Peace Under Friendly Fire

By Nader Nadery, a commissioner with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and Haseeb Humayoon, a student at Middlebury College who has worked as a consultant to nongovernmental groups in Afghanistan (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 05/10/08):

As civilian casualties mount, American and NATO forces in Afghanistan are facing an erosion of their public legitimacy. The Taliban and Al Qaeda are exploiting this distrust, aiming to transform it into a popular rage against the Afghan government and its foreign allies. Unless the insurgents are denied propaganda tools — in particular, the growing number of images of dead women and children — no number of additional troops will bring success to the American-led mission.

The United Nations, which last month extended NATO’s mandate in Afghanistan for another year, says there were 1,445 civilian casualties from the beginning of the year to mid-September, a 40 percent increase over all of 2007. International troops were held responsible for 577 of the deaths — two-thirds of them caused by air strikes.

Like clockwork, each of these “friendly fire” incidents brings about angry demonstrations in the streets, with crowds chanting, “Death to the government — down with the foreign troops!” The latest tinder in the fire was the killing of some 90 civilians, mostly women and children, on Aug. 22 in Azizabad in Herat Province. (While the Pentagon has taken issue with the reported death count, the Afghan government and United Nations stand by the villagers’ claims.)

Daud, a police officer who lives in Azizabad and agreed to be interviewed by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, was away on duty the night of the attack and thus survived. But seven members of his family, including his wife and children, were killed. Sobbing as he told his story, he announced he was leaving his job as a police officer and that he had lost “any sympathy for the Afghan government.” He wished, he said, “to be among the dead members of my family and not the only helpless survivor.”

The growing disillusionment caused by civilian casualties is also driving old friends away from NATO and American forces. In an interview some months ago, a man who worked alongside American forces in 2001 in Urozgan Province to protect Hamid Karzai, now the Afghan president, posed a staggering question: “You speak English, and interact with foreigners, so can you swear by the Almighty and tell me if the foreigners are on the side of the Taliban, or of the Afghan people?”

He was hardly the exception: many average Afghans find it hard to believe that America, with its tremendous military power, is having so much trouble defeating tattered bands of Taliban warriors and don’t understand why it can’t avoid continuous civilian casualties.

To Afghans, suspicion about the intentions of foreign forces comes easy: we have suffered through two occupations in the last three decades, first by the former Soviet Union in the 1980s and then by Pakistan — indirectly through the Taliban — in the 1990s. Every military operation that kills civilians leads to more conspiracy theories that the Americans and their Western allies want to maintain chaos so they can maintain a military presence in the region.

Some pundits and analysts may have you believe that we Afghans are inherently allergic to the West and its values. That is not true. We craved American and United Nations involvement in Afghanistan long before 9/11. When United States troops finally came to our liberation in late 2001, in city after city they faced cheering people dancing in the streets out of joy. That seems a very long time ago now.

Of course, the rising mistrust of NATO and American forces is not just about civilian casualties. Afghans are frustrated by the failure of our government and its foreign allies to improve security, clamp down on corruption and provide food and jobs.

Unfortunately, the reformist local leaders the country most needs are losing ground because they are seen as too close to the foreign allies. In our 2004 presidential elections, it was an asset for candidates to be viewed as connected to the Americans. But such proximity has since become a liability. Across the country, populist politicians are garnering more support by appearing anti-Western. The insurgents, aiming to drive a wedge between the Afghan people and their government and foreign allies, will continue to mount attacks from heavily populated sites, hoping for a bloody American response. The best course for NATO and the Pentagon, clearly, is to reduce the reliance on air strikes. According to Human Rights Watch, most of the civilian casualties of air power are caused by “rapid-response air strikes,” not planned targeted operations. That is, when things go wrong on the ground and Afghan or international troops find themselves in trouble, American airpower is brought in to crush the enemy.

The best way to avoid having to resort to rapid response air strikes is an emphasis on better intelligence gathering, coordination and analyses so that ground operations go as planned. Satellite imagery can be misleading, and needs to be backed up by credible human intelligence. The insurgents do everything they can to blend in with the local populations. And spotting legitimate targets is even harder because, given the arming of the general population over the last three decades, not every house with a stash of guns is a Taliban hideout.

And, while human intelligence is fundamental to determining the right targets and avoiding mishaps, ancestral feuds and power rivalries make unofficial sources of local knowledge highly dubious. Unfortunately, American and NATO forces will find intelligence gathering almost impossible, especially given the dearth of experts in local languages, history and politics embedded with them.

The Afghan government’s formal intelligence apparatus, the National Directorate of Security, could be a useful source if it were better equipped and trained, if NATO and American troops were willing to work hand in hand with it, and if it were staffed by officers whose primary goal wasn’t to use Western military power to settle old scores. It could provide the Americans with local intelligence in tune with the broader goal of the government and its allies.

We are not naïve enough to expect there could ever be zero collateral damage in this fight against an enemy that is very conscious of the value of destroying the public legitimacy of the foreign forces. But to reduce the harm caused by the deaths of the innocent, Western troops must investigate promptly when such allegations arise. A climate of denials and partial truths, such as occurred in the wake of the Aziz Abad massacre, breeds anxiety and mistrust.

Last, in any military effort, a muddled chain of command is an invitation to deadly accidents. It is time to merge, under a single leadership, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and the separate American forces.

We understand that American goals in Afghanistan are in our country’s interest, and we hope more boots on the ground will help. But success against the insurgency in Afghanistan may ultimately lie in denying the Taliban and Al Qaeda their support, recruitment tools and external sanctuaries. To do this, Western forces must keep up pressure on Pakistan and drastically cut back on the number of operations “gone wrong,” or they will be providing the enemy with the very ammunition it needs most.