My colleagues at New America Foundation, Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann have an excellent new report out about the effects of the drone war against al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan. For those of us who have been advocating for a ramping up of the US-led drone war it brings with it sobering news:
Since 2006, our analysis indicates,
82 U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan have killed between 750 and 1,000 people.
Among them were about 20 leaders of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and allied groups,
all of whom have been killed since January 2008.
It is not possible to differentiate precisely between
militant and civilian casualties because the militants live among the
population and don't wear uniforms, and because the militants have the
incentive to claim that all the casualties were civilians, while government
sources tend to claim the opposite. However, of those killed in drone attacks from
2006 through mid-October 2009, between 500 and 700 were described in reliable press
reports as militants, or some 66 to 68 percent.
Based on our count of the estimated number of militants
killed, the real total of civilian deaths since 2006 appears to be in the range
of 250 to 320, or between 31 and 33 percent.
While these numbers suggest that the drone war has been successful in disrupting al Qaeda; the fact that one in three people killed by these attacks is an innocent civilian is clearly troubling. This raises all sorts of legal and moral issues about the killing of civilians.
Indeed one of the arguments made by supporters of a counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan is that those of us who are advocating a more counter terrorism/drone based approach are ignoring the potential price paid by civilians. (An argument made by Eli Lake's in a recent bloggingheads debate with fellow DA blogger Heather Hurlburt). Ignoring the fact, for a second, that my recommendation is actually for a decreased military footprint in Southern Afghanistan this is a false and misleading choice. Civilians die in all wars - counterterrorism missions or counter-insurgencies; and we should be completely honest about that point. But this question got me wondering a bit: should civilian casualties even be the primary prism by which we assess America's war fighting choices?
Part of the reason why we focus so directly on civilian losses is the new dominant COIN narrative that argues protecting civilians must take precedence because if civilians are killed indiscriminately it risks creating what David Kilcullen calls "accidental guerrillas."
But if the history of COIN shows us anything it is that counter-insurgencies are just as deadly as conventional wars and are always hard on civilians. From the Briggs plan in Malaya, which forcibly relocated half a million ethnic Chinese, and the detention policies and systematic use of torture that defined the Battle of Algiers to the sectarian cleansing that preceded the surge in Iraq in 2007 if there is one defining characteristic of COIN it is coercion and violence. A lot of "accidental guerrillas" were created in Malaya and Iraq and Kenya and even Algeria - and yet even FM 3-24 tells us that these were successful counterinsurgency operations. So the bottom line is that anyone who tells you that counterinsurgency is a warm and fuzzy way to fight a war is simply not telling the whole story.
In Afghanistan, however, the US military has bought into the warm and fuzzy argument; hook, line and sinker. And it's bringing with it some troubling results. There is this story from Jonathan Landay about an ambush of US Marines that was perhaps made worse by rules of engagement (ROE) that place a premium on protecting civilian lives; there was a fascinating 60 Minutes story recently, which recounted the stress soldiers were feeling in trying to protect civilians while also seeking to target the enemy; and there was this harrowing tale from Tim Lynch about how the Taliban manipulate the US military's ROEs regarding civilian casualties to attack US and NATO targets. Beyond the danger to US troops, Lynch raises a legitimate concern:
In war people die; the currency spent by battle commanders is blood.
Many of those who perish are innocents which is why the professional
does not enjoy war, seek combat or prolong conflict. Our leaders are
prolonging conflict by restricting the use of our decisive combat arm.
Now I don't write this to suggest that we should take the gloves off in Afghanistan or that we take military steps that would needlessly target civilians; instead it's a bit of a corrective to the notion that we can fight a war effectively in which protecting the population rather than targeting the enemy is our abiding goal.
In the end, I'm not sure this is realistic or achievable - or even the proper way to judge the effectiveness of a specific mission. The United States should do everything in its power to protect civilians and avoid any military action that harms them, but at the expense of the achievement of that mission or US national security interests? Well that's not so clear cut.
Indeed, throughout American history we have taken the opposite course; perhaps the best example being the decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II. Did that act save the lives of both American soldiers and ironically Japanese civilians who would have died in an American invasion? Probably.
But even in Afghanistan, if adopting a COIN approach rather than a more military focused CT mission saves civilian lives: is it the right strategy?
Would targeting the Taliban more directly, even at the cost of a higher number of civilian casualties, be a more humane long-term strategy if it wiped out the Taliban and their rancid ideology AND put Afghanistan on an better path toward stabilization. I'd hate to be the one to make a call, but its not only a legitimate debate - its a philosophy that pretty much defined US war-fighting practices from the first days of the republic.
Indeed, possibly the safest thing to do for Afghanistan would be to withdraw all American and NATO troops (it certainly would be the safest although likely not the best turnout for Afghan civilians forced to live under Taliban rule). But I don't hear anyone who is preaching the virtues of protecting civilians making that argument. And why not? Because in their view, defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda is in the vital national interests of the United States. They have decided that protecting American lives from al Qaeda terrorists is worth the risk it poses to Afghan civilians. In fact, whether you support a CT mission or a COIN mission you've basically made the call that protecting American lives from terrorist attack is worth the potential price paid by Afghan civilians. Not to say this isn't necessarily a legitimate choice to make, but let's at least be honest about it.
So where does this leave us? The bottom line is that no matter what course we take - short of complete withdrawal - civilians in Afghanistan are going to find themselves in harm's way. This is a simple fact and all the platitudes about COIN being more humanistic won't change that. If we determine that fighting wars is in our national interest - and that the threat from foreign powers and America's enemies are intolerable - then we should be completely honest about the price to be paid. Hopefully by doing so we will set a higher bar for when and how we intervene overseas (and perhaps do it less often).
But if we try to fight wars in the belief that we can make it safe for civilians while still protecting our national interests - we're just lying to ourselves. As Sherman reminds us again, war is cruelty, you cannot refine it.