I am looking at a heartwarming 1945 photograph of a Canadian-liberated town in the Netherlands, all joyous spontaneity and relief as townspeople (two wearing wooden shoes) celebrate their liberation from Nazi Germany. Nearly 70 years later, this snapshot in time is relevant to events currently swirling around a tragic, aberrational incident in which a U.S. Army staff sergeant apparently walked off base and killed 16 Afghan civilians.
Nazi liberation was a costly liberation. Allied air raids on German-occupied Rotterdam alone killed 884 citizens and wounded 631. Such losses were negligible next to the millions of civilian casualties during World War II caused by Axis and Allies alike.
How, I have long wondered, might Presidents Bush and Obama and all of our top military commanders explain the welcome Allied forces received across Europe in 1945 despite the massive suffering the Allies, too, inflicted on unarmed citizens? The answer is that the liberated peoples rejected the Nazis and their ideology. So why doesn’t the same logic work on “liberated” Afghans? Maybe they don’t reject either the Taliban or their ideology. Maybe there’s just way too much overlap on both counts.
Nah, say our counterinsurgency (COIN) strategists. The problem is too many civilian casualties. So goes the COIN mantra of at least the past three years in Afghanistan, since Gen. Stanley McChrystal came on the scene openly promoting “population protection” over “force protection.” Indeed, more than anything else, the war in Afghanistan may be seen as a war on civilian casualties in which the ultimate prize is the “trust” of the Afghan people. Or, as current military commander Gen. John R. Allen likes to say, “the noble Afghan people.”
A week ago, the website of international forces in Afghanistan (ISAF) ran a report on the third Civilian Casualty Conference, where new figures on civilian casualties were unveiled. “In the last four months, insurgents have caused 93 percent, or 958 civilian casualties,” Lt. Gen. Adrian Bradshaw, ISAF deputy commander, reported, explaining that the majority are inflicted by roadside bombs (IEDs). “In the same period of time, 7 percent, or 72 civilian casualties, regrettably were caused by ISAF forces,” he said.
The report went on to quote Bradshaw as saying “that 72 casualties are too many and that ISAF is committed to bring that number down to zero.”
Ninety-three percent of the civilian casualties are caused by Taliban and other jihadist forces, and 7 percent are caused by pro-government forces. If COIN theory were correct, numbers like these should produce scenes of relief and joy as seen in my 1945 photo from Holland.
But COIN theory is, to say the least, not correct. It runs on a rigid adherence to an ideology and not on an appraisal of the facts. In the service of this ideology, the alleged actions of a staff sergeant have been greatly exaggerated in their overall relevance to this war waged by nations to serve as a crutch for COIN. Tragic as they are, the apparent murders of 16 Afghans – a figure that wouldn’t move the needle a notch in the Taliban tally of death – now become another excuse to explain why COIN isn’t working, why the Afghan people – sorry, “the noble Afghan people” – aren’t being won over, hearts and minds.
So wed to COIN are our leaders, military and civilian, that they eschew logic, preferring to enter into the Islamic maelstrom of aggrievement and apology, promising to do better. Good “dhimmi” that we are (no one said even a cross word about six American murders by Afghan forces last month), we have just about promised to take this soldier, brain injury or not, too many COIN combat tours or not, and string him up to sate the bloodlust of the noble Afghan people – anything to quell Islamic rage. Naturally, we will continue to send our men on ever more IED death marches (foot patrols), happily. We do it all for the noble people of Afghanistan. Do they like us yet? No? We’ll do more.
They call this strategy COIN and wear uniforms, but really it’s psychosis, and these strategists should be wearing hospital robes.
Meanwhile, if Afghans were “with us,” if they were actually against the true butchers, the Taliban, if they were concerned about which side had innocent blood on its hands and which side did everything humanly possible to prevent such violence, even at the expense of its own people, Afghan hearts and minds would have been “won” long ago.
But that will never be. In fact, guess what happens if ISAF reaches its goal of zero civilian casualties?