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March 29, 2010

COIN is Still War
Posted by Michael Cohen

On Friday in the New York Times we had another depressing reminder that for all the US military's efforts to "protect civilians" in Afghanistan we are still killing too many of them:

American and NATO troops firing from passing convoys and military checkpoints have killed 30 Afghans and wounded 80 others since last summer, but in no instance did the victims prove to be a danger to troops, according to military officials in Kabul.

“We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat,” said Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Though fewer in number than deaths from airstrikes and special forces operations, the pace of such shootings has not declined despite new rules from General McChrystal aimed at reducing the killing of innocents. The persistence of deadly convoy and checkpoint shootings has led to growing resentment among Afghans fearful of Western troops and angry at what they see as impunity with which the troops operate — a friction that has turned villages firmly against the occupation.


I hate to sound like a broken record on this point, but none of this should even be slightly surprising. Indeed, the incessant mantra we've heard about population centric counter-insurgency and making "protecting civilians" the top priority of US efforts in Afghanistan is just incredibly deceptive. 


It's not that we shouldn't try to protect civilians - or even that the American military shouldn't take the issue incredibly seriously. We should and we do. But by placing 100,000 troops in Afghanistan we are actually increasing the likelihood that ordinary Afghans will be killed - no matter how much effort is expended to spare their lives.  Our soldiers are trained to protect themselves and use overwhelming force when they are threatened; the notion that a directive from the commanding general in Afghanistan will change this overnight and turn American soldiers into "armed social workers" is pure fantasy: a fact that is being seen on the ground.

For all of the lovely sentiments about protecting civilians in Afghanistan the simple reality is that we have chosen to place furthering our national interests above protecting the lives of ordinary Afghans; the loss of civilian life while regrettable is a direct result of that decision. I suppose this is defensible - certainly countries that go to war do it all the time. But let's at least be honest about why we're there and the resulting effect on innocent civilians.

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Additionally,I would like to say a NATO military spokesman in Kabul emphasized that commanders were not second-guessing troops, but urging them to practice “courageous restraint” and recognize that “you are more likely to be hurting someone who is confused rather than dangerous if you open fire” during an escalation of force episode.

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By placing more troops into Afghanistan, we are not increasing the odds that Afghan civilians will be killed in a war. What we are doing is increasing the odds that Afghan civilians will die by American hands.

Removing American forces would, in all likelihood, lead to a much more protracted and bloodier Afghan civil war than the one that is going on now. By making a Taliban victory that much more likely, indeed even achievable, it would simply intensify the fighting as the Taliban went on the offensive into non-Pashtun areas while the government would be forced to turn, Najibullah-style, to ethnic militias of its own in order to survive.

Afghans, with the encouragement of its neighbors, killed each other in far greater numbers during the 1990s than Americans killed Afghans from 2003-2010. Pulling out would simply empower the same parties to repeat the disaster that was post-Soviet Afghanistan.

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