Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Not Winning Afghan Hearts & Minds

Winning the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan was always going to be difficult. As lofty as the goals of Americans may sound, they are viewed as interlopers at best and conquerors at worst. Just as the Russians and British before them.

That state of affairs is exacerbated by the extensive use of remote-controlled Predator drones as proxies for traditional manned forward air observation aircraft and adequate levels of special forces and ground troops. To err is human, and that happens in the fog of war, but willfully inaccurate reporting by drone operators that lead to the deaths of innocents is simply unacceptable in a conflict now in its ninth years with precious little progress let alone an end in sight.

General Stanley "Bleeding Ulcer" McChrystal understands this all too well. The commander of American-led NATO forces has made protection of civilians a high priority and has tried to limit airstrikes, which makes a scathing Pentagon report on the deaths of 23 Afghan men, women and children as the result of a February 21 airstrike even more awful.

According to the report, an American Special Operations team was tracking a group of insurgents near the
village of Shahidi Hassas in Oruzgan Province, a Taliban-dominated area in southern Afghanistan, when two SUVs approached them.

Predator operators working from video consoles at an air base in Nevada reported seeing only military-age men in the trucks, the ground commander concurred and the Special Operations team asked for an airstrike, according to the report. An OH-58D Kiowa helicopter fired Hellfire missiles and rockets, destroying the vehicles and killing 23 civilians. Twelve others were wounded.

The report found that the Predator operators in Nevada and "poorly functioning command posts" in the area failed to provide the ground commander with evidence that there were civilians in the trucks. Because of that, the commander wrongly believed that the vehicles, then seven miles away, contained insurgents who were moving to reinforce the fighters he and his men were tracking.

Four American officers, including a brigade and battalion commander, have been reprimanded and two junior officers also have been disciplined.

McChrystal, meanwhile, has
apologized to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and announced a series of training measures intended to reduce the chances of similar events.

The overwhelming majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan are caused by insurgents, but the growing intensity of the fighting this year has sent civilian casualties to their highest levels since the outset of the war in 2001, and that is not a good thing. Neither is the disturbing notion that drones are fueling homegrown terrorism.

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