The U.S.-led NATO campaign in Afghanistan has been under withering fire in the media since September 4. On that day, an American fighter jet was called in by a German officer to destroy two hijacked, fuel-filled tanker trucks. The tankers had been taken to a Taliban stronghold in Kunduz, and the German commander believed the tankers would be converted into truck bombs. The air strike killed between 90 and 100 people as the tankers exploded.
Most of the dead were Taliban terrorists. Investigators serving Afghan President Hamid Karzai told Aljazeera that 69 Taliban had been killed. But some of the casualties were civilians being paid off with part of the fuel. The Taliban had invited the hapless villagers to come into their camp. They learned the hard way that being around insurgents can be dangerous. Had the Taliban used the trucks, with their explosive contents, as weapons (as has been done before), civilian casualties likely would have been higher.
The Taliban target civilians intentionally. The two civilian drivers of the tankers were beheaded when the trucks were hijacked. On September 11, a roadside bomb in Oruzgan province killed 14 civilians in a minivan, including four women and three children.
By contrast, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, NATO commander in Afghanistan, has made protection of Afghan civilians the primary objective. This properly means protection from insurgent attacks. He also has questioned the over-reliance on airstrikes, even though NATO goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid collateral damage. Still, some civilian casualties are inevitable in wartime.
That is a hard reality that opponents of the military campaign in Afghanistan have refused to consider. In Germany, for instance, left-wing parties that have always opposed the Afghan war are citing civilian casualties as a reason for Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel to either pledge to withdraw German forces or be defeated at the polls later this month. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the Social Democrats wants Germany out of Afghanistan by 2015; the expanding Left Party has demanded a withdrawal by next year, or 2011 at the very latest. EU and French officials have also criticized German forces for the Kunduz strike.
The Kunduz incident aside, NATO is in trouble in Afghanistan. The war effort has been carried mainly by the U.S., UK, Australia, and Canada rather than Europe at large. As American and British troops took the offensive in the south during the summer, the Taliban shifted operations towards the northeast, a quiet sector where less active NATO members were stationed. It has been alleged that the Germans called in an airstrike because they did not want to engage the Taliban in a ground battle. Of course, fighting in a Taliban-held village would also have put civilians at risk, and the Taliban might well have used the truck bombs against the advancing German troops.
In the U.S. the war has had bipartisan support because it was from Afghanistan that the attacks on 9/11 were launched. But after eight years of fighting, public support is beginning to wane. American ground forces are still spread thin despite the end of the successful “surge” in Iraq, and there is little chance of expanded troop deployments by NATO countries. Estimates that it may take another decade to stabilize the country raises real doubts of whether Western military commitments can be maintained that long.
American strategists have had a difficult time overcoming the short-term expedient of using the highly proficient Anglo-Saxon forces to combat the enemy rather than train local forces for the long-term needs of counterinsurgency and nation building. This has been an odd development given that the Taliban were driven from the country in 2001 by local, Northern Alliance troops supported by U.S. Special Forces. There is another surge of American troops planned in Afghanistan to stabilize the situation, but behind this effort must be an expanded program to recruit local military and police units to carry the war effort in the future.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee April 1, Gen. David Petraeus of Central Command said, “We recognize the fact that international forces must eventually transfer security responsibility to Afghan security forces. To do this we must significantly expand the size and capacity of the Afghan forces so they are more able to meet their country’s security needs.” In support of this strategy, NATO has announced that it will expand the Afghan army from 80,000 to 134,000 by November 2011. This is still a very modest effort so late in the war. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for the pace of training to double, so the Afghan troop goal can be reached next year.
Brown, drawing on two centuries of British military experience in Afghanistan, is right. This region has always been unstable and needs strong local forces that understand the area and its people to keep violence contained at a level that does not threaten international security. The British Empire accomplished this goal across Southwest Asia by relying on well-trained “native” forces integrated with a small core of their own troops.
This should become the NATO model. American critics like George Will have called for an “offshore” strategy based on “drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units.” NATO forces would then withdraw without reference to who would take over the counterinsurgency campaign.
Increased reliance on airstrikes would invite more Kunduz-type incidents. The “offshore” strategy would abandon counterinsurgency in favor of the harassment attacks now being made in the Pakistan badlands. Those attacks have not stopped the Taliban. Boots on the ground are needed to contest, hold and organize territory, on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. Some must be NATO boots to provide high-end combat capabilities, but most must be Afghan (and Pakistani) if the fight is to be sustained long term and the Taliban brought to heel.