Civilians, Schmivilians

by Joshua Foust on 2/18/2010 · 15 comments

What kind of an “intelligence analyst” would write something like this?

American and NATO military leaders — worried by Taliban propaganda claiming that air strikes have killed an inordinate number of civilians, and persuaded by “hearts and minds” enthusiasts that the key to winning the war is the Afghan population’s goodwill — have largely relinquished the strategic advantage of American air dominance. Last July, the commander of Western forces, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, issued a directive that air strikes (and long-range artillery fire) be authorized only under “very limited and prescribed conditions.”

So in a modern refashioning of the obvious — that war is harmful to civilian populations — the United States military has begun basing doctrine on the premise that dead civilians are harmful to the conduct of war. The trouble is, no past war has ever supplied compelling proof of that claim.

In a conventional sense, this is true. But what of counterinsurgencies? There is reasonable debate over what constitutes an acceptable level of violence against civilians, but there is consensus that there is such a thing as too much—either the insurgency kills too many civilians and loses its local support (as in Anbar, Iraq), or the government/counterinsurgents kill too many and lose popular support (as in the Soviet experience in Afghanistan). Making such an absolute statement is more than a bit bizarre.

More worrisome, however, is that the primary complaint of that piece—that air strikes are a strategic advantage we should pursue as vigorously as possible—echoes the strategy of Bomber McNeill. It is an argument unsupported by empirical evidence in Afghanistan, beginning with an examination of protest patterns. That is, Afghans gather in numbers to protest counterinsurgent actions all the time—most often to protest air strikes that kill civilians. They rarely gather to protest the Taliban (for good reason: the Taliban is far less accommodating of dissent).

What this means is something like air strikes—if accompanied by a strategic communications campaign—provides us with an unimpeachable way to differentiate ourselves from the Taliban. Unfortunately, we have chosen not to do this.

That op-ed bothers me on another level as well. In a lot of ways, it is an echo of Ann Marlowe’s bizarre and disrespectful writing about how Afghan civilians don’t really care about dying in large numbers.

It’s possible the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of discretion, even though already in Marjeh the USMC has decided to suspend artillery strikes as being too anti-civilian. But in order to say so, you must make a case for why air strikes are a more effective counterinsurgency tool than troop-on-insurgent engagements—something this op-ed does not do. If you’re going to carry water for the Air Force, at least do so with evidence. Empty posturing only muddles the discussion.

Just remember: this is an argument, by an intelligence analyst one assumes works for the U.S. government, that the killing of civilians is justifiable to make American wars of choice less dangerous to Americans. How calloused can one get?

Meanwhile, the U.N. has decided not to participate in the rebuilding of Marjeh. I can understand their motives—the military does not seem to understand the consequences of its actions—but ultimately this is punishing the civilians of Marjeh for being the target of a U.S. offensive. Kind of like the argument above that excuses killing civilians en masse because it makes wars of choice easier, it’s focusing the complaint and the action on the wrong side of the war.


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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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{ 15 comments }

Cynic February 18, 2010 at 11:34 am

She was identified in 2008 as “a graduate student in Security Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She has worked as an open source analyst covering biodefense issues in Iran and Afghanistan, and as a data analyst for current coalition information operations in Afghanistan.” Her SWJ lays out essentially the same argument she made in the Times in greater detail. I don’t know what’s more disturbing – that we had someone like her working in IO in theater, or that analysis as garbled as what she offers is granted an outlet in respectable publications.

Dafydd February 18, 2010 at 11:47 am

“dead civilians are harmful to the conduct of war. ”

This was most certainly proven on the Eastern Front in WWII

Had the Nazis not taken such pleasure in demeaning and murdering various peoples of Central and Eastern Europe (slavs in particular), they might well have taken Moscow. They certainly would have endured significantly fewer losses and conserved much valuble resourse.

Further, the British experience in N. Ireland (bloody Sunday in particular) proves the above.

The implication of the quote you reproduce above is that NATO should proceed without regard to civilian life. As NATO spends much time declaring they are there for the benefit of Afghan civilians, this is equivalent to paying no regard to the life of our allies. Not a recipe for success.

Travis February 18, 2010 at 12:20 pm

That’s a pretty vague byline. I guess she was a contractor, but I’m surprised they’d let her give so little information, given that she’s never been published anywhere else before.

DePetris February 18, 2010 at 1:03 pm

For those who bask about the enormous benefits of using superior American technology in the skies, I encourage you to take a look at what is happening across the border inside Pakistan’s tribal areas. The United States is using its air-force in record numbers (as these “intelligence analysts” want) to pursue militants in areas where the Pakistani Government lacks full control. And apart from the benefits of killing a few militants here and there, the drone-campaign has actually made the U.S. counterterrorist mission in that part of the world much more difficult.

Thanks to repeated U.S. strikes on their territory, anti-Americanism is spreading across Pakistan like wildfire. In fact, anti-American sentiment is so popular that Pakistani politicians (like Zardari) risk their political careers if they dare cooperate or appease the United States in any way, shape, or form.

To pundits who want to bomb Afghanistan into submission, do you honestly think that this action would result in anything substantial for the United States? Sure, battles like Marjah might be won, but at the cost of driving more civilians into the hands of the adversary.

Annoyed February 18, 2010 at 2:01 pm

The author was a classmate of mine, and was an ‘analyst’ for a defense contractor in DC. Her rejection of the basic principle of COIN and her casual disregard for civilian casualties is depressing but not surprising. Why the Times printed this rubbish is harder to understand.

Michael February 18, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Unfortunately now she’ll be a “renowned” intelligence analyst…

Alex Visotzky February 18, 2010 at 6:40 pm

Amazing that the Times printed this argument about Afghanistan given that part of the reason Afghanistan was botched in the first place was a reliance on airstrikes instead of ground troops.

reader February 19, 2010 at 10:18 am

@Daffyd” Had the Nazis not taken such pleasure in demeaning and murdering various peoples of Central and Eastern Europe (slavs in particular), they might well have taken Moscow. They certainly would have endured significantly fewer losses and conserved much valuble resourse”

We could also provide counter examples from history where extreme violence and humiliation of a subjected population has been effective. I suspect the existence of the USSR did alot for anti-Nazi partisan morale, simply knowing that you have allies always does. Unfortunately, the USSR was unjust to the partisans, but that’s another story. I’m not advocating going Hulagu or Cortez on the Afghans (by most standards their behavior bordered on the genocidal), but I do kind of think the idea of a kindler, gentler war is an oxymoron. It is a very Anglo-Saxon trait to be so hypocritical when it comes to war. US and UK history are a testament to that. But when I say hypocritical I don’t mean always cynical. We believe, at least halfway, or own rhetoric. That’s why we get so morally outraged when one of our own suggests something beyond the Pale, it’s also why we engage in cognitive dissosance when one of our own actually does something beyond the Pale.

Fnord February 19, 2010 at 10:52 am

Reader: “I do kind of think the idea of a kindler, gentler war is an oxymoron.”

Uh, depends on how you define a preferrable endstate. Gen. Petraeus and Gen McChrystal sure disagrees with you. If you look at the friendly casualties-ratio as a metric, it can argued that the casualties the west takes now as a part of the strategy results in way less casualties down the road, since “we” are obviously staying for a while.

Joel Hafvenstein February 19, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Josh, couldn’t agree more about the civilian casualty issue, but I don’t share your judgment on the UN.

Most international humanitarian agencies in Afghanistan have been insisting to NATO for a while now that they won’t participate in the cleanup phase of clear-hold-build operations. For one thing, few agencies trust ISAF/ANSF to really hold areas after clearing operations. (If I had an afghani for every time I’ve heard that Wardak is now safe for NGO work, I could treat you to a nice kebab lunch). More importantly, if aid agencies are perceived to be contributing to COIN goals, they’ll go on the insurgent target list — not in the theoretical way that anyone who cares about gender is on the list, but in a night-letter-if-you’re-lucky way.

The UN faces a dilemma: it has both a strongly political and a strongly humanitarian mandate in Afghanistan. In the past its humanitarian-mandate agencies have generally taken part in post-military cleanup (along with USAID contractors and Afghan government staff) notwithstanding the political implications. Since it was so effectively targeted in October, though, the UN has had to review how its political involvement has compromised its humanitarian work. It’s now trying to draw a clearer line around the latter.

Frankly, I suspect it’s too late for any part of the UN to reestablish neutrality in the Afghan conflict. But in general, most international aid agencies recognize that, because of the intense politicization of aid that accompanies COIN, there are some humanitarian needs they can no longer address without gravely endangering their continued ability to work in Afghanistan — especially in the areas where fighting is ongoing. Any NGO still able to serve in Helmand, God bless ’em, should stay a mile away from the Marja cleanup.

Also, any agency which expects to still be serving here in 2 years will inevitably be reflecting on how the country will look after NATO has declared victory/blamed the Afghan government and withdrawn — and the most likely outcome right now is a mess, with insurgents continuing to dominate much of the country. Groups perceived to have worked closely with NATO or taken part in COIN will likely have a pretty bad time of it. I don’t blame aid agencies for holding back from an immediate humanitarian response in Marja in order to protect not only their present operations, but also their ability to work in a post-NATO Afghanistan — where (I fear) the needs are going to be much worse, over many more years.

The US has enough resources at its disposal that it shouldn’t need to push humanitarian agencies into situations that compromise their impartiality. If the UN gave McChrystal early warning that its humanitarian branches would be sitting out the reconstruction phase (and I certainly hope it did), the US could pump money through USAID contractors and Afghan government agencies to do the necessary COIN “build” work, including the immediate cleanup. Sure, those are far from perfect tools, but at least they can be used for politicized, high-security relief work without breaking them. The same isn’t true of traditional humanitarian agencies.

anan February 19, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Joel Hafvenstein 2/19/2010 at 12:33 pm,

The regional balance of power has changed because a decision has been made to build up the ANA. Think for a moment, $11.6 billion in funding in fiscal 2011 from the US alone. More funding from other countries. The ANA now creates 5600 worth of new unit structure a month (and adds 1400 to existing structure a month.) The ANA will have over 200,000 troops two years from now spread out around Afghanistan, and they aren’t going anywhere.

The ANA is popular and respected. The initial reaction to them among Marjah residents has been positive.

Everyone’s calculus in the region has been altered. The fact that Gen Kayani has offered to train the ANA, and the fact that 3 top Taliban leaders have been arrested in Pakistan suggests that Kayani thinks the ANA will at least partially win this war; and that Pakistan needs to bet on the GIRoA/ANA horse.

If Gen Kayani believes this, then imagine how the calculations of important elders around the Pashtun belt is being altered. The response of the elders in Helmand has already brought substantial dividends. Increased ANA recruiting in Helmand; and reduced Taliban recruiting in Helmand. Notice how dependent the Taliban now is on non Helmand Pashtun fighters inside Helmand.

Granted, the Haqqanis still aren’t defeated, or even haven’t been engaged. Granted the Taliban and its allies still have momentum in Nuristan, Khost and Zabul. But this is a function of the ANA in the East being depleted to resource Helmand. After Helmand is resourced, then Kandahar will be resourced. After Kandahar, new ANA throughput will be directed back in the east.

“few agencies trust ISAF/ANSF to really hold areas after clearing operations.” This has now changed. The reason this has changed is because of Pres Obama Messiah’s decision to resource the ANSF in late November, 2009. At long last, the ANSF will have the numbers and capacity to provide security in cleared areas. Within 30 months, the ANA will have 240,000. Shouldn’t that be enough for the ANSF to assume the lead in all of Afghanistan (with embedded ISAF advisers and enablers)?

In 30 months, the ANP will also be much farther along than it is now; although there is more risk in forecasts of ANP capacity.

anan February 19, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Typo above “Granted the Taliban and its allies still have momentum in Nuristan, KONAR and Zabul.”

Loya Paktia is an economy of force holding action by 203 ANA Corps to free up ANA, ISAF and ANP to move south. 203 ANA’s existing 3 brigades are 15 combat companies below their planned level (16 ANA combat companies were recently sent to Helmand.) Plus the formation of 4th Bde, 203rd ANA Corps, has been delayed until 2011.

Joel Hafvenstein February 19, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Hi Anan, many thanks for the response, and I certainly hope your optimism proves to be correct.

I agree that the ANA is a generally successful institution, and (in my experience as in yours) very broadly respected. But is a strong ANA remotely sufficient to beat the insurgency? Though I’m no COIN scholar, the formulations I’ve seen emphasize the centrality of governance to any successful campaign — of out-governing rather than out-fighting the insurgents.

NATO may well stand up an ANA that can beat the Taliban in every fight, and as long as the West keeps paying those ANA salaries, the Taliban are highly unlikely to win outright. But to actually end the insurgency and stabilize Afghanistan would surely also require a regime that can meet some of the core expectations that many (most?) Afghans have for their government — security against criminality and extortion, reliable judgment and punishment in criminal cases, swift and impartial resolution of critical disputes (e.g. land disputes that defy traditional resolution methods), job creation, defense against external interference. The ANA, however capable, can only meet a fraction of those expectations. The Taliban are currently doing a better job against this ticklist.

At the least, you’d need to see real improvement in the ANP and judicial system — they’d need to become more protective than predatory. When I see that happening (beyond the Western lip service and good intentions of the last few years), I might join your optimistic forecast.

anan February 22, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Joel Hafvenstein, perceptive points. Improving the Afghan judicial system strikes me as the highest priority.

The ANA can provide the muscle, logistics and combat enablers for the ANP; as well as help stand up civilian governance and private sector business development with its own PRTs (that would be augmented with embedded ISAF PRTs that are coordinated by the ANA.) However, the ANA need a judicial system to protect and support.

Joel Hafvenstein, what are your suggestions for how to stand up the Afghan judicial system?

I think India, Iran, China, Indonesia and Turkey could contribute quite a bit. Of these: India is willing to contribute. ISAF would rather the Turks focused on adding to its 5 OMLTs (advising the ANA) and POMLTs (advising the ANP); as well as training the ANA and ANP. [Turkey helped stand up the 4 year ANA academy.]

Could China and Indonesia contribute to the Afghan judicial system? Malaysia, Pakistan, or Arab countries?

Japan and Europe are already contributing to MoI training and development.

reader February 19, 2010 at 6:54 pm

“Uh, depends on how you define a preferrable endstate. Gen. Petraeus and Gen McChrystal sure disagrees with you. If you look at the friendly casualties-ratio as a metric, it can argued that the casualties the west takes now as a part of the strategy results in way less casualties down the road, since “we” are obviously staying for a while.”

I’m sure they would disagree with me, or at the very least make statements to that effect ;). I won’t agree or disagree with your statement regarding the cost benefits of more casualties now vs. later, too many unknown factors. Based on commonly accepted COIN (argh, I hate using hackneyed acronyms) principles, your statement is sound. I completely agree with you on the US presence in Afghanistan, though. It will be there a long time, and while not all of “us” might not be there physically, “we” are there by political and economic proxy. Of course, this assumes the US economy doesn’t completely tank.

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