This is a difficult but absolutely necessary change of policy in Afghanistan:
From the AP:
KABUL — The U.S. commander in Afghanistan will soon order U.S. and NATO forces to break away from fights with militants hiding among villagers, an official said Monday, announcing one of the strongest measures yet to protect Afghan civilians.
The most contentious civilian casualty cases in recent years occurred during battles in Afghan villages when U.S. airstrikes aimed at militants also killed civilians. American commanders say such deaths hurt their mission because they turn average Afghans against the government and international forces.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has pressed U.S. forces for years to reduce civilian casualties, but his pleas have done little to stem the problem. The U.N. says U.S., NATO and Afghan forces killed 829 civilians in the Afghan war last year.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who took command of international forces in Afghanistan this month, has said his measure of effectiveness will be the “number of Afghans shielded from violence” — not the number of militants killed.
McChrystal will issue orders within days saying troops may attack insurgents hiding in Afghan houses if U.S. or NATO forces are in imminent danger, said U.S. military spokesman Rear Adm. Greg Smith.
“But if there is a compound they’re taking fire from and they can remove themselves from the area safely, without any undue danger to the forces, then that’s the option they should take,” Smith said. “Because in these compounds we know there are often civilians kept captive by the Taliban.”
It is difficult for any military commander to break off a fight that he has the capability to win, particularly if it means letting enemy fighters escape. And in the short term, the policy embraced by McChrystal does have the potential to cost American lives, just as its critics allege. Enemy fighters who escape because we did not employ our full firepower will be there to attack us another day, and that can be tough to swallow. For an American captain who just saw two of his people die, it can almost be unthinkable.
Yet it has to be done. Through some hard years in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military leaders have been reminded that the goal of warfare is not to kill the enemy. The ultimate goal of warfare is to win.
And in irregular wars such as Afghanistan, winning requires that you bring the people to your side and keep them there. Gen. David Petraeus and other top American leaders argue convincingly that the most important step toward winning the loyalty and support of the local population is to secure their safety. All other concerns dim in comparison. McChrystal, a soldier’s soldier who led the effort to hunt down and kill of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, understands it as well.
It is true that the Taliban and al Qaida kill more local people — often on purpose — than we Americans do by accident. It doesn’t matter. The Taliban are what they are; nobody is fooled into thinking they are anything less than brutes, and that is particularly true of the Afghanis, who have long experience with Taliban cruelty.
But we claim to be different. We claim to be protectors. That role inherently sets a higher standard for our behavior. The fact that we are outsiders further complicates the matter. The death of an innocent Afghani at the hands of another Afghani is viewed differently than the death of an Afghani at American hands.
If we have to take more U.S. casualties in order to save the lives of Afghan civilians, we have to be willing to do so, because that’s only way to win a difficult war in which victory is still a long way off. If we aren’t willing to make that tradeoff, we ought to bring our people home.