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February 23, 2010

A Defense of Lara Dadkhah . . . Kind of, Sort of, But Not Really
Posted by Michael Cohen

Last week Lara Dadkhah published a rather provocative op-ed in the New York Times that got . . how shall we say, some bad press. "Monstrous" said Glenn Greenwald. Why? Dadkhah argues that the US is losing the war in Afghanistan because it's eschewed the use of airpower out of fear that it will cause civilian casualties. Her remedy to this situation is to, in effect, weaken those rules . . . and thus kill more civilians.

So I'm about to do something kind of stupid - I'm going to try and defend Dadkhah, because I think there's an important point here that deserves greater illumination. This graf questioning General McChrystal's directive to avoid civilian casualties at all costs is the crux of Dadkhah's argument, 

General McChrystal’s directive was well intentioned, but the lofty ideal at its heart is a lie, and an immoral one at that, because it pretends that war can be fair or humane.

Wars are always ugly, and always monstrous, and best avoided. Once begun, however, the goal of even a "long war" should be victory in as short a time as possible, using every advantage you have.

As Sherman perennially reminds us, war is cruelty; you cannot refine it - and before he burned the city of Atlanta to the ground he basically made the same argument that Lara Dadkhah is making here. As Dadkhah notes if the US believes the war in Afghanistan is a "war of necessity" (which President Obama has said) and that this conflict is essential to protecting the national interest then we should do everything in our power to win it as quickly as possible. And if that means weakening the restrictions on the use of power and increasing the potential for civilian casualties then so be it.

And of course such actions in US history are hardly unprecedented. Certainly, one could argue that in the US-Japanese war it was only the willingness of the United States to engage in total war - and openly target civilians in terrorizing air raids -- that ensured victory.

The purpose of the more restrictive rules of engagement is to cut down on accidental deaths inflicted on Afghan civilians, precisely because such actions make the U.S./NATO presence less popular, diminish support for our Afghan allies, and make it easier for the Taliban to recruit new soldiers. Killing more civilians also undermines troop moral and support for the war back home. Taking the gloves back off, as she suggests, might actually undermine our long-term prospects. Thus, whatever you may think about the wisdom of our engagement there, the new rules of engagement make sense.

Well not necessarily. What if these restrictive rules make it more difficult for the US to defeat the Taliban militarily? What if in 18 months when American troops are supposed to begin withdrawal for Afghanistan, the lack of an enemy-centric approach has left Afghanistan more unstable and just as liable to be taken over by the Taliban?

What's more, one is hard pressed to think of a single successful counter-insurgency effort that did not involve widespread coercion and violence against civilians (no matter what FM 3-24 says). There's an argument to be made that population centric counter-insurgency, with its obsessive focus on protecting civilians, is fundamentally ahistorical and there is little historical precedent for believing that it will work. (And before someone says "Iraq surge," I'll just remind folks that US airstrikes killed four times as many Iraqis after the surge, than before; detainment of Iraqis jumped by 50% and the surge was proceeded by widespread ethnic cleansing and civilian refugee flows). 

As for the notion that killing civilians will weaken support back home . . . wouldn't an increase in US civilian casualties (that is a result of restrictive rules of engagement) or a prolonged military occupation also weaken domestic support? Finally, there is no question that civilian casualties hurt NATO's efforts, but as Dadkhah points out while casualties caused by the US declined . . .

 . . . The overall number of civilian deaths in the country increased by 14 percent, to 2,412, and the number killed by Taliban troops and other insurgents rose by 41 percent. For Afghan civilians who are dying in greater numbers, the fact that fewer deaths are caused by pro-government forces is cold comfort.

So it's not as if civilians aren't being harmed in the war - and practically every day there are more stories of civilians being killed by American forces. (And this blog provides compelling and graphic evidence of the toll that the war in Afghanistan is taking on civilians).

Let's do a hypothetical here. Let's say the exact same number of civilians were being killed, but at the same time relaxed rules of engagement, particularly when it comes to airstrikes, allowed the US to make substantial progress in the war (even if the number of civilian deaths by US hands went up). Isn't that a better situation over the long-term for the Afghan people since it will make it less likely that they will have to live under the Taliban's tyrannical rule?

And from a narrow US perspective our ultimate goal is not Afghan security - or even protecting the Afghan people. As I've argued before, if it was the latter, we wouldn't be in Helmand in the first place. Our goal is defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda - that is after all why we are in Afghanistan. So a less civilian-friendly mission would have the added benefit of furthering US national interests.

Now before things get out of control - and people start writing blog posts calling me an apologist for war crimes - not for a second am I endorsing this argument. To support Dadkhah's underlying point is to back the idea that killing Afghan civilians is a morally appropriate thing to do in order to further US security. It's not and ultimately that's the problem. Dadkhah's remedy for the failures of US policy is to ramp up the number of civilian casualties in order to meet our goals. My suggestion would be that if that's the price that must be paid to meet out goals in Afghanistan . . . then our ultimate goals aren't worth the price it would take to achieve them. 

Going to war is an awesome and morally fraught decision. It's one that should not be taken lightly, but all too often is. And anyone who tells you that you can go to war without harming civilians is selling you a pack of lies. I don't think that General Petraeus or General McChrystal or even President Obama have tried to do that. But maintaining the fiction that we can go to war and make protecting civilians our number one priority is snake oil. Either we go to war and accept that civilians will die or we don't. As Dadkhah sagely notes pretending that war can be fair or humane is not only deeply misleading, it's immoral. (And after all, by making the decision to go to war in the first place in Afghanistan, we are making the implicit decision that protecting American lives and American interests is intrinsically more important than Afghan lives. There's nothing wrong with that; it's a calculation that all countries make when they act militarily - but let's at least be honest about it).

If our leaders decide that we must wage total war in Afghanistan in order to protect US interests - and save American lives - then Lara Dadkhah's argument has merit. In fact, it's actually quite defensible. But they haven't and they shouldn't because not much in Afghanistan, as far as American interests, is worth the moral price of killing Afghan civilians. On some level this is a point of agreement between myself and virtually all supporters of escalation in Afghanistan. Civilians should not be dying in this war. 


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Ah, but the Iraq surge DIDN'T work. Its purpose was to allow the Iraq government to achieve reconciliation and that didn't happen.

And so in Afghanistan. The US goal is not military, it is political, and therefore tactics must not be those heavy-handed ones used in conventional warfare. In other words, it really isn't a war at all, it's a resisted nation-building exercise, resisted by the folks the US deposed. Resisted quite effectively, too.

So if killing civilian is what it takes why not nuke the place. Killing civilians didn't work for Russia, but then they had to face US supplied Stinger Missiles etc.

I had heard that Lara Dadkhah suggested that the more restrictive rules of engagement the United States is now employing in Afghanistan are counterproductive.

If you have PANERAI Watches , I still have my idea to achieve.

And so in Afghanistan. The US goal is not military, it is political, and therefore tactics must not be those heavy-handed ones used in conventional warfare. In other words, it really isn't a war at all, it's a resisted nation-building exercise, resisted by the folks the US deposed. Resisted quite effectively, too. sesli chat sesli sohbet

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