A NATO airstrike that mistakenly killed Afghan civilians on Sunday reinforces the challenge facing the top commander there as he attempts to demonstrate that his new Afghanistan war strategy can work.
NATO confirmed Monday that an airstrike targeting three mini-buses filled with suspected insurgents in Uruzgan province in southern Afghanistan killed what appeared to be innocent civilians. News reports estimated that as many as 27 died. It was not clear if any of those killed were insurgents, or to what extent the Taliban may have hidden among a group of civilians to protect themselves – a common insurgent practice.
Still, Gen. Stanley McChrystal personally apologized for the incident, saying killing or injuring civilians undermines the Afghan population’s confidence in the overall mission, and he pledged to do more to prevent further loss of life.
The incident was the third in Afghanistan since the US began an aggressive offensive in the Marjah district of nearby Helmand province. In a conflict in which public perception is key, the incident raises concerns that Gen. McChrystal’s approach may be harder and take longer to achieve. Each instance of civilian casualties, and the public scrutiny within Afghanistan that it causes, is a temporary setback in McChrystal’s attempt to persuade the Afghan population that coalition forces are there to protect them, not hurt them.
Under his strategy, killing insurgents runs a distant second to protecting the population and creating conditions in which that population will embrace the Afghan government, thus choking the insurgency.
Recognizing that their nuanced approach will take time, military planners have tried to temper expectations. Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of US Central Command and overseer of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, says that it is important to be realistic.
The strategy dictates that counterinsurgency forces have to be absolutely sure before they strike a target. In some cases, they should turn away if they are being fired upon if there is an unacceptable risk that civilians could be killed. That doesn’t mean there won’t be civilian casualties, says at least one expert.
“If you want violence to go to zero in Afghanistan, surrender,” says Stephen Biddle, a senior analyst at the Council of Foreign Relations, a think tank in Washington. “If you’re not going to do that, then you’re going to cause casualties if you contest political control of the country.”
"I would remind everyone of an essential truth," said Adm. Mullen, during a press conference at the Pentagon Monday. "War is bloody and uneven, it's messy and ugly and incredibly wasteful, but that doesn't mean that it isn't worth the cost."
Mr. Biddle believes overall there are far fewer civilian casualties in Afghanistan than there were in Iraq. But ironically, fewer incidents engender more scrutiny by the media, he says.
Biddle also thinks that the speed at which McChrystal and NATO take responsibility for each incident will make a difference. Prior to McChrystal taking over, it could take weeks or months before an investigation into civilian casualties was complete, thus nullifying the impact of the eventual public apology. In this case, the circumstances of the strike remain unclear. But McChrystal’s approach of “when-in-doubt, apologize,” Biddle notes, may be effective at conveying the coalition’s genuine concern to the Afghan populace.
“We’re big enough to accept some responsibility… even if at the end of the day, we are not at fault.”