The New York Times has published quite a head-scratcher of an opinion piece today. Its concern is with efforts by Western military leadership in Afghanistan to limit civilian deaths, stating that specific policies to restrict the use of air strikes are based on a well-intentioned but immoral lie. The substance of the piece is hardly more than the usual trope:
- War is messy – “For Afghan civilians who are dying in greater numbers every year, the fact that fewer deaths are caused by pro-government forces is cold comfort.”
- Keep all options on the table – “It is only a matter of time before the Taliban see flares and flyovers for what they are: empty threats.”
- Victory!TM – “Once begun…the goal of even a ‘long war’ should be victory in as short a time as possible, using every advantage you have.”
The real gem, though, is this passage that (one has to assume) was written without malice or contempt:
So in a modern refashioning of the obvious — that war is harmful to civilian populations — the United States military has begun basing doctrine on the premise that dead civilians are harmful to the conduct of war. The trouble is, no past war has ever supplied compelling proof of that claim.
There are already more informed dismissals of this kind of thinking in circulation, but it surely requires a special kind of rationalization to causally separate military “success” from dead civilians. While certain goals can be achieved despite unfathomable “collaterals” and definitions of success can be tweaked to match circumstances, where does one come off calling for the deprioritization of civilian impacts in a conflict that seems to be fundamentally about civilian/military/insurgent/government entanglements?
There are no easy choices left for the coalition presence in Afghanistan, and unwinding what some see as the certain machinations of empire is not only about doing the “right” or “wrong” thing. Nevertheless, a specific commitment to limit casualties, even at increased risk, should hardly be so controversial. It has nothing to do with assuming war can be made “fair and humane” and everything to do with connecting the means of fighting with the purpose of the Western presence in the first place. There’s enough of a disconnect there already without relinquishing the duties of just combatants toward noncombatants.
But what do I know. I sit at a desk and read books.