Monday, February 22, 2010

Stop Pretending We Can Avoid Civilian Casualties

Despite bending over backwards, hampering our own operations, creating greater risk for our soldiers, genuflecting to Afghan president Karzai, and putting a huge emphasis on avoiding civilian casualties, the inevitable occurred again today. An air attack by U.S. helicopter gunships killed 23 civilians, including women and children, who had mistakenly been identified as insurgents.

This accident illustrates yet again why pretending that we can avoid civilian casualties is a bad idea. We are making promises that are simply unrealistic given the nature of warfare. Accidents are going to happen, and civilians are going to keep dying, no matter how many precautions we take. General McChrystal issued a video statement and said,

“I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan people. I pledge to strengthen our efforts to regain your trust to build a brighter future for all Afghans.”
Issuing such a statement is a terrible idea. We are feeding the mistaken impression that we can realistically do much more to minimize civilian casualties. If we keep spinelessly apologizing, and keep pretending we are going to do better, the Afghan reaction is going to be even worse the next time we inevitably screw up and kill a bunch of civilians. And then there is Karzai, who certainly isn't helping
Karzai’s office said in a statement that the president “reminded the NATO commander that the issue of civilian casualties was a major hurdle against an effective war on terror and it must stop.”
I can think of few people less qualified to pontificate on how to fight an "effective war on terror" than this corrupt, ineffective leader who is little more than a glorified mayor of Kabul. Karzai owes his position, and probably his continued existence to the U.S. and NATO forces. Instead of providing free enemy propaganda about civilian casualties, it would be nice if he was actually working on our side in an attempt to mitigate the impact of such accidents. But no, he'd rather inflame the situation.

Civilians die in wars. Intelligence is frequently mistaken. Targets get misidentified. And in the circumstances of the Afghan War, it is often difficult to tell friend from foe. Let's stop pretending that we can do much more to minimize civilian casualties, and stop obsessing about them. It's pointless and counterproductive.


  1. So do you have some way to tell friend from foe over there? That is, if you're not in favor of just killing everyone.

  2. There are ways to tell friend from foe, but none of them are foolproof. Mistakes of all kinds are always made in wars. Target identification during the chaos of military operations is not an exact science. And in an insurgency situation, where there isn't a huge distinction between friend and foe, it is even easier to mistakenly kill friends or civilians -- especially from the air, which adds a whole other level of difficulty.

    I'm certainly not in favor of just killing everyone. We need to take reasonable precautions (which we've already been doing). But at the same time we have to accept that there are going to be a certain level of accidental civilian casualties. We should stop making promises that we won't be able to deliver on.

  3. If you're not in favor of killing everyone, you have to have a way to make this purported miniscule distinction. All you've said, in a lot of words, is that we can't.

  4. I'm not sure what you think I should say. I think I've been pretty clear. The main point is that we shouldn't make a fetish of minimizing civilian casualties to the point where we create unrealistic expectations. Nothing about that suggests that I somehow want to kill everyone.

  5. I think you should say what these ways are, that you claim exist and the US Govt. doesn't know about, to tell who our enemies are in Afghanistan.

  6. What are you talking about? I claimed nothing of the sort.

  7. "There are ways to tell friend from foe" ...followed by ...
    "I claimed nothing of the sort."

    OK. One can only conclude that nothing you say means anything.

  8. You pick one line out of my entire post, ignore everything else I wrote, read a huge amount into it, and then claim nothing I say means anything.

    Of course there are some ways to tell friend from foe. That was not a claim to some sort of special knowledge. That was a simple observation. If you have a group of armed men in a Taliban controlled area, that's a pretty good indicator that they are enemies. Someone spotted in an ambush position waiting for your forces. Someone holding a detonator, or dropping a mortar bomb into a mortar. A caravan of vehicles full of armed men moving through Taliban area. Those are just some indicators of hostiles. Intelligence analysts have methods of identifying hostiles. But they aren't exact, and they can make mistakes. When intelligence is passed along, further mistakes can be made in the field. Someone can be identified as hostile because they happen to be in a location where previously hostile people were spotted. But this time they might be civilians.

    There are all sorts of other situations where it is extremely difficult to identify people as hostile, or to make a mistaken identification -- such as the recent situation -- a group of vehicles reported as Taliban that were not. It's not easy to see everything from the air, especially when you can't casually take a long look for fear of hostile fire.

  9. Well, that's a lot better.. .
    Obviously if they are shooting at you they are hostiles. The nature of guerilla warfare is that the hostiles put down their weapons and become civilians , aka 'friends'. There is no way to tell them apart because they are the same people.

    Nevertheless, you keep claiming there are ways to tell friend from foe, yet you always stress how these methods make mistakes. Dude, a method that constantly makes mistakes is a method that does not work: You are arguing my side of the debate!

    You say “Someone can be identified as hostile ... But this time they might be civilians.” And I say, well then you identified civilians as hostile, ergo, your method DID NOT WORK.

    The part I cut out of your quote was, 'identified as hostile “because they happen to be in a location where previously hostile people were spotted.”' Do you seriously expect me to accept this? Sorry, fail.

    Your arguments would be consistent if you just said 1) we don't care about civilian casualites. 2) the civilians, as well as insurgents, are enemies 3) just kill anyone in our way.
    I'm baffled as to why you won't follow you reasoning to it's logical conclusion and just admit this. It would give a reasonable stategic position.

    Unfortunately, it's pretty much the strategy that failed for the Russians, so there's that to address, but at least you'd be consistent.