Thursday, February 18, 2010

Not the War We'd Like to Have

The marjah offensive is highlighting the fact that the Taliban use human shields:

Taliban fighters holding out in Marjah are increasingly using civilians as human shields, firing from compounds where U.S. and Afghan forces can clearly see women and children on rooftops or in windows, Afghan and U.S. troops said Wednesday.

The intermingling of fighters and civilians also has been witnessed by Associated Press journalists. It is part of a Taliban effort to exploit strict NATO rules against endangering innocent lives to impede the allied advance through the town in Helmand province, 610 kilometers (360 miles) southwest of Kabul.

Well, yes. That's what the enemy does. I complained bitterly about it a while back.

Another article (in the New York Times, no less!) notes how this enemy tactic--which only works when the media advertises civilian casualties and then blames us for them--restricts our use of air power:

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.

This over states the problem, I think. We have not relinquished the strategic advantage of air power. We retain exclusive use of the air for resupply, movement, and persistent reconaissance. We can still use air power for strike roles, despite the limitations we place on ourselves.

Remember, too, that we may be extra restrictive in the Marjah offensive while the world watches and the locals wait to see if we are better than the Taliban. I wouldn't say that our restrictive rules of engagement are counter-productive at this time and in this place.

As I have mentioned before, while it would be good to erase the heightened sensitivity of Afghans to what are historically low civilian casualties with our own information campaign, in the short run it is pointless to complain of how unfair it is that we can't use bombs (or artillery) out of fear we'll kill civilians that the Taliban deliberately expose to our fire in the hopes we'll kill them. This may not be the war we wish we had. But it is the war we have. We have to deal with the fact that Afghans are very sensitive to civilian casualties that can be blamed on us--it doesn't matter that it is an unfair perception. Ignoring public opinion is a recipe for alienating Afghans--especially Pushtuns who will be extra hard to win over because they are the base of the Taliban. And ask yourself if the Soviets failed in Afghanistan because they used too little firepower?

We may well loosen up our restrictions in the months to come as the campaign evolves. Or maybe the rules of engagement are too strict. If so, I have no doubt we'll tweak them to be more effective while keeping our goal in mind.