It is time for the Obama administration to rethink its seemingly open-ended commitment in Afghanistan. The war is not going well for the United States or for the people of Afghanistan.
Exhibit A is a report released by the U.S. military last week that revealed that “inaccurate and unprofessional” reporting by operators of a drone aircraft led to the deaths of 23 Afghan civilians in an attack in February of this year.
The incident, one of many instances of the killing of civilians by U.S. and NATO airstrikes, is not only a human tragedy but it also undermines the counterinsurgency strategy crafted by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in the country. That strategy relies on winning the support of the civilian population in the fight against Taliban and other insurgent forces.
The report, written by Maj. Gen. Timothy P. McHale, suggests the perils of remote control warfare and indicates that a pattern of careless disregard for the lives of Afghan civilians still prevails among some drone operators despite General McChrystal’s strategic emphasis on minimizing civilian casualties.
According to the Washington Post, “the four-page report said that judgment [to fire on civilian vehicles] was based on flawed information from ‘poorly functioning’ ground command posts and faulty reports from Predator drone operators, who were tracking the convoy from their stations at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Those operators, the report said, ‘deprived the ground force commander of vital information’ as it tracked the convoy for three-and-a-half hours.”
According to the report, drone operators in Nevada “failed to notice women in the convoy, and though they did spot two children nearby, the information they provided led the ground crew to believe the vehicles carried only ‘armed military-aged’ men.” In fact, the convoy carried more than 30 people, including women and children. But, the report said, "Information that the convoy was anything other than an attacking force was ignored or downplayed by the Predator crew." It was only when the operators noticed brightly colored clothes indicating the presence of women that they stopped the deadly assault. By then, 23 people were dead and 12 were injured, including one woman and three children. The report says the loss of life “was exacerbated by the U.S. forces' failure to immediately report the possibility of civilian casualties, as required. The deaths were not reported until 12 hours after the incident.”
One can only imagine the terror of the innocent civilians in those vehicles suddenly torn apart by an invisible rain of fire from the sky. The punishment for those responsible for this carnage is instructive. It raises questions about the priority of protecting civilians as the core of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. The extent of the punishment meted out for the admittedly “unprofessional and inaccurate” actions that led to the deaths of 23 innocent civilians and the wounding of 12 others: four of the senior officers involved in the incident were “reprimanded” and two junior officers were “admonished.” In addition, General McChrystal apologized to Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who said he was satisfied with the investigation and called the killings “deeply regrettable.” Judging by the lightness of the punishment, the U.S. does not appear to be very serious about eliminating civilian casualties.
The Obama administration has stepped up drone attacks, leading to increased civilian deaths not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan. These attacks also have killed a significant number of insurgent leaders. But they also have reinforced hatred of the United States among the population and the perception of U.S. forces as infidel invaders.
The United States now has been in Afghanistan for nine years. There is no end in sight to the war. Recent surveys of Afghan civilians show that the Afghan population hold the Karzai government and the U.S. and NATO forces in low regard. It is unlikely that more U.S. forces and more drone attacks will do anything except further alienate the population. Already, the evidence indicates that early reports of progress in the first offensive under the new strategy, in an area called Marja, were exaggerated.
Afghanistan has been the tomb of empires dating back to ancient times. The country, divided by ethnic, tribal and political fault lines, is virtually ungovernable. It is hard to conceive of a happy end for the United States in Afghanistan, no matter how many technological gadgets are deployed in the fight. Thus it is time for the U.S. to start planning for an early exit.