This week, General Stanley McChrystal apologized to the Afghan people and personally to President Karzai after at least 27 civilians were killed by a NATO airstrike in the southern Province of Uruzgan. To his credit, General McChrystal has taken concrete steps to limit civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Since becoming commander of coalition forces, he has tightened the rules of engagement to restrict the use of artillery attacks and airstrikes. These measures were definitely needed. But I would like to see General McChrystal go even further. Admittedly, General McChrytal has a tough balancing act. Limiting the rules of engagement, especially in an insurgency, makes it harder for the troops on the ground to pursue the enemy. But the devastating impact of civilian causalities on the coalition’s objectives cannot be overstated. Afghanistan is unquestionably a media-led war and an incident like the one in Uruzgan can easily overshadow weeks of restrained operations by coalition forces. Every time a civilian is killed inadvertently by NATO forces it is a public relations victory for the Taliban and other militant groups.
For the better part of this conflict, coalition troops have been spread thin on the ground and artillery attacks and airstrikes have been used to compensate whenever they get into trouble. But the cost of using these blunt instruments is proving too dear, especially in a conflict where the enemy uses civilians as human shields (a time honoured terrorist tactic). I fought my first insurgency at the age of 17 and continued fighting them throughout my twenty-three year military career. I can’t imagine what would have happened if the British military had whacked a missile into a Belfast estate because an IRA member had fired on a patrol or was believed to be hiding in a house. Such tactics would have obliterated any chance of a peaceful resolution to ‘the troubles’.
Afghanistan is a messy conflict and the Taliban will always nestle among innocents. But NATO must hold itself to the highest possible standards by doing everything in its power to avoid civilian deaths. Airpower in Afghanistan should be restricted to mobility and surveillance purposes only. To compensate for the loss of airstrikes, NATO should concentrate its forces in specific areas to achieve its objectives. No more leaving the troops to battle against extraordinary odds because they’re spread out like butter.
Restricting the rules of engagement further could very well draw out the conflict even more. But unless it wins the battle for hearts and minds, NATO’s war in Afghanistan will never end.