Bowing to a growing concern that civilian casualties are too high, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, issued a directive to change the rules of engagement for coalition troops. The new guidelines consist of permitting air strikes in populated areas only under limited circumstances and insisting that all searches by coalition forces in civilian compounds be accompanied by Afghan troops.
According to Gen. McChrystal, coalition forces will thereby win hearts and minds. As troops provide security for civilians, they will garner the allegiance of the Afghan population, who will then support the Western project and reject the insurgency. He regards this as part of a “cultural shift” he hopes to spearhead within the military.
He said upon issuing the directive that “we can defeat ourselves” in the current campaign on terror by alienating the population that U.S.-led forces are attempting to rescue.
“We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories but suffering strategic defeats, by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people,” said Gen. McChrystal.
In late June, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed similar alarm at the rising number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan: He pointed out that there were 800 civilian casualties between January and May 2009. He also said that more than 55 percent of all deaths reported in Afghanistan are due to insurgent activity and about 30 percent of all deaths are attributed to international and Afghan forces. He praised efforts to revise the rules of engagement used by American and NATO troops.
Yet many military observers, veterans, active-duty servicemen and bloggers say, in essence, that winning hearts and minds is for poets, novelists and lovers — not soldiers. Moreover, they maintain that the new rules of engagement are not likely to reduce civilian casualties.
There is a widespread consensus among military bloggers that this idea is “nutty” and even “suicidal” for coalition forces. According to a veteran former ground commander in Afghanistan, Capt. Michael T. Waldrop, restricting the ability to call for air strikes increases the risk to the lives of soldiers on the battlefield.
“I carry experiences that prove that without air support, my men would have sustained many more casualties and deaths on the battlefield than we did,” he wrote in Florida’s Orlando Sentinel on July 9.
In his view, tightening rules of engagement only makes it harder to pursue the enemy. “As a result, enemies were freed because of higher commands that had no idea what the situation was on the battlefield,” Capt. Waldrop said.
Recent reports from Helmand province, a key focus of the U.S.-led surge, suggest it will be difficult for Afghan troops to be present in all searches of civilian compounds. This is because there are only 650 Afghan troops in the province, which is nearly as large as West Virginia.
An examination of Iraqi civilian casualty rates provides additional perspective. According to Iraq Body Count, a Web site that estimates civilian casualties, approximately 92,133 to 100,591 Iraqi civilians died since the war began in 2003. Yet the figures also reveal that the number of civilian casualties declined dramatically with the escalation of force in the U.S. surge.
There were approximately 8,315 deaths in 2008 as compared to 25,774 in 2006. Thus, some members of the military community insist that the best way to reduce civilian deaths is to speedily defeat the primary killers: the insurgents.
Historically, this reflects conventional wisdom in the armed forces. In World War I, for example, as the Entente powers grew weary of the war on the Western front, a young Winston Churchill conceived of an alternate plan of attack to win the war and end the bloodshed. As first lord of the Admiralty, he encouraged the British to overcome the deadlock on the Western front — which was resulting in massive loss of lives among British and French troops without tangible military gains — by trying to open another front in the Gallipoli peninsula within the former Ottoman Empire, present-day Turkey. Yet the amphibious operation Churchill mounted in 1915-1916 proved to be among the worst episodes in the war and in Churchill’s career. The Dardanelles campaign resulted in more than 500,000 casualties, and a second front was not opened. In disgrace and humiliation, he admitted defeat and resigned from the Cabinet. The episode badly tarnished his reputation.
In his memoirs on World War I, titled “The World Crisis,” Churchill told a war-weary public why the Gallipoli campaign had really failed: half-measures. He argued that insufficient resources had been allotted to achieve the desired results. He said he learned that, in war, the worst possible approach is that of half-measures. This, Churchill argues, leads to protracted, inefficient campaigns that lead to a greater loss of life - both among civilians and soldiers - than if a war is prosecuted with the fullest possible vigor, intensity and the greatest resources a state can invest.
In other words, according to Churchill, a successful military operation is really quite simple: A clear, tangible objective is pursued with maximum force.
• Grace Vuoto is the editor of Base News, a citizen journalism project of The Washington Times for America’s military community.