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A Bright Spot On An Anniversary From Hell

Last weekend four American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, a stiff reminder, if one were needed, of the human toll as we mark another anniversary this week of the start of U.S. fighting in Afghanistan.

Many assessments of the U.S. war and occupation of Afghanistan are negative, highlighting continued fighting, ongoing corruption, and the occasional G.I. who goes berserk, killing civilians. But something rather amazing also has occurred and deserves attention and credit.

While the U.S. began the war promising to keep civilian casualties low ... in practice, military necessity (killing militants) was prioritized... 

Over the past few years, U.S. military and civilian leadership learned not only that civilian protection in a war zone is important, but also began to systematically protect civilians. And it achieved results.

At the war’s start, some leaders minimized the importance of Afghan civilians. Gen. Tommy Franks said, "We don't do body counts." Sen. John McCain said, "(C)ivilian casualties, however regrettable and however tragic … have to be secondary to the primary goal of eliminating the enemy." Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld implied that civilian casualties were inevitable: "Now in a war, that happens. There is nothing you can do about it."

While the U.S. began the war promising to keep civilian casualties low and made some effort to avoid incidents of large-scale harm to civilians, in practice, the military necessity (killing militants) was prioritized over civilian protection. By my own conservative estimate, based on publicly available sources, some 20,000 Afghan civilians have been killed since 2001. The U.S. and its allies are responsible for about a quarter of those deaths.

Afghan women mourn on Sept. 9, 2008 over the graves of their family members, unseen, who were killed on August 22, 2008 during a U.S. led raid in Azizabad village. (Fraidoon Pooyaa/AP)
Afghan women mourn on Sept. 9, 2008 over the graves of their family members, unseen, who were killed on August 22, 2008 during a U.S. led raid in Azizabad village. (Fraidoon Pooyaa/AP)

Incidents ranged from the unbelievable — the U.S. twice bombing the same clearly marked Red Cross building in 2001 — to the spectacularly awful — American bombs killing more than 90 civilians, including 60 children, in Azizabad in August 2008 in the effort to kill one militant leader. More common were incidents when handfuls of civilians were killed during air support or night raid missions.

Meantime, Americans developed an unfortunate habit of initially disputing or denying Afghan death and injury tolls, only to later acknowledge and apologize for the harm.

But this is a good news story. The U.S. military and civilian leadership eventually learned that killing civilians not only damaged the image of Americans abroad, but also caused an uptick in militant activity. In other words, when the U.S. or its allies hurt or killed civilians, and then failed to acknowledge the harm, our soldiers were at greater risk. Protecting civilians, therefore, became a military necessity.

So while military actions still kill and injure Afghan civilians, the U.S. and its partners have increasingly taken greater care to avoid such harm.

In 2008, Gen. David McKiernan, then U.S. commander in Afghanistan, reversed previous policy and created the Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell to investigate instances of harm to civilians and gather the data that would make it possible to analyze trends. A Defense Department report in January 2009 stated, in typical Pentagon jargon, "Kinetic operations have to be carefully executed to avoid civilian casualties and collateral damage that weaken popular support for International forces."

McKiernan and his successors (Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus) made significant changes in the rules of engagement and tactics in an effort to reduce the likelihood of harm to civilians. The most important was the 2009 institutionalization of restrictions on air strikes. Further, U.S. officials began to acknowledge and apologize for harming civilians and stopped blaming Afghans civilians for being in the way. By early 2012, the stated goal in Afghanistan was "zero" collateral damage deaths.

So while military actions still kill and injure Afghan civilians, the U.S. and its partners have increasingly taken greater care to avoid such harm. They have come to view collateral damage "accidents" as both predicable and preventable.

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Overall, the United Nations has found that the percentage of civilians killed by U.S.-led international and Afghan forces has declined — to 11 percent in 2012 from a high of 41 percent in 2007 — even as the intensity of the fighting increased [click to enlarge graphic at right]. Moreover, the U.S. military has changed policy in Afghanistan and institutionalized greater care for civilians in upgraded Air Force targeting procedures and new Army manuals and training.

U.S. procedures for drone strikes, however, have been slower to evolve. Although the numbers are hotly disputed, the U.S. has apparently killed hundreds if not thousands of civilians in its attempts to target militants in Pakistan and Yemen. Only in May of this year did President Obama articulate what might be called a "zero-tolerance" for civilian casualties in drone strikes: "Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilian can be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set."

Yes, we should take time now for somber reflection on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. But, in fairness, we also must credit policymakers for learning from mistakes.


Related:

This program aired on October 11, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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