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Posted by on Apr 1, 2010 in International, Politics, War | 0 comments

Killing Afghan Civilians

Kathy titled her recent post Afghan Civilians Still Being Killed By US Troops in Shockingly High Numbers. She observed,

McChrystal’s ground troops are wantonly killing innocent civilians who, by McChrystal’s own admission are doing nothing to provoke such action.

This charge of “wanton killing” is reckless and irresponsible. Let’s return to the facts.

Kathy based her comments on a NY Times article about the killing of Afghan civlians at American checkpoints. The article reported that 30 Afghan civlians have been killed and 80 wounded at American checkpoints since June 2009. Commenting on this tragic fact, GEN McChrystal stated, “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.”

Kathy’s post excluded some essential context provided by the Times. So did Eric Alterman and Chris Floyd, whose posts Kathy linked to approvingly. Here’s the key graf:

After assuming command last summer, General McChrystal moved to reduce the killing of civilians through directives that, according to United Nations human rights researchers, have led to a 28 percent reduction in such casualties last year by American, NATO and Afghan forces. The biggest impact was reducing deaths from aerial attacks, which fell by more than a third in 2009, the United Nations found.

While Eric writes about “war crimes”, Chris about “routine slaughter” and Kathy about “wanton killing”, none of them bothers to note that GEN McChrystal has followed through on his objective of reducing civilian deaths caused by Coalition forces.

[UPDATE: Matt Yglesias excludes the same information from his post about the NYT story, while criticizing GEN McChyrstal for failing to reduce civilian casualties.]

Some additional context may be useful as well. The UN report cited by the Times provides the following statistics: 2412 civilians were killed in 2009, up 14% from 2008. Insurgents were responsible for 1630 deaths, an increase of 41% from 2008. Coalition and Afghan forces were responsible for 596 deaths, down 28% from 2008.

This context is essential in order to understand the significance of 30 individuals being killed at checkpoints. A single unnecessary death is tragic, but even the most conscientous military operations result in collateral damage. And of course, there is a profound moral difference between accidental killing and the intentional murders perpetrated constantly by the insurgents.

Checkpoint operations are a very troubling aspect of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a result of the insurgents’ reliance on suicide car-bombers, the soldiers who man a checkpoint must constantly ask themselves whether an approaching vehicle has failed to slow down because its driver has violent intentions, or simply because he is in a hurry — perhaps on the way to a hospital.

An appropriate reading of GEN McChrystal’s comment is that Coalition forces have been too eager to assume that approaching drivers have violent intentions. I don’t believe he was accusing Coalition forces of war crimes or of “wanton killing”. This characterization assumes terrible things about the motives of American and NATO forces without giving serious consideration to the difficult situation in which they find themselves.

Also, it is important to address the point raised by Kathy and others about how the killing of civilians undermines our efforts in Afghanistan. In a simple sense, this is true. That is why GEN McChrystal has initiated a significant, ongoing and successful initiative to reduce the number of civilian casualties our forces inflict. It is also essential to remember that if the insurgents are killing almost three times as many civilians as we are — usually on purpose — then most Afghans will understand who is trying to protect them and who to oppress them.

Finally, let me assume the uncharacteristic role of defense counsel for President Obama. Kathy refers to the “deafening” silence from the White House with regard to civilian casualties. I say that the White House is speaking through GEN McChrystal’s actions. President Obama knows we must reduce civilian casualties. GEN McChrystal has acted to implement that wish.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly