Protecting Civilians and Protecting Troops in Afghanistan

The following originally appeared on the AfPak Channel, a special project of Foreign Policy and the New America Foundation.

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

Just as progress is being made in reducing the civilian casualties that created such public backlash against international forces in Afghanistan, public commentary has focused on how counterinsurgency-driven restrictions on  airstrikes or other tactics might also be complicating force protection. Reports from embedded journalists have shared troop frustrations at requirements like 72 hour surveillance on a compound before it can be bombed, or not firing on unarmed Afghans, even if they suspect those individuals were insurgents who  simply dropped their weapons moments before. Some opinion pieces and roundtables have worried that the restrictions put international troops at greater risk because they cannot fightback with everything they have.

No one would argue that protecting coalition troops is anything but a top priority. Yet in the vast majority of situations in Afghanistan,it's not an either/or situation. Tactical restrictions that protect civilians go hand in hand with protecting troops. The number one killer of civilians and troops alike continues to be insurgent suicide attacks and roadside bombs, the risk of which the unrestricted use of artillery and airpower can do almost nothing to reduce. What might make a difference is better relations with local Afghan communities, who might be able to warn of such attacks or, if sufficiently supported, prevent insurgents from operating in their areas. The trust and confidence it would take to build those relationships, though, can only be earned by demonstrating that their safety is important and that troops will respect their concerns. Hence the restrictions on tactics that can lead to civilian harm or offense.

In situations where troops are engaged in combat and may be overwhelmed by insurgent attacks (often called "troops in contact" situations), it can be more difficult to balance force protection and civilian protection. The availability of back-up air or artillery support in these situations can be life saving; however, these are also the situations that pose the greatest risk for civilians. In contrast to pre-planned strikes or drone strikes where there is ample time to identify a target, past research suggests that the worst incidents of civilian loss of life tend occur during "troops in contact" situations. In the heat of battle, troops calling in airstrikes often don't know how many civilians might also be lodged inside a compound, or whether a crowd of individuals around a fuel tanker are mostly insurgents 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 protection and civilian protection in these situations, it does not have to be a zero sum game. Not every AK-47 round merits a 500 pound bomb. Rather than ordering strikes on compounds that might house civilians, troops can try ignoring the threat if it seems unlikely to present a serious force risk, retreating to a safe location, or, where necessary, ordering more limited strikes that reducethe risk of harm. Troops in Marjah are trying these and other alternative tactics out right now -- for example, low flyovers and other "scare" tactics rather than outright uses of force. Sure, insurgents will figure out how to take advantage some of these tactics. But tactics and counter-tactics are part of warfare; it's not a challenge unique to counterinsurgency or the current situation in Afghanistan.

Only one week into this operation, and despite significant precautions taken, at least 17 Afghan civilians have been killed. Tens of thousands have been displaced. The devastation from this campaign and from the previous years of isolation, conflict, and neglect will make it difficult for these communities to ever find any sense of normalcy in their lifetimes. Where force protection and population protection will truly meet is when civilian and military officials jointly figure out how to meet these basic humanitarian needs, and stabilize these communities when the fighting has stopped. If not, troops will be right back in Helmand for the 2011 spring offensive. It is this reality that makes bloody battle cries for more airstrikes so dangerously off base: ignoring civilian protection in Helmand won't make troops any safer. It just means they'll be back risking their lives again next year -- just as they have for the last few years.

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