The Price of Protecting Civilians

Limiting civilian deaths in Afghanistan is a worthy goal. But is it leaving the U.S. vulnerable? Andrew Exum, who advised Gen. McChrystal, on why the short-term risks are worth the long-term gains.

Brennan Linsley / AP Photo

For the past week, the U.S. and allies' offensive in Afghanistan’s Helmand Valley has put war back on the front pages of America’s newspapers. Even after eight years of fighting, though, and an additional seven years of combat in Iraq, the U.S. public and its military still struggle to understand the dynamics of war as it is being fought. These political fights in Iraq and Afghanistan do not resemble the large-scale industrial wars of the 20th century. No matter what happens in the Helmand Valley over the next few weeks and months, there will never be an “Armistice Day” or “Victory Day” the likes of which signaled the ends of the First and Second World Wars, respectively. The United States and its allies had defeated the Nazi regime mere months after landing in Normandy, yet in Afghanistan the NATO alliance seemingly labors without end.

The U.S. military and its allies have now effectively overcorrected and are too reticent to use overwhelming firepower even when warranted.

Richard Wolffe: How the Afghan War Is Testing NATO Most confusing, perhaps, for both the lance corporal fighting in Marja and her father back home, is the way in which the war in Afghanistan is being fought with unprecedented restrictions placed on the kinds of firepower U.S. tactical leaders can employ against their Taliban foes. The restrictions placed on the uses of artillery and air power seem to needlessly endanger U.S. troops and to violate a fundamental principal of war, mass, which dictates U.S. units employ as much combat power as possible against their enemies. (Another principle of war, surprise, was similarly waived when U.S. commanders announced NATO's intentions in Marja well in advance of the commencement of hostilities.) Opinion columnists and bloggers have denounced the restricted rules of engagement as military malpractice, even as civilian casualties in Afghanistan continue with the deaths of several dozen on Monday.

What U.S. military officers have come to learn through the course of these conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan—and what the parents of soldiers back home need to understand as well—is that in fundamental ways, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan do not resemble the conventional conflicts the U.S. military fought in the 20th century and trained to fight in the 21st. The U.S. military, then, has taken a pragmatic approach to fighting these wars that increases the short-term risks to soldiers and Marines on the ground but also increases the long-term chances of strategic success.

I led U.S. troops in two deployments to Afghanistan and one in Iraq from 2000 until 2004. (The last time the U.S. military embarked on as large a campaign in Afghanistan as this one, in fact, I was a green first lieutenant leading a platoon of light infantry in 2002’s Operation Anaconda.) This past summer, after spending most of the previous five years living in the Arabic-speaking Middle East and studying the conflict in southern Lebanon, I was invited by Gen. Stanley McChrystal to participate in his initial review of operations in Afghanistan. From the beginning, Gen. McChrystal made clear that he was going to pursue a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan because he did not feel anything else, at that point, would work. This was not the conclusion of a scholar who had studied war from the comforts of a library, but rather the words of a student-practitioner of combat who had seen everything else in Afghanistan tried and fail. By 2006, when Gen. McChrystal gave up command of the U.S. military’s most elite Special Operations task force, his units were killing the enemy at a cyclical rate—as fast as they possibly could—and it was not making a difference. A friend of mine likes to say that you cannot kill your way to victory in counterinsurgency campaigns, and that is precisely what Gen. McChrystal learned at the helm of the Joint Special Operations Command.

By the time I arrived to advise him in Afghanistan as part of a team comprised of other scholars and military officers, Gen. McChrystal had grown convinced that Afghan civilian casualties were taking an immense toll on the NATO mission in Afghanistan. This conclusion was well supported by the research being done in Kabul by a young Harvard Law School graduate, Erica Gaston, on behalf of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. A U.S. Army unit taking fire from a compound in rural Afghanistan may be well within its legal rights to call in air strikes on the compound, but any civilian deaths resulting from the air strike largely negate the immediate tactical gains. “Proportionality and the letter of the law,” Gen. McChrystal observed last July, “will allow you to do a lot, but you will be operationally ineffective as a result.”

Put another way, the conflict in Afghanistan required U.S. and NATO units to go above and beyond the laws of land warfare in order to minimize civilian casualties and safeguard strategic aims. Units could not afford to be technically clever but strategically foolish. The United States and its military officers in effect realized something our Israeli allies never have—that being legally correct in the execution of combat operations matters little when held in contrast with television images of civilians being exhumed from the rubble of an air strike which might have also killed a terrorist leader. This is not the elevation of some high-minded human-rights ideal—it is a reflection of the hard realities of modern conflict conducted in the age of 24-hour satellite television.

Insurgencies, as Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely told me in 2007, are like staircases. At the top are the hardcore insurgents. Below them are the facilitators, and below them is the neutral population. At the bottom is the friendly population. Reckless counterinsurgency tactics cause the staircase to become an elevator—everyone moves up until you have alienated your friends and made more new enemies than you can possibly kill, capture, or convince to reconcile with the government.

The insurgent uses four basic tactics against an opponent such as the United States and its allies—provocation, intimidation, protraction, and exhaustion. The first of these tactics, provocation, aims to provoke the counterinsurgent forces into using those incoherent levels of force that turn Sir John’s staircase into an escalator. Gen. McChrystal and his subordinate commanders seem determined to deny the enemy effective use of this tactic.

In addition, U.S. and allied commanders in Afghanistan feel that even without unlimited use of air power and artillery, the United States and its allies should be able to defeat the Taliban, as one commander put it, “with our hands tied behind our back.” The Taliban’s greatest—and only effective—weapon thus far has been the improvised explosive device, or IED. In direct-fire engagements, the Taliban is either ineffective or quickly routed by superior U.S. riflemen.

At the same time, though, commanders recognize a balance must be struck between expected effects and the risks taken by troops. It may well be that after years of downplaying the strategic effects of collateral damage and civilian casualties, the U.S. military and its allies have now effectively overcorrected and are too reticent to use overwhelming firepower even when warranted. The junior officers and noncommissioned officers now leading U.S. troops in combat have some combat experience—they must be trusted to use force when they deem it necessary and be supported by commanders when warranted force results in the unfortunate death of innocents alongside the enemy.

Overall, the U.S. public and veterans of campaigns past must understand the ways in which contemporary conflict differs from war as it exists in memory. This is not a clash between the armies of two industrial states on the battlefields of northern Germany—this is a conflict fought, as Sir Rupert Smith would put it, “among the peoples” and for the people of Afghanistan. Officers have always been required to balance the needs of the mission with the welfare of the troops, and in the case of Afghanistan, the short-term dangers endured by our troops contribute to both the long-term prospects of the mission—as well as the eventual homecoming of U.S. and allied soldiers from Afghanistan.

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Andrew Exum is is the author of the memoir This Man’s Army and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He served in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army in 2002 and 2004.