There are two factors at play here.
"You don't fight a terrorist by firing a field gun 37 kilometres (24 miles) away into a target. That's definitely, surely bound to cause civilian casualties."
First is force protection on the part of NATO and US troops. If the enemy is hiding in a “compound” or house (why don't they just say 'house'?), the options are (1) assaulting the house with infantry, or (2) dropping artillery or aerial bombs on it, or (3) breaking contact or skipping the fight entirely.
Third option, isn’t really valid (every time at least) when the mission is to defeat the Taleban. You eventually have to engage them.
The second option generally causes a great deal of harm to the enemy (and anyone else caught in the wrong place) and destroys the house, with little impact on the friendly forces. Even if the civilians survive, their homes and livelihood maybe destroyed – a possible death sentence in itself in an impoverished country.
The first option, as any soldier who has run a FIBUA exercise can attest, risks casualties on the NATO side. Villages and houses can be extensively booby trapped and prepared by the defending force: every street, alley, building and room needs to be checked, cleared, and held. Add civilians – that you are trying to protect/save/gain support of - to the mix, and your options for using firepower theoretically diminish greatly, but so to do your options for a casuality sensitive military and public.
No junior leader would understandably risk their soldier’s lives when another option is available. No commander would deny their troops use of an available asset that would protect them. And no politician, especially facing a wavering public opinion in the face of increasing military casualties, would refuse to provide the troops with the tools to minimise their casualties. Further to this, if you have a limited number of people at your disposal, there is a limited amount you can do with them – there are indications that this really is a problem for NATO. So, “force-multiplier” options like air-strikes become very appealing:
Even as the foreign troops have successfully defeated groups of Taliban in battle, the number of battlefields is growing as the conflict intensifies and spreads. Some observers say the foreign soldiers have resorted to air power when they lacked sufficient troops on the ground.I have no doubt that by and large, NATO tries to avoid civilian deaths; however, they cannot be helped. As long military firepower is used in areas where civilians live, civilians will die. This is a given, and in a mission like Afghanistan, it is self-defeating. Corrupt statements like this do not help:
“We are concerned about reports that some civilians may have lost their lives during this attack,” NATO spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Mike Smith said in a statement. “However, it must be noted that it was the insurgents who initiated this attack, and in choosing to conduct such attacks in this location and at this time, the risk to civilians was probably deliberate.”
Mr. Smith misleads us because he skips the thing the matters. The only thing that matters is how the Afghan population sees NATO’s actions. He can blame the Taleban for being where they are all he likes, but it is us that have the option of engaging or not. It was a NATO soldier who called in the fire-mission, it was NATO that authorised that level of force. It was our civilian leaders that decided the Taleban had to be militarily defeated in order to ‘win’ in Afghanistan. The Afghan civilians are objectively neutral. NATO, as much as the Taleban, is a belligerent force and dead innocents are objectively the fault of both parties who elect to fight it out where they live; however, when the occupier’s munitions kills the locals, the locals will pick a side. When NATO finds itself at war with civilians that voluntarily harbour and/or support the enemy, it has lost - is this underway now, I wonder?
Simply, if success in Afghanistan is fundamentally contingent on gaining support from the majority Afghans, NATO defeats itself every time it kills civilians. If it cannot avoid killing civilians, regardless the excuse (and an excuse is exactly what LCol. Smith gave us – odd because excuse making is not something the military usually tolerates), it cannot win. As long as the Taleban sits in villages and NATO attacks those villages, civilians will die. Self-defeating.
Which brings me to my brief second factor.
The Northern Alliance/US spawned current Karzai government and the Western military are fighting the Taleban. The Taleban are largely Afghan. As long as there is support amongst the Afghan population for the Taleban, the country is at war with, and divided against itself. A peaceful and successful Afghanistan is not possible as long as this situation remains. Fighting the Taleban is self-defeating. Training an Afghan army to fight Afghans does not build unity and is self-defeating. Development is a function of peace, and attempting to implement a coherent development plan whilst encouraging a [civil] war is paradoxical. The three block war strategy is dysfunctional.
So where does this leave us? In order to stop killing Afghan civilians, one of the major belligerents in the conflict needs to stop fighting. When one of the belligerents is Afghan, and one is a foreign invader from the other side of the planet, guess which one needs to stop? After that, a peace must be pursued between all remaining sides (is this possible? I have another post in mind for that question). Until that point, the bloodshed will continue – and the people we are claiming to help, will bear the highest cost.