Winning: Making The Most Of Dead Civilians


July 24, 2008:  One Taliban victory you don't hear much about is how they turned their use of human shields into a powerful propaganda weapon against NATO and U.S. troops. While about a hundred Afghan civilians were killed by NATO and U.S. forces during the first six months of this year, Taliban propaganda, and the enthusiasm of the media for jumping on real, or imagined, civilian deaths caused by foreign troops, made people forget that far more civilians (about four times as many) had been killed by the Taliban. But because Afghans have been conditioned to expect more civilized behavior from the foreign troops, little media attention is paid to the civilians killed by the Taliban and al Qaeda. Of course, Afghan civilians are aware of who is killing most of the civilians, and that's why the Taliban and al Qaeda are moving down in the opinion polls. But the media hammering the foreign troops get every time they kill a civilian, or are simply (and falsely) accused of doing so, has led to the rules of engagement (ROE)  becoming far more strict than they ever were in Iraq.

In effect, a casualty analysis must be performed, and a lawyer consulted, before a deliberate missile or smart bomb attack is made on the Taliban. To their credit, the U.S. Air Force targeting specialists (who do most of this) can carry out the analysis quickly (often within minutes). Even the lawyers have gotten quick at the decision making game. The bad news is that attacks are often called off just because there's some small risk of harming civilians.

The Taliban are aware of the ROE, and take advantage of it. The Taliban try to live among civilians as much as possible. But the Taliban and al Qaeda do have to move around, and the ability of NATO and U.S. ground forces, aircraft and UAVs to keep eyes on a Taliban leader for weeks at a time, has led to the deaths of many smug guys who thought they had beat the system.

The system is pretty lethal. While overall casualties are still less this year than they were last year, that's mainly because the Taliban are dispersing more, and often quickly running away when faced with potential air attack. In the first six months of 2008, NATO and U.S. aircraft dropped 1,853 bombs and missiles (41 percent in June alone). That's a bit more than last year. There are fewer civilian casualties this year, but also fewer dead and wounded Taliban per bomb or missile. Oh, and compared to Iraq? For the first six months of this year, only 754 bombs or missiles were dropped there, to support three times as many troops.

It's also been suggested that an Afghan Air Force unit be equipped with propeller driven aircraft, armed with night vision and Hellfire missiles (and even small smart bombs). This unit, assisted by Afghan commandos on the ground, could go after Taliban leaders more aggressively. After all, it's not news when Afghans kill Afghans. But the key to this Taliban leader hunt is the airborne observation, and this is pretty much monopolized by the U.S., with NATO playing catch-up. So for the moment, the Taliban leadership get an extra measure of protection, enabling them to kill more Afghans and NATO troops, in order to keep image damaging Afghan civilian casualties down.

The U.S. Air Force has managed to reduce civilian casualties, from deliberate air attack, to near zero. Most of the Afghan civilian casualties occur when airpower is called in to help NATO and U.S. troops under attack. In these conditions, the ROE is much more flexible, and even the Taliban use of civilians as human shields is not allowed to get friendly troops killed.


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