How to Cut Collateral Damage in Afghanistan

Rein in the Special Forces cowboys, and let Gen. McChrystal call the shots.


When I was picking targets for the Iraq invasion as chief of high-value targeting for the Pentagon, collateral damage was a side issue. We treated civilian deaths like a fire drill: When they happened, it was seen as a media problem to be dealt with, not a sign we might need to change our procedures. Today, however, protecting civilians is taken as seriously as killing the target. When civilians are killed, Afghanistan commanding Gen. Stanley McChrystal apologizes on Afghan national television and the military investigates. Casualties in this latest offensive in Marjah were down nearly 30 percent from previous operations as a result.

After years of constant offensive operations, the U.S. military finally understands the negative impact of dead civilians. They cause riots, they undermine confidence in the government, and they boost distrust of foreign forces — all things that could ultimately lose the war. Yet despite general success in cutting civilian casualties, a Feb. 21 airstrike that claimed an estimated 27 Afghan civilians shows that one group in the military still needs to be reined in: Special Forces. Most civilian deaths are now caused by this one subset of the armed forces. As the rest of the armed forces change around it, Special Forces needs to catch up.

Between 2007 and 2009, the majority of civilians killed in U.S. airstrikes died when Special Forces summoned a strike to support them during what is called a TIC, or "troops in contact" — that is, contact with the enemy. Special Forces are designed to be small, mobile units. When they come into contact with the enemy, it is often an unexpected or unequal circumstance, where they are caught off guard and find themselves outnumbered. In scenarios like that, they frequently believe they have few options other than to call in an airstrike. Knowing this, U.S. commanders have begun requiring troops to withdraw when possible rather than get into a protracted firefight that could claim civilian lives. McChrystal’s latest tactical directive restricts the use of air power for the same reason.

Oddly, the Feb. 21 incident was not a TIC — and that’s what makes it so jarring. Initial reports indicate that a U.S. Special Forces helicopter was tracking a convoy of Afghan buses when it was alerted to the potential movement of Taliban forces. The information came through a signals intercept. (Hopefully the military had more than single-source intelligence; when we pulled the trigger in Iraq based only on phone calls, civilians typically paid the price.) Whatever intelligence the military did or didn’t have, it turned out the trucks were carrying civilians, including women and children. 

It is too early to know to what extent U.S. forces had performed a pre-strike "pattern of life" analysis, wherein they observe a target to determine if it is civilian in nature (a recent innovation and something we never did in Iraq in 2003). Nor do we know whether they completed a collateral-damage estimate. But what does seem clear is that no U.S. forces were ever directly in danger, so options other than air power should have been on the table. Special Forces could have called in to other supporting troops with the aim of capturing the enemy. The military could have followed these on-the-run Taliban to even more Taliban. Instead they chose to fire.

This wasn’t the first time Special Forces have killed civilians in internationally minded territory. Back in 2007, Britain asked U.S. Special Forces to leave the part of Helmand province they patrolled because of the Americans’ overreliance on airstrikes and high civilian deaths, both of which the British found to be undermining the war effort. In several of the embassies that I visited in Kabul, I heard diplomats comment that it was time to reign in the Special Forces "cowboys."

Missteps like these are becoming the exception across the military. After civilian casualties spiked in 2008, to the point that Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded the United States stop using air power altogether, statistics today reveal the clear shift in emphasis since McChrystal took over. Close air support (CAS) missions have doubled since 2007, but the number of weapons dropped by aircraft has fallen 20 percent.  Many of those CAS missions are flying low and loud to scare rather than kill.

Yet though this certainly counts as progress, the bar is not high enough yet. A good next step would be setting a higher standard for intelligence before a strike is made. As I learned firsthand in Iraq, you need to be sure of what or who your target really is before you make the decision to kill. The U.S. military is expert in locating the enemy, but it lags in locating civilians. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance sorties are one answer; these flights have doubled in number since 2007, adding much-needed eyes in the sky. More unmanned aircraft are also in the air, targets are observed for longer so civilians can be weeded out, and collateral damage estimates are often performed. When these procedures, first set up in June 2009, are followed, fewer civilians die needlessly. When they are ignored — as seems to have happened in the Feb. 21 airstrike — the local population just gets even more alienated.

One piece of unadulterated good news is the Pentagon’s progress in terms of accountability. A typical response to dead civilians in the past was to blame Taliban fighters for using them as human shields. While shielding is a contributing factor to civilian deaths, this reflexive response was a loud "not my fault" that did little to assuage anger in Afghanistan. Such responses contributed to the circulating rumors that U.S. forces can use technology to see into Afghans’ homes or that U.S. bombs can target specific individuals without harming others. Investigations were also often halfhearted. "Yes, the Taliban target us, but we expected more from you," I often heard from Afghans when I was there during 2007, just as the casualties skyrocketed. Now, things have taken a 180-degree turn. These days, the military begins an investigation as soon as an incident is reported. It also takes responsibility and often provides a condolence payment. Lessons have clearly been learned.

But it’s not time to celebrate yet. Civilian deaths at the hands of international forces have dropped, but only to 2007 levels — the year civilian casualties first became a problem. As the recent airstrike reminds us, there is still a long way to go. If Special Forces are the main impediment, there is no better man for the job than the former head of Joint Special Operations Command, McChrystal. Regardless of who is in charge, the civilian population is the key.  Although most Afghans are killed by the Taliban, it is Afghan civilian deaths at the hands of Americans that will sway the outcome of this conflict one way or the other.

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