An astonishing 2,118 civilians died in Afghanistan last year as a result of the war, according to this AP story on a new United Nations report. Thirty-nine percent of those deaths–828 men, women and children–died because of direct American actions. Of those 828 people, 552 were killed by missile and bomb attacks.
It’s a cliche to say that one civilian death (so-called “collateral damage”) is too many in war, but in Afghanistan–where the spoils of war are actually the civilians themselves–the killing of a civilian is actually counter-productive. The Taliban, Al Qaeda and the myriad warlords who actually control the Afghan countryside understand this. So they position themselves in such a way that when we fire a “high-tech” missile that costs millions of dollars and has a wonderful guidance system that allows for “pin-point accuracy” from thousands of feet up, we still end up killing the people we’re ostensibly there to protect. This goes on and on, mission after mission, year after year, until the people we want to protect only want us to leave, and then we leave. We pretend it’s a victory, but the survivors know better.
When a rich and powerful nation fights a poor, rag-tag band of guerrillas, the guerrillas almost always have the sympathy of the people. I’d always thought this concept was completely lost on the Pentagon officials who command our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and all the other places in the world where, over the last few generations, we let our magnificent hubris guide us into all sorts of bloody fiascos. Then I read this op-ed piece by Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen that ran in the Feb. 15 Washington Post:
“It doesn’t matter how hard we try to avoid hurting the innocent, and we do try very hard. It doesn’t matter how proportional the force we deploy, how precisely we strike. It doesn’t even matter if the enemy hides behind civilians. What matters are the death and destruction that result and the expectation that we could have avoided it. In the end, all that matters is that, sometimes we take the very lives we are trying to protect.“You cannot defeat an insurgency this way.”
Those are among the best words from an American military commander I’ve ever read. It will be very interesting to see how our actions in the coming years match up to them.