Saturday, November 08, 2008

US says Taliban endangers civilians

The US military has accused Taliban insurgents of endangering civilians by operating in populated areas where airstrikes lack precision targeting. The official statement came after a wedding party was bombed in Afghanistan on Thursday.

The US account -- in this case, that the Taliban prevented civilians from escape -- deserves scrutiny for several reasons. The first is the fact that the military offered no argument or evidence to support it, and was short on details generally. This is not unusual in and of itself; but, then, neither is the time-honored practice of "making shit up" to deflect responsibility to an enemy in the event of war crimes -- like when you bomb villages in order to "get your man." It's worth noting that the US has done a lot of this lately, killing scores of civilians, though rarely offering commentary except in high-profile cases like the above; or in response to cumulative popular outrage among Afghanis via the Karzai government.

The second is the disparate accounts coming out of Afghanistan from civilian witnesses and others, who have not ascribed to the Taliban a definitive role in the casualties. The bomb crater, on the other hand, is relatively straightforward as material evidence; it is not a mystery to the victims where it came from.

As a general observation, it is the nature of guerrilla warfare that insurgents "immerse" themselves in civilian populations. This is well understood by anyone in the US command. To the extent that the US military attacks the Taliban with bombs, they are communicating either an inability or an unwillingness to pursue the Taliban in ways which would minimize civilian casualties: in other words, bombs aren't the way to go if people matter. (Personally, I would extrapolate the argument to say that war is not the way to go if innocent people matter, especially when other options exist. And that is because whatever it is that war may not accomplish -- quite a lot, normally -- it will readily make up for in widespread suffering among non-combatants.) Clearly, the military has a mission to pursue al-Qaeda and the Taliban; it's also become apparent that they have few ways to do this outside of air power at the present time. Presumably this is why president-elect Obama favors redeploying ground troops to Afghanistan: but this will only reduce civilian casualties at best.

A better option would be to abandon a military approach to Afghanistan altogether. It is not a region with a history of submitting to foreign power; it is better to draw the Taliban into some kind of political compromise rather than postpone that inevitability in a vain attempt to defeat them militarily. A military victory is unlikely, and what will be produced in the meantime is more civilian deaths and a heightened hatred of America.

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