By Sarah Holewinski, Executive Director of CIVIC
Conclusions from the US investigation into the May 4th airstrikes in Afghanistan are leaking out. It appears that US personnel made mistakes–resulting in civilian deaths–by not sticking to their own stringent guidelines on the use of force. After eight years in Afghanistan, American forces finally have good rules in place to minimize civilian deaths, but didn’t stick to them when they counted the most, in the heat of battle.
So why are US officials still blaming the Taliban? Lt. Commander Christine Sidenstricker said in Kabul today, “The fact remains that civilians were killed because the Taliban deliberately caused it to happen. They forced civilians to remain in places they were attacking from.”
Let’s break this down to the nuts and bolts: Taliban tactics are egregious. They put civilians in harm’s way. They are violating international laws and everyone knows it. This makes the US military’s job a whole lot harder.
But regardless of what the other side does in war, the US military has responsibilities to avoid civilians and obey its targeting restrictions.
If you want to talk strategy instead of international law, avoiding civilian deaths is smart. Everyone knows that too. That’s why the US military put in place rigorous rules of engagement that ushered in several months of far fewer airstrike casualties. In Farah Province on May 4th, those rules could have saved lives. In one case, a plane given the OK to attack the Taliban didn’t confirm its target before dropping bombs. That might have given the Taliban time to flee and civilians time to enter the target zone. In another, buildings housing militants were struck, but the “imminent threat” required to green light for bombing wasn’t there.
The new US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, told the Senate this week: “In addition to the tragic loss of life, I am acutely aware of the negative repercussions resulting from civilian casualties.” He’s got it right: civilian deaths breed anger. But so do immediate denials of civilian harm in incidents like Farah. US Commanders need to understand this quickly. President Obama and Secretary Clinton appropriately expressed their regret for the Afghans burying their dead, but other US officials accused villagers and the Afghan Government of exaggerating the numbers killed.
And now to continue to downplay the US role even after the results of this investigation are made public, they’re literally adding insult to injury.