Mass-Casualty Attacks in the Afghan War
Questions swirl around the US-led counterinsurgency effort and the series of tactical directives and other orders designed to protect civilians. The Joint Civilian Casualty Study, written to shine a spotlight on civilian protection issues, has at least started the Pentagon thinking along these lines. Sarah Sewall, one of the authors, said in an interview: “It’s safe to say that the JCCS was the basis for a number of changes that the army has made to its doctrine and training.”
Once the military starts down that path, she says, it tends to put more and more effort into it. “One of the things about the military is, once they set about trying to do X, then they are constantly trying to do X better. And once they’ve decided to understand the civilian security piece as part of their assessment method, that became something that improved.”
But Sewall raises the $64,000 question: As the Afghan War winds down and the military inevitably shifts its war-fighting strategy away from counterinsurgency, is the Pentagon going to remember the lessons learned in Afghanistan? As she puts it, “I think the right question to be asking from the outside is, [given] the current focus on the return to full-spectrum combat operations and the real desire on the part of everybody to put these long, extended counterinsurgencies behind them, whether that might accidentally mean that people [won’t be] paying enough attention in future engagements to these issues, because they mistakenly think that they’re COIN-specific, as opposed to having broad applicability to the use of violence.”
Part of the problem is that, as the Joint Civilian Casualty Study says, “No organization or person within DOD [Department of Defense] is responsible for assessing the issue comprehensively.” Despite its importance, it’s just not a priority for the bureaucracy.
Joseph Felter, a retired colonel who served as a senior aide to both McChrystal and Petraeus, says that all the directives issued between 2007 and 2011 left “some gray area,” adding, “Life doesn’t lend itself to black-and-white: ‘Here’s a checklist. I can shoot back; OK, I can’t.’ There are a lot of subjective assessments that have to be made by a 20-year-old squad leader under fire.” Felter, who co-authored a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research on how civilian casualties make an insurgency worse [see Dreyfuss, “Creating Insurgents,” ADD LINK], points out that there was “some variance in how commanders would interpret directives from Command ISAF. I was disappointed in what I saw. You’d see the candid-comments reports: ‘Hey, we’re getting our hands tied’ or ‘Our people are put under great risk now.’” He stresses that, whatever the directives say, it’s up to the commanders all the way down the line to make it clear to the privates in the field what the policy is. Felter added:
At the private level, this is a leadership issue. If your platoon leader or company commander or battalion commander isn’t educating their subordinates fully on COMISAF’s intent, there’s a leadership breakdown further down the chain. But 19-year-olds will be 19-year-olds, and I can empathize with them too. They see a very narrow view of the battlefield, and they’re the ones on the pointy end of the spear, that see the extreme downside. It’s their friends who are getting killed, up close and personal, and to think strategically is sometimes a bigger challenge for a private, but I can absolutely say that reducing CIVCAS was the only way to make progress.
According to the JCCS, the first tactical directive regarding civilian casualties in Afghanistan was issued in 2007 by Gen. Dan McNeill, the ISAF commander at the time, before the three mass-casualty incidents described above and before the counterinsurgency doctrine took hold in Afghanistan. Still, that directive said, “Whenever our actions in battle cause injury or death to civilians or property damage or destruction, we diminish our effectiveness.” The JCCS added:
The 2007 Tactical Directive focused on three areas: raids, pre-assault or preparatory fires, and air-to-ground or indirect fires. Regarding raids, forces were to be instructed to not go into homes uninvited and to use soft-knock techniques when possible. Exceptions were to be reported to ISAF headquarters detailing why the exception occurred. Also, pre-assault or preparatory fires were to be treated as deliberate targeting operations which required preapproval and formal CDE [collateral damage estimates]. Finally, air-to-ground or indirect fires were to be used only when forces were taking fire from the compound or there was an imminent threat from the compound, and when there were no other options available to the ground force commander to protect the force and accomplish the mission. The Tactical Directive specifically called for use of small arms instead of air-to-ground or indirect fire when tactically feasible.
In 2008, after the Azizabad incident, another tactical directive was issued by General McKiernan. Says the JCCS:
The content of this Tactical Directive was similar to the 2007 Directive, focusing on raids, use of air-to-ground and indirect fire, escalation of force, and being first with the truth. The section on raids was similar to the 2007 Directive with the addition of a section on religious and sensitive sites and the need for respectful behavior towards Afghans. The section on air-to-ground and indirect fire was similar but the new Directive called for forces to use these fires only when there was no other option to protect the force, removing the option to use that type of force in order to accomplish the mission. The Tactical Directive emphasized the need to reduce civilian casualties during escalation of force procedures although it did not change those procedures. Finally, the Directive called for acknowledgement of civilian casualties or property damage at all levels, from community level to national level.
In July 2009, after the Farah incident, another tactical directive by General McChrystal, issued soon after he arrived in Afghanistan, sought to renew ISAF’s focus on civilian casualties. In particular, as the JCCS notes, McChrystal emphasized the restriction on bombing Afghan buildings and compounds where civilians might be present.
The JCCS outlines a series of other, later directives and guidances dealing with warning shots, road encounters while driving, night raids and so on. But it also points out that “the evolution of written directives, FRAGOs and other documents relating to the use of force suggests that guidance has essentially ‘chased’ lessons from specific CIVCAS incidents, often following the occurrence of events with large numbers of casualties and/or with high media visibility.”
Still, lessons were learned. As a platoon sergeant quoted in the Joint Civilian Casualty Study says, “You need to determine if the greater good is to engage [i.e., fire] or if the greater good is not to engage.” Those are wise words, and ones that could be used not just for a single encounter in the field, but for the entire long war in Afghanistan.
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