A key part of General Petraeus’ counterinsurgency plan in Afghanistan is to secure the Afghan populace. In his recently issued guidance Petreaus says, "Only by providing them (Afghans) security and earning their trust and confidence can the Afghan government and ISAF prevail." In order to accomplish this task, American soldiers should, "Live among the people… Position joint bases and combat outposts as close to those we’re seeking to secure as is feasible."
Ostensibly, this tactic builds support for the host nation government. FM 3-24, [.pdf, page 5-20] the Army’s field manual on Counterinsurgency, written in part by General Petreaus, states, "Progress in building support for the HN [host nation] government requires protecting the local populace. People who do not believe they are secure from insurgent intimidation, coercion and reprisals will not risk overtly supporting COIN efforts."
In my previous column, I questioned the assumption that Afghan popular support was necessary for the sustainment of the insurgency. This column will attempt to answer three questions regarding the American efforts to protect the Afghan populace. First, can the United States adequately protect the population? Second, do population protection efforts facilitate the connecting of the Afghan government to its population? Finally, does it make sense for Americans to go to such great lengths protecting Afghan civilians?
The latest civilian casualty numbers call into question the ability of the United States to protect Afghan civilians. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), "A rise in insurgent attacks has led to a 31 per cent increase in the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan in the first six months of 2010 compared with the same period in 2009…" The same report explained that deaths due to "pro-government forces" (PGF) had dropped by 30%, mostly because PGFs reduced their aerial attacks by 64%.
In General McChrystal’s COIN guidance, released on August 25, 2009, he stated, "We will help the Afghan people win by securing them, by protecting them from intimidation, violence, and abuse, and by operating in a way that respects their culture and religion." One year after that guidance was issued, Afghan civilians are dying at a faster rate than they were prior to the guidance being issued. If more civilians die after NATO troops were specifically ordered to protect them, maybe the population would be better off without NATO protection.
This is not an argument in favor of not protecting Afghan civilians, it is simply pointing out that more of them are dying since the United States made protecting civilians a priority in Afghanistan. Given the experience of the past year, why should any Afghan believe that NATO can protect them?
But even if one were to put that question aside, what about the fundamentally corrupt and illegitimate regime in Kabul? Even prior to the 2009 Afghan election, some experts were questioning the fairness of the upcoming vote. Events proved those doubts remarkably prescient, as Hamid Karzai’s reelection was widely considered fraudulent. Karzai, the "Mayor of Kabul," has done little in the intervening year to regain any sense of legitimacy. He reigns over the second most corrupt country in the world and when Afghans are asked who the most trusted person in the country is, Karzai barely beats "no one." So even if the United States could adequately protect the population, it can’t foster support for the Afghan government because the Afghan government is considered illegitimate by almost all Afghans.
Protecting the population requires that U.S./NATO soldiers take on more risk. Because of the aversion to civilian casualties, the United States operates without some of its technological advantages like airpower and artillery. Soldiers are expected to live amongst the people, patrol in small units, and limit the amount of firepower used when engaged with the enemy. All of this increases the risk to average American soldiers. In fact, much of General McChrystal’s August 2009 guidance sounds like armed social work: "Be an expert on the local situation…Use local economic initiative to increase employment and give young men alternatives to insurgency."
Soldiers recognized the increased risk and openly complained about it to General McChrystal in a scene captured in Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone that led to McChrystal’s firing. Front line soldiers felt handcuffed because potential insurgents were going free because they weren’t carrying a gun or because the soldiers lacked evidence to hold them.
The acceptance of increased risk to American soldiers seems to make some sense — protect the people, connect them to the government, and build local economies using US money and effort and the insurgency goes away — until one backs away and looks at the whole picture. The US military can’t adequately protect the population, the Karzai-led Afghan government is illegitimate, and the insurgency continues to rage. It makes little sense to ask U.S. soldiers to die for such a fool’s errand.