Protecting civilians and protecting troops in Afghanistan

The testing ground for what a counterinsurgency-styleoffensive should look like is taking place in Marjah right now. There is everyevidence that despite difficult circumstances, Afghan and internationaltroops in Marjah are taking seriously restrictions on tactics that might causecivilians harm or imperil future plans for stabilizing and "holding" the area.Strangely though, the fact that they’re taking ...

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

The testing ground for what a counterinsurgency-styleoffensive should look like is taking place in Marjah right now. There is everyevidence that despite difficult circumstances, Afghan and internationaltroops in Marjah are taking seriously restrictions on tactics that might causecivilians harm or imperil future plans for stabilizing and "holding" the area.Strangely though, the fact that they're taking this so seriously has been acause for some concern back in the States.

Just as progress is being made in reducing thecivilian casualties that created such public backlash against internationalforces in Afghanistan,public commentary has focused on how counterinsurgency-driven restrictions onairstrikes or other tactics might also be complicating force protection.Reports from embedded journalists have shared troop frustrations atrequirements like 72hour surveillance on a compound before it can be bombed, or not firing onunarmed Afghans, even if they suspect those individuals were insurgents whosimply droppedtheir weapons moments before. Some opinionpieces and  roundtables have worried that therestrictions put international troops at greater risk because they cannot fightback with everything they have.

No one would argue that protecting coalition troops isanything but a top priority. Yet in the vast majority of situations in Afghanistan,it's not an either/or situation. Tactical restrictions that protect civiliansgo hand in hand with protecting troops. The number one killer of civilians andtroops alike continues to be insurgent suicide attacks and roadside bombs, therisk of which the unrestricted use of artillery and airpower can do almostnothing to reduce. What might make a difference is better relations with localAfghan communities, who might be able to warn of such attacks or, ifsufficiently supported, prevent insurgents from operating in their areas. Thetrust and confidence it would take to build those relationships, though, canonly be earned by demonstrating that their safety is important and that troopswill respect their concerns. Hence the restrictions on tactics that can lead tocivilian harm or offense.

The testing ground for what a counterinsurgency-styleoffensive should look like is taking place in Marjah right now. There is everyevidence that despite difficult circumstances, Afghan and internationaltroops in Marjah are taking seriously restrictions on tactics that might causecivilians harm or imperil future plans for stabilizing and "holding" the area.Strangely though, the fact that they’re taking this so seriously has been acause for some concern back in the States.

Just as progress is being made in reducing thecivilian casualties that created such public backlash against internationalforces in Afghanistan,public commentary has focused on how counterinsurgency-driven restrictions onairstrikes or other tactics might also be complicating force protection.Reports from embedded journalists have shared troop frustrations atrequirements like 72hour surveillance on a compound before it can be bombed, or not firing onunarmed Afghans, even if they suspect those individuals were insurgents whosimply droppedtheir weapons moments before. Some opinionpieces and  roundtables have worried that therestrictions put international troops at greater risk because they cannot fightback with everything they have.

No one would argue that protecting coalition troops isanything but a top priority. Yet in the vast majority of situations in Afghanistan,it’s not an either/or situation. Tactical restrictions that protect civiliansgo hand in hand with protecting troops. The number one killer of civilians andtroops alike continues to be insurgent suicide attacks and roadside bombs, therisk of which the unrestricted use of artillery and airpower can do almostnothing to reduce. What might make a difference is better relations with localAfghan communities, who might be able to warn of such attacks or, ifsufficiently supported, prevent insurgents from operating in their areas. Thetrust and confidence it would take to build those relationships, though, canonly be earned by demonstrating that their safety is important and that troopswill respect their concerns. Hence the restrictions on tactics that can lead tocivilian harm or offense.

In situations where troops are engaged in combat andmay be overwhelmed by insurgent attacks (often called "troops in contact"situations), it can be more difficult to balance force protection and civilianprotection. The availability of back-up air or artillery support in thesesituations can be life saving; however, these are also the situations that posethe greatest risk for civilians. In contrast to pre-planned strikes or dronestrikes where there is ample time to identify a target, past researchsuggests that the worst incidents of civilian loss of life tend occur during"troops in contact" situations. In the heat of battle, troops calling inairstrikes often don’t know how many civilians might also be lodged inside acompound, or whether a crowd of individuals around a fuel tanker are mostlyinsurgents or mostly civilians. The immediate threat may be defused, but the short-term gain is at the cost of more enemies and fewer allies in that area for years to come.

Although there’s a tension between force protectionand civilian protection in these situations, it does not have to be a zero sumgame. Not every AK-47 round merits a 500 pound bomb. Rather than orderingstrikes on compounds that might house civilians, troops can try ignoring thethreat if it seems unlikely to present a serious force risk, retreating to asafe location, or, where necessary, ordering more limited strikes that reducethe risk of harm. Troops in Marjah are trying these and other alternativetactics out right now — for example, low flyovers and other "scare" tacticsrather than outright uses of force. Sure, insurgents will figure out how totake advantage some of these tactics. But tactics and counter-tactics are partof warfare; it’s not a challenge unique to counterinsurgency or the currentsituation in Afghanistan.

Only one week into this operation, and despitesignificant precautions taken, at least 17 Afghan civilians have been killed.Tens of thousands have been displaced. The devastation from this campaign andfrom the previous years of isolation, conflict, and neglect will make itdifficult for these communities to ever find any sense of normalcy in theirlifetimes. Where force protection and population protection will truly meet iswhen civilian and military officials jointly figure out how to meet these basichumanitarian needs, and stabilize these communities when the fighting hasstopped. If not, troops will be right back in Helmandfor the 2011 spring offensive. It is this reality that makes bloody battlecries for more airstrikes so dangerously off base: ignoring civilianprotection in Helmand won’t make troops anysafer. It just means they’ll be back risking their lives again next year –just as they have for the last few years.

Erica Gastonis a human rights lawyer for the Open Society Institute, specializing incivilian casualty issues. She is based in Kabul.

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