Let Them Shoot

by Joshua Foust on 5/20/2009

Nathan Hodge notes a wrinkle in the latest civilian casualty incident:

Eikenberry promised people there that “the United States will work tirelessly with your government, army and police to find ways to reduce the price paid by civilians, and avoid tragedies like what occurred in Bala Baluk,” he said. “As U.S. Ambassador, and with my previous experience as a soldier, I make this a solemn pledge.”

But in order to make good on that pledge, Human Rights Watch says, the U.S. military should “refrain from using airstrikes in densely populated areas,” and avoid “airstrikes on populated villages.” After all, the group notes, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. David McKiernan “ordered commanders to consider pulling out of firefights in populated areas rather than following militants into villages or calling in airstrikes against their positions in residential areas.”

But that would mean a monumental (and probably unwise) shift in the way American forces do business. It’s hard to imagine America instituting a policy which essentially allows the Taliban to fire on it from populated areas — and get away from it.

The thing is, that is not unwise, at least not obviously so. To explain why, let’s take a look at the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. Two years ago, Christian Bleuer highlighted Artyom Borovik’s book The Hidden War about a young Soviet officer who gained a reputation as a COIN specialist:

Captain Zakharov’s relations with the locals was surprisingly good. Zakharov shared supplies and fuel with them from resources that were meant for his unit. Unlike Soviet forces elsewhere, he refused to mine the trails and small roads that are used to reinforce the mujahideen for fear of killing or wounding non-combatants. He checked with local farmers regarding planting and harvesting schedules so that his combat operations did not interfere with their livelihood. And his refusal to engage the local mujahideen commander Gayur under certain circumstances was remarkable. Zakharov commented on this strategy when Gayur intentionally tried to bring about civilian casualties:

“Then the rascal thought of something else. As a way of forcing the peasants [who were friendly with Zakharov] to leave Afghanistan, he began to fire at my position straight from the neighboring kishlaks [villages] in an effort to draw our return fire. The provocations were repeated every day, but our guns remained silent. I refused to fire on peaceful civilians.” [page 30-31]

He goes into much more detail, and Bleuer’s post is worth reading for how Zakharov built up local intelligence networks, and established an open and trust-based relationship with the local leaders—something our own units have had a harder time doing. He was also remarkable for how successful he was, at least in part for his refusal to shoot back when the mujahideen hid behind civilians. Because all the Taliban are doing, really, is repeating a tactic that worked astonishingly well during the 1980s (especially because 90% of the Taliban are truly terrible shots). Like many other aspects to this war, we know what the winning solution is, we just choose not to implement it.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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