Remember that time when the IRS let you audit yourself and when you told them they owed you a lot of money they asked where they could send the check? Never happened to me, either, but that’s pretty much how the US conducts investigations into possible war crimes. Happened in Kunduz (again), and the Americans (again) cleared themselves.
An investigation into a November firefight between Taliban insurgents and joint U.S. and Afghan forces has concluded that 33 civilians were killed during the operation, the U.S. military said on Thursday. Washington Post
Worth reading the rest of the story, because when American Special Forces troops called an airstrike on some homes? Self-defense. No question. Which is the conclusion you’d expect from an American investigation into Americans killing Afghans in their homes.
All of this has happened before
Not the first time coalition bombs have killed civilians in Afghanistan. Hell, not even the first time it’s happened in Kunduz: last year the US leveled a Doctors Without Borders facility in the city. So I guess the good news here is that this time it wasn’t a hospital. Last time this happened was in October of 2015. And there was an AC-130 involved. And a hospital got turned into a parking lot.
And things like this will continue to happen because war is messy and wars fought among civilian populations are messier. House-to-house fighting is difficult enough when it comes to deciding who gets shot in the face. But when you’re talking about whacking an entire building, well, time to make you a civilian casualty (CIVCAS) omelet, isn’t it?
It’s unfortunate that the Americans get to clear themselves, but it doesn’t mean they set out to kill Afghan civilians with death from above. I do believe it was self defense, I’m just less than enthused with any military that gets to investigate itself and then declare itself innocent. Having another independent body draw the same conclusion would help me sleep better at night.
Why is this happening?
The Americans are being pulled into the Afghan way of war, which is to establish an indefensible defense. The Afghans like the idea of controlling checkpoints, because that’s how you project power across the countryside. What they don’t always understand is that this means that the enemy gets to determine where the fight happens.
By fighting a defensive war, the Afghans are letting the Taliban pick the where and when of their battles. Which means the Taliban are happy to hole up in a village somewhere and use the locals as human shields. Since the US doesn’t have the troops on the ground to fight the American way, this sort of thing happens.
When you fight wars the “American way,” the best defense is a good offense. Which means you take the fight to the enemy, not the other way around. And you’re the one determining where the shooting happens, not the insurgency.
But until the Afghans fight that way, you’re going to continue to get things like 33 dead Afghans. Because you’re going to fight in the cities and in places where innocent people are going to die because you’re doing war wrong.
What needs to change?
The Americans need more control of the war: Ramping up an American presence would mean that the US is in the driver’s seat. That’s not likely to happen since politically everyone seems to want to get out of the Afghanistan pool. Which means that there aren’t enough troops to do the job the Afghans aren’t doing.
Since that’s not going to happen, the Americans need to encourage Afghan forces to take the fight to the enemy, instead of waiting for the enemy to show up and chase you away. The best way to do that is tie performance in a warzone with some version of aid. It sounds hideous to tie aid dollars to how well the Afghans do at killing insurgents, so I’m open to better ideas.
It’s extortionate, but it would mean a more successful war, which would mean fewer dead Afghans. And that “fewer dead Afghans” also means Afghan troops, since their current “defense first” approach is a fatal flaw in their strategy. And “fatal” in this case is literal: Afghan soldiers are dying at an unsustainable rate.
If things continue as they are, with the US trying to half-ass its military involvement in the graveyard of common sense, yes: the Afghans are fucked. More civilians will die, more troops will die, and we’ll continue to bang the drum of all being lost in Afghanistan.
The Americans seem happy with the current approach to Afghanistan. The wild card here is what the new president and his Secretary of Defense plan to do about the US involvement there. This needs more troops, and a new administration might make that possible.
Best case scenario is another surge of US firepower combined with a more concerted effort to put together a peace deal with the Taliban and more direct engagement of the Taliban by the Americans in Pakistan. Which is also part of the problem. And I know how flippant this graf here sounds.
None of that is easy. Or even a good idea. But it’s the best of a lot of bad options. And maybe doing some of that means a few more Afghans get to see something like peace someday.
Also published on Medium.