Killing Them Softly

It ran in the Los Angeles Times, so it’s official: the key to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s success in the Bananastans will be a “civilian surge.” The thinking apparently goes that if McChrystal stops killing as many Afghans as he used to when he was head of the secret Joint Special Operations Command, they’ll flock to his arms in gratitude.

It’s clear that no one in the national security establishment is serious about “winning” in the Bananastans, but they’re certainly serious about their war propaganda. In the old days, four-star generals like David Petraeus had personal public affairs colonels. McChrystal is so important he’s snagged himself a public affairs admiral: Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith. Like all military reporting now, the LAT piece, titled “U.S. to limit air strikes in Afghanistan to help reduce civilian deaths,” is a poorly camouflaged piece of stenography, and it’s clear that Smith did the dictating.

Smith told the LAT that the civilian surge strategy will be outlined in a “tactical directive” that will order “new operational standards.” McChrystal, Smith says, will limit the use of air strikes in order to “help cut down” on civilian casualties. This new direction came about as a result of the “listening tour” of Afghanistan that McChrystal took upon his arrival. “Listening tour” is a euphemism for the rounds a new boss makes to ensure everyone knows he doesn’t give a flying tackle what they think.

The LAT (i.e., Smith) reports that part of McChrystal’s plan to improve relationships with Afghans involves efforts to “speed up and sharpen the military’s message in so-called information operations.” The real crux of his plan, however, involves information operations aimed at the American public.

The air strike mantra is covering smoke. According to a UN report, air strikes accounted for 64 percent of civilians killed by U.S. or Afghan forces in Afghanistan last year. Those civilians could just as easily have been killed by artillery or other heavy ground-based weapons. Supporting fires are supporting fires, whether they come from land, sea, or sky. A 19-year-old private can kill just as many civilians with a grenade launcher as the 42-year-old pilot of an F/A-18 Hornet can.

What’s more, a “staff member” told the LAT that “the directive does not mean that use of air power will be sharply reduced – only that the emphasis is on protecting civilians rather than killing insurgents.” If the emphasis is on protecting civilians, why not stop air strikes altogether? In my 20 years as an air operations planner, I never once designed a strike for the primary purpose of saving lives. In fact, why not halt air and ground-based offensive actions completely? As best we can tell, we’ve killed about as many civilians as the Taliban have. Shoot, we can cut civilian deaths in half just by packing up and climbing on a plane for home.

McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan, issued orders last year that required commanders to “minimize the need to resort to deadly force.” How is this new directive on protecting civilians any different from the old orders on protecting civilians? According to the LAT/Smith/unnamed Smith underling, “McChrystal’s directive appears to be more emphatic and specific.”


But the new directive emphatically and specifically does not expect commanders to let their troops become sitting ducks. The LAT says that Smith says that McChrystal “made it very clear that if our troops find themselves in a situation where they are receiving fire from a location, if their lives are in danger, they’ll have to address the problem as best they can, either with ground forces or close air support.”

They’ll “address the problem” by blowing the location in question to smithereens. They have no other choice. Nothing in any superior’s orders overrides a commander’s authority and obligation to use all necessary means available [.pdf] to defend his unit, and no unit commander worth the market value of his precious bodily fluids is going to let a single troop in his charge be harmed in a firefight as the result of a pulled punch.

The LAT also says that Smith says that McChrystal says, “If it’s a situation where clearly [hostile] individuals are in a structure or move into a structure … where you do not know precisely whether or not civilians are … in those structures and you can move away safely, you should do so.”

Again, why bother going after “hostile” individuals at all if you’re going to withdraw the second you think there may be civilians in the vicinity? In the Bananastans, civilians will almost always be in the vicinity. McChrystal’s notion of separating the civilian population from the Taliban is the kind of lunacy you’d expect from a guy who only sleeps three hours a night. What he’s talking about is the precise equivalent of wading into Miami to separate Hispanics from Latinos.

Well, not the precise equivalent: in the Miami scenario, we would have a fair number of reliable Spanish speakers to provide us with good intelligence. We’ll never develop good intelligence in the Bananastans. Ever.

All the “change” hoopla attending Stan McChrystal’s arrival in Afghanistan is cynical hogwash, designed to sucker the American public into turning yet another corner, and sitting patiently through another Friedman unit, and listening to Thomas E. Ricks tell David Gregory or some other bobble-head that sure, what we’re doing is immoral, but it would be even more immoral not to do the immoral thing we’re doing.

The most immoral part of this travesty is that our military chain of command, right up to the commander in chief, continues to put our troops in a deplorable situation – to kill innocents or be killed themselves – for reasons that have nothing to do with national security whatsoever.

Author: Jeff Huber

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (retired), was a naval flight officer who commanded an aircraft squadron and was operations officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the carrier that fought the Kosovo War. Jeff earned a master of arts degree in post-modern imperialism at the U.S. Naval War College. His weekly satires on U.S. foreign policy high jinks are archived at his blog, Pen and Sword. Jeff's critically applauded novel Bathtub Admirals, a lampoon of America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now. Jeff lives with dogs in a house by the beach on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and in the summer he has a nice tan.