Two recent incidents in Afghanistan resulted in the deaths of more than 30 civilians. The first was a U.S. airstrike in support of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in Parwan Province, the second a Taliban suicide attack on a popular restaurant in Kabul. The circumstances surrounding these two incidents were significantly different. The airstrike was reportedly conducted in-extremis to help save the lives of Afghan and U.S. forces trapped by heavy Taliban fire. In contrast, the Taliban attack on the restaurant was designed to kill as many civilians as possible.
In both cases, President Hamid Karzai directed blame at U.S. and coalition forces.
It is always a tragedy when innocent civilians are killed or wounded on the battlefield, no matter how it happens or who is responsible. Although the world may never see a battlefield where civilians are kept completely safe from the fighting, we have a moral obligation to do whatever possible to try to prevent them from becoming casualties.
U.S. and coalition forces, however, go to far greater lengths to prevent civilian casualties than the Afghan government often suggests. Rules of engagement are reviewed and refined regularly for this very purpose. Procedures for delivering ordnance are tightly controlled and closely supervised. Operational planning is done in coordination with Afghan government, military and police officials. In some cases, local civilians are even notified of planned operations in advance. On top of that, U.S. and coalition troops often opt not to return Taliban fire when civilians are nearby, even if it means putting their own lives at risk.
The Taliban approach is nearly the opposite. By far the largest toll on civilians has been caused by the indiscriminate use of their preferred weapon of choice: the improvised explosive device. Deliberate Taliban attacks against targets such as hotels, schools, courthouses and restaurants have also resulted in tremendous loss of civilian life.
What is often overlooked, however, is the Taliban's decision to use civilians as a means of force protection. Instead of moving civilians out of harm's way prior to a battle, the Taliban prefer that they remain close to the fighting. In many cases, U.S. and coalition forces may not realize civilians are even present until it is too late. It was surely not by coincidence that the Taliban chose to fire on ANSF forces from inside a residential area in Parwan, knowing the resulting exchange would endanger civilian lives. Taliban leadership quickly released a statement condemning the killing of civilians, then used the Parwan incident as a convenient excuse to justify the murder of more than 20 other civilians in Kabul.
The Taliban are not the only ones willing to endanger civilian lives to protect their own. Similar tactics have been used by fighters in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. It is not uncommon to see ammunition being stored in elementary schools, rockets set up in playgrounds and anti-aircraft weapons placed atop apartment buildings. Taxis and ambulances have become a popular means of transporting fighters around the battlefield undetected. And groups such as al-Qaida have come to realize that surrounding themselves with innocent civilians offers far more protection than brick and mortar alone.
Taliban fighters know they stand little chance of success without making civilians part of the equation. Although nefarious, these tactics have proven effective and often create a dilemma with few good options. If U.S. and coalition forces choose not to engage the Taliban when civilians are nearby, the Taliban will claim they won a great victory. If U.S. and coalition forces choose to fight, the Taliban will probably lose the tactical engagement but may achieve strategic success if cameras capture women and children being pulled from the same rubble that was previously a sniper position. The challenge U.S. and coalition forces will continue to face is how to deny Taliban forces the ability to operate freely while avoiding actions that could jeopardize the lives of innocent civilians.
President Karzai has been seemingly hesitant to criticize the Taliban on civilian casualties in the past, even though the tactics they employ are exactly what put civilians most at risk. He should remind the Afghan people that it is the Taliban, not U.S. and coalition forces, that intentionally place Afghan civilians in danger and target innocent people dining in restaurants. Directing blame only toward the U.S. merely encourages the Taliban to continue using these deadly tactics and adds credibility to their false claims that U.S. and coalition forces are the true enemies of the Afghan people.
Lt. Col. Craig R. Wonson is a Marine infantry officer with over 20 years of service, including tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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