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October 23, 2009

War is Cruelty, You Cannot Refine It
Posted by Michael Cohen

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.


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Assuming you support international humanitarian law, you might wish to clarify caveat your title and final paragraph. That said, I think both CT and COIN would be doable within said law, but if you think there are limits it's worth saying so explicitly.

I realize I'm concern trolling here, but the Bush years certainly showed that we can't make the assumption that policymakers consider crimes against humanity off limits.

Afghans are going to pay a price either way. If we seek to defeat the Taliban, we'll kill some Afghans in the process. But if we were to withdraw, the Taliban would come to dominate and terrorize many more Afghans, so our staying to try to defeat the Taliban would bring some benefit as well as some harm. I agree that we should be honest about who is paying a price for our actions, but we should also be honest about who may benefit. And then we should decide based on our national interest balanced with our moral responsibility for the Afghan population, having taken control of their country. If it is in our interest to stay, we should do it in a way that least harms Afghans. if it is in our interest to withdraw, we should do in in a way that least harms Afghans. If our interests are ambiguous, then we should do what is best for the greatest number of Afghans, because i believe we have incured that debt to them by our actions thus far. The problem is that it is unclear what course is best for them: if we stay and fight the Taliban, we will kill some civilians in the process. If we withdraw, many Afghans will be left to the mercies of Taliban rule (I believe, based on the momentum I see right now). I genuinely don't know what, is the course America would be obliged to take in (or out of) Afganistan even if we were to take our own interests completely out of the equation, which we should not, and of course will not, do.

I suppose a convincing argument could be made that the decision to stay ensures that the inadvertent killing and maiming of Afghans will occur, while not guaranteeing that the return of Taliban rule will be prevented (whether because of inability or lack of perseverance on our part). Contrarily, a decision to leave, if it truly meant the end of the killing of civilians on our part, would at least mean that source of harm would be eliminated. The Afghans at least then could be assured they wouldn't face death and injury both from America and NATO as well as Taliban. The problem with that argument is that, whatever the fate of a U.S. COIN mission -- whether launched, deferred, or averted -- the likelihood of true U.S. disengagement from the country in the form of a complete cessation of precision-munitions assaults against suspected terrorists is close to nil. Thus one way or the other, it is likely that Afghans will continue to be killed by American bombs, and therefore arguably, if we take the notion that we have a responsibility to leave a better rather than a worse outcome for the Afghan people, we may have a responsibility to seek to prevent restoration of Taliban rule if it is in out power to do so.

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