The kinder, gentler occupation?

June 24, 2009

Phil Aliff, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, analyzes new U.S. rules of engagement governing air power in Afghanistan.

DESPITE THE Obama administration's attempts to put a new face on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the once-forgotten "good war" now captures headlines daily as NATO forces face increased fighting and further instability in a region that has been torn apart by decades of warfare.

A U.S. military spokesman announced June 22 that the top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan has issued a new order aimed at reducing civilian casualties by placing tighter limits on the use of air strikes. The U.S. military hopes this will improve relations with Afghan civilians as it prepares to take back territory controlled by the Taliban in Afghanistan's Eastern and Southern provinces.

Meanwhile, 20,000 U.S. troops are beginning to arrive in Afghanistan as part of the escalation of forces that Barack Obama identified as crucial to the war effort. The problem is that more than 80 percent of Afghans oppose an increase in U.S. troops, according to a February opinion poll conducted by ABC News, the BBC and ARD German TV.

U.S. troops prepare to conduct raids in Baghran Valley in Afghanistan
U.S. troops prepare to conduct raids in Baghran Valley in Afghanistan (Spc. Preston Cheeks)

Another expression of the renewed push against the U.S. and NATO is the steadily mounting tally of attacks. In the first week of June, there were 400 attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan, the highest number since 2001.

This is the context in which Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal released a new "tactical directive" ordering U.S. forces to refrain from firing on structures in civilian areas that are used as cover by insurgents. The only exception to this rule will be if soldiers on the ground are under imminent threat of being overrun by the Taliban.

This change in doctrine comes only days after the U.S. military admitted responsibility for a May 4 air strike in Farah province that may have killed up to 140 civilians, according to Afghan officials.

IN THE last couple years, the U.S. military has relied increasingly on overwhelming air power in order to keep U.S. ground forces out of harm's way, but they have paid a heavy political price. Today, only 32 percent of Afghans think the U.S. has performed well in Afghanistan, less than half the figure of 68 percent who thought that in 2005. Ratings for NATO have undergone a similar decline. A mere 37 percent of Afghans say that most people in their region support Western forces--a 30-point decline since 2006.

It seems all but certain that the Obama administration's increase of troop levels in Afghanistan and Pakistan will exacerbate both the level of violence toward NATO forces and the killing of Afghan civilians.

That's because despite the rhetoric about a more conscientious policy of when and where to carry out air strikes, the U.S. has few alternatives it can pursue after years of lengthy and repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have depleted the readiness and field worthiness of U.S. ground troops.

Even though job losses and growing unemployment have made it far easier for military recruiters to make their quotas, the military still does not have enough battle-ready forces to sweep all of the Taliban-controlled territories in Afghanistan.

As Anand Gopal, the Christian Science Monitor correspondent for Afghanistan, pointed out in a recent interview with, the U.S. military is focused on securing major cities and highways instead of the countryside, which is overwhelmingly controlled by the Taliban.

Unlike Iraq, where the fighting has historically revolved around urban centers, the territory controlled by Taliban forces is rugged and mountainous, with small rural villages used as command-and-control points by the insurgency.

Because of the "bend until it's broken" nature of U.S. troop deployments during the "global war on terror," the U.S. would likely have to rely on a military draft to put enough boots on the ground, but the reinstitution of military conscription, which hasn't been used since the Vietnam War, would further inflame antiwar sentiment in the U.S.

To make up the troop shortfall, the U.S. military is transferring "intelligence vehicles" from Iraq to Afghanistan in order to provide support in the areas where military units are operating.

In mid-June, CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus told the Center for a New American Security, a think tank with close ties to the military, that he would be shifting Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles and other unmanned intelligence vehicles into the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater.

Predator drones have been used increasingly in Afghanistan and have been largely responsible for the attacks on the Northwest tribal areas of Pakistan that killed 687 Pakistani civilians, while only killing 14 confirmed al-Qaeda operatives.

The details surrounding the CIA's use of drones in the Pakistani tribal regions are considered highly secret, and it appears that the managers of the program have withheld even the most basic information from other government agencies in an attempt to cover up the high rates of civilian casualties.

According to testimony in a Taliban video from a 19-year-old in North Waziristan, the young man was paid by the CIA to drop electronic targeting chips on farmhouses believed to be Taliban or al-Qaeda strongholds.

"I was given $122 to drop chips wrapped in a cigarette paper at al-Qaeda and Taliban houses," he says in the video. "If I was successful, I was told I would be given thousands of dollars...I thought this was a very easy job. The money was so good that I started throwing the chips all over. I knew people were dying because of what I was doing, but I needed the money."

ANOTHER TACTIC the U.S. military in Afghanistan may be using in an effort to reduce civilian casualties is deploying a policy of "media warfare" against the Taliban. There are indications that McChrystal may be seeking to shift blame to Taliban fighters over civilian casualties through propaganda in the media.

"We've got to be careful about who controls the narrative on civilian casualties," Gen. David Barno told reporters at a NATO conference in Brussels on June 12. Barno, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, went on to say that commanders on the ground "see the enemy seeking to take air strikes off the table" by overestimating the real number of civilian casualties from U.S. attacks.

In truth, the U.S. military has already tried the tactic of "media warfare," for example when it attempted to shift blame to the Taliban for the bombing in Farah. Before the U.S. military admitted responsibility, it was reported that the Taliban used grenades to kill Afghans in order to make it appear as though U.S. air strikes had killed them. This campaign of misinformation contradicted detailed evidence put forward by civilians on the ground as well as reports by International Red Cross aid workers.

All of this explains why Afghan civilians, whose lives are worse now than when the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001, are turning against the NATO occupation at a quickening pace. NATO forces are concentrating more on offensive thrusts into Taliban territory than on developing infrastructure, and Pashtuns in the east and south are either fleeing to the Taliban in order to resist occupation or are becoming displaced due to the fighting.

Together, these factors have combined to produce one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. In 2008, the life expectancy was 43 years, and the mortality rate of children under five years old is roughly 240 per 1,000 children, but these issues cannot begin to be addressed because of the bloodshed caused both directly by the U.S./NATO occupation and indirectly by the disruption of rebuilding and development projects.

While it's not easy to come up with effective short-term solutions to the humanitarian crisis facing Afghans, it is certain that the further entrenchment of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan will only lead to higher casualty rates for U.S. troops, as well as civilians in the region.

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