How Americans Do the Taliban's Job

My May 1st post on the Omar Khadr case continues to draw debate and comments, 25 as of this writing. I think I’ll just stand back and watch, as the arguments are familiar and the debate fierce.

Today a new question: what happened to the Taliban’s much-heralded “spring offensive” that NATO was preparing for? The news has mostly been items on small-scale skirmishes, and reports of large numbers of civilian casualties inflicted by NATO troops, including by Canadians. No less august a publication than the Sunday New York Times devotes a feature article to this subject.

Why are so many civilians being killed by NATO? Going in, NATO planners realized that winning over the Pushtun clan leaders would be the key to success in southern Afghanistan. Civilian deaths provoke them to fury, triggering the blood-feud response rooted in their culture.

But a more important goal of NATO forces – for obvious political reasons at home – is to minimize their own casualties. This leads to “rules of engagement” that tell our soldiers, in effect, to shoot first and ask questions later. Even more deadly for the Afghanis is the American use of air power: when it comes to a firefight, the Americans call in an airstrike rather than fighting their way out, minimizing the risk to their own soldiers at the cost of mutiplying civilian dead. It is the military equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

A conjecture: the Taliban leadership knows it can’t go toe-to-toe in large unit engagements with the vastly better equipped NATO forces. Instead, it hits and harasses with IED’s, car bombs and mortar attacks, knowing that NATO retaliation will kill civilians and provoke fury against it. In effect, they are provoking NATO into doing the insurgents’ work for them, while not risking crippling casualties among their own forces.

Lawrence Martin of the Globe and Mail notes that the mounting civilian casualties is producing a groundswell of popular opinion against NATO’s conduct of the war, and growing demands for a negotiated settlement that now are starting to emerge even from the western-supported Afghan government itself. Meanwhile, NATO press releases focus on body counts, just as the Americans did in Vietnam. And – as the Americans discovered there – winning battles may actually result in losing the war.

The “spring offensive”? You’re seeing it, and so far, it’s working.


Tags: Afghanistan, Defence policy