larger population, has only about 50,000 U.S. and NATO soldiers stationed on its soil. By contrast, more than 170,000 U.S. troops are now in Iraq. So the West has to rely far more heavily on airstrikes in Afghanistan, which inevitably exact a higher toll in civilian casualties. Indeed, the Associated Press found that U.S. and NATO forces launched more than 1,000 airstrikes in Afghanistan in the first six months of 2007 alone -- four times as many airstrikes as U.S. forces carried out in Iraq during that period.
The collateral damage here goes beyond even the tragic loss of life. A September report by the United Nations concluded that Western airstrikes are among the principal motivations for suicide attackers in Afghanistan. Sure enough, suicide attacks in the country rose sevenfold from 2005 to 2006, to an alarming 123 attacks, and are already up by around 70 percent this year -- at the same time that pro-government forces are killing more Afghan civilians than are their Taliban foes.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has been blunt here, warning that the mounting loss of civilian life in Afghanistan is eroding the support of the very people whom Western forces are supposed to be protecting. According to a countrywide poll by the BBC, the number of Afghans who believe that their country is headed in the right direction dropped a precipitous 22 percentage points between 2005 and 2006, from 77 percent to 55 percent, while the number of Afghans who approve of the U.S. presence in their country eroded from 68 percent to 57 percent. Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly urged NATO and the U.S. military to act with greater restraint. Lately, he has become more impassioned. "Our innocent people are becoming victims of careless operations of NATO and international forces," he said at a news conference in June. That could put the entire Afghan mission in peril.
Of course, the fact that international forces in Afghanistan are causing an unacceptable number of civilian casualties does not exonerate the Taliban insurgents. The fanatics' tactic of using civilians as human shields in combat is well documented and deplorable. But research by Brian Williams, a historian at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, shows that Taliban suicide bombers -- unlike their Iraqi counterparts -- have been generally loath to target civilians, preferring instead to focus on Western and Afghan military personnel and bases.
This tragic trifecta -- a high number of allied airstrikes in Afghanistan, a growing gap between Taliban-caused civilian casualties and those caused by pro-government forces, and declining Afghan support for the international presence in Afghanistan -- means that the rules of engagement for NATO and the United States need to change. In July, de Hoop Scheffer proposed a good first step, announcing that NATO is planning to start using smaller bombs to reduce collateral damage and spare innocent Afghans. NATO is willing to wait for targeting opportunities that don't put civilians at risk, he said: "If that means going after the Taliban not on Wednesday but on Thursday, we will get him then." Moreover, last month, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates urged NATO countries to put more of their soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan. Should that call be heeded -- by no means a certainty -- the influx of troops would also help lessen Western reliance on crude airstrikes.
All this makes good military sense. Indeed, Western commanders should literally take a page from the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus. The new Army counterinsurgency manual that he helped write contains sound advice for Afghanistan. An airstrike, the manual notes, "can cause collateral damage that turns people against the host-nation (HN) government and provides the insurgents with a major propaganda victory." Petraeus also points out that sometimes, the best response to an insurgent attack is "doing nothing." After all, "often insurgents carry out a terrorist act or guerrilla raid with the primary purpose of enticing counterinsurgents to overreact."
Let's hope that de Hoop Scheffer's patience and Petraeus's calm are woven into Western rules of engagement in Afghanistan. We should fight at the times of our choosing, not the Taliban's. And we should not fall into the old insurgent trap of provoking the occupiers into callous, disproportionate responses. Making these changes could mean far fewer dead innocents and a far more stable country.
The stakes are high. So far this year, more than 100 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan, the highest number since the fall of the Taliban six years ago. One obvious way to lower the U.S. death toll there in 2008 would be to convince Afghans that they have more to fear from their Taliban would-be oppressors than from the militaries of the United States, NATO and the Afghan government. Tragically, today, that is simply not the case.
Peter Bergen, the author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know"
and "Holy War, Inc.," is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Katherine Tiedemann is a research associate
at the New America Foundation.