This past March, I wrote a column criticizing the Obama administration for its continued use of Predator attack drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan despite civilian casualties.
News from Afghanistan this past weekend reported civilian injuries in a NATO airstrike, this time from a flying manned aircraft. This solemn event provides an excellent opportunity to revisit the topic of airstrikes and reevaluate their effectiveness.
On Saturday, U.S. jets flying under a request from German commanders destroyed a pair of fuel tankers which were reportedly captured by Taliban fighters. The resulting explosion injured some 70 people, although the specific number of Taliban and civilians in that group remain unclear. The Afghani civilians had converged on the tankers in hopes of siphoning off some rare and precious gasoline.
This event is a tragedy in a country which seems to have no shortage of them lately. Lessons need to be learned from this; it's a story that can't simply be swept under the rug. Few seem to realize that killing entire families is a terrible way to win support away from the Taliban.
With this most recent attack, it seems the top military brass have become somewhat more sensitive to the issue. The top commander of the United States Armed Forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has visited the children that were horribly injured and disfigured in the attack, re-emphasizing his belief that everything must be done in order to prevent further civilian deaths in Afghanistan. He is calling for a full investigation into this weekend's incident.
This response is a definite improvement from the "acknowledged horribleness but continuation" line the administration has delivered on past air attacks resulting in civilian casualties. McChrystal has repeatedly emphasized a new focus on understanding and connection with the many and varied peoples of Afghanistan. His immediate reaction to these recent airstrikes has gone a long way toward demonstrating that he truly believes that the path to a stable Afghanistan includes protecting and valuing Afghani civilians.
I can only agree with his views. Afghanistan, as it stands today, remains an unstable and volatile quagmire. If bringing peace to Afghanistan can be accomplished without leaving it a convoluted mess of a "sovereign" state, keeping civilian deaths as low as possible is an absolute necessity. Every time a civilian in Afghanistan is killed by a missile manufactured in Seattle, Maryland or Los Angeles, the country slides that much closer to falling off the precipice.
I have no illusions. I realize that collateral damage is an inevitable, horrible, tragic cost of war, and when fighting against non-uniformed insurgents, distinguishing between civilians and enemy combatants is by no means an easy or simple task. If we can extract any good from this weekend's events, it will be a lesson in how best to deal with a situation where combatants are mixed with civilians
Many people view Afghanistan as an impossible situation and that may very well be true, especially given the very hazy and vague definition of what exactly, a "win" is. But for those who are still committed to waging this war and having it end with a stable Afghanistan, these sort of haphazard airstrikes must be put to an end.
NATO must investigate this weekend's airstrike, figure out what went wrong and make the necessary changes. We can't allow any slippage in McChrystal's policies of connecting with, understanding and treasuring the Afghani people and protecting their lives.
After all, if we want to see a healthy and stable Afghani state, we must also want to see a healthy and stable Afghani populace.