On Sunday night, WikiLeaks.org released more than 91,000 classified documents related to the war in Afghanistan. Among the revelations is that the Taliban appears to have used portable heat-seeking missiles (in military parlance, MANPADS or man-portable air-defense systems) to shoot down U.S. helicopters. The bitter irony is that these are likely the very same weapons the U.S. supplied to the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s to use against Soviet helicopters. Can you say, "blowback"? But as my friend and fellow Antiwar.com columnist, Ivan Eland, points out, the leaked documents "didn’t reveal many new shocking truths about the U.S. military quagmire in Afghanistan. The facts on the ground have been well known publicly for some time – that the Taliban adversary is getting stronger and is being actively assisted by a faux ally (Pakistan) to whom the United States is shoveling billions, the Afghan government is corrupt, and the U.S. has killed civilians."
While there may not be any new news, both WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the office of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai have stated that the most significant revelations in these documents concern the scale of civilian casualties. According to data [pdf] compiled by the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNMA), pro-government forces (Afghan National Security Forces and international military forces) were responsible for 230 civilian deaths in 2006, 629 in 2007, 828 in 2008, and 596 in 2009. The good news is that the number of civilian deaths has gone down. Also, it’s important to know that anti-government forces accounted for nearly three times as many civilians killed (compared to 2007 when the ratio was almost 1-to-1 and 2008 when it was 1.4-to-1) – so the percentage of total civilian deaths attributed to pro-government forces is also less. The Afghanistan NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) Safety Office (ANSO) reports that in the first quarter of this year there were 496 civilian fatalities, 118 of which are attributed to international military forces. Both UNMA and ANSO data show [pdf] that airstrikes are largely responsible for civilian deaths caused by pro-government/international military forces.
The bad news is that civilians continue to be killed by U.S. and other friendly forces. Indeed, right on the heels of the leaked documents, Afghan President Hamid Karzai asserted that up to 52 civilians had been killed by NATO rocket fire in southern Afghanistan (of course, NATO has disputed the claim). But isn’t this war? Yes. And it’s not like we’re intentionally targeting or trying to kill innocent civilians, right? Right (it’s not the moral equivalent of terrorists attacking a civilian target like the World Trade Center or insurgents using villagers as human shields). Plus aren’t civilian casualties an inevitable tragic consequence of war? Yes.
If the survival of the United States was at stake, we might not like but nonetheless have to accept those answers. But the conflict in Afghanistan is not a war of U.S. national survival. In other words, it is a war of choice (it may have initially been a war of necessity in the direct aftermath of 9/11, but that is no longer true – indeed, President Obama has made it his war of choice largely so he can’t be accused of being soft on national security as he draws down forces in Iraq). Yet the repercussions of Afghan civilian casualties have a direct effect on our national security. How so? Every civilian killed has a mother, father, brother, or sister. Every one of those or other surviving family members now has a strong reason to hate the United States. As such, that makes them more susceptible to recruitment and becoming terrorists.
According to Harvard Professor Steven Walt, who did a back-of-the-envelope calculation that the United States has killed some 288,000 Muslims over the past 30 years (compared to slightly more than 10,000 Americans killed by Muslims), "When you kill tens of thousands of people in other countries – and sometimes for no good reason – you shouldn’t be surprised when people in those countries are enraged by this behavior and interested in revenge." I’ve written about Walt’s calculation and analysis before so I won’t repeat myself, but civilian deaths matter. Especially when they are unnecessary for U.S. security.
Ultimately, what the WikiLeaks documents reinforce is that it’s long past time to get out of Afghanistan. The recent House vote on war funding indicates that Congress is beginning to lose patience with the war. The most recent request for continued war funding (about $33 billion for Afghanistan out of the total $59 billion) by the White House was passed 308-114 on Tuesday. Significantly, however, 102 Democrats voted "no" (three times more than the 32 who opposed a larger war funding bill in June 2009). And of the 12 Republicans who also voted "no" (which, with the exception of Ron Paul, would have been heresy in the Bush administration), perhaps freshman Representative Jason Chaffetz (Utah) said it best: "If the reason we should stay in Afghanistan is because we are in Afghanistan then it is time to re-evaluate your position."