Winning hearts and minds

Our view: Civilian deaths underscore the risks of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan

February 16, 2010

There was never much doubt that U.S. and Afghan forces deployed in sufficient numbers could retake the Taliban stronghold of Marja in southern Helmand province and, at least temporarily, prevent the enemy's return to the area. The question was always at what cost.

With the deaths of up to a dozen civilians from a stray rocket fired by American forces during the fighting that began there over the weekend, and several more killed in an air raid Monday when they were mistakenly thought to be planting a bomb, answers are beginning to emerge that suggest the difficulty of the task the U.S. is facing in this first test of President Barack Obama's new Afghan strategy.

So far the Taliban have put up only sporadic, albeit intense, resistance to the U.S.-led offensive, preferring to melt back into the populace rather than stand and fight when confronted with overwhelming force.

But winning small-scale skirmishes and forcing the enemy to retreat won't bring the larger victory President Obama seeks unless Afghan President Hamid Karzai uses the opportunity to clean up his corrupt government and provide the long-term security needed to win the loyalty of his people. All the battlefield successes in the world won't mean much if our efforts to dislodge the Taliban wind up alienating the civilian population.

General Stanley McChrystal's plan for this offensive recognizes those facts and is predicated on the notion that fighting a different kind of battle, including much greater involvement from Afghan security forces, can help dry up support for the insurgency and lead to a stable peace. He's called for limiting the use of airstrikes in favor of ground operations that are less likely to cause civilian casualties. Tribal leaders in the region were consulted before the operation began, and reports from the battlefield indicate that the allied forces have changed their tactics in an attempt to achieve their primary mission of protecting the civilian population.

But as the wayward rocket attack and air raid show, that's easier said than done. Fortunately, there have been few reported casualties among the allied troops, but the more restrictions are placed on how they may conduct the offensive - General McChrystal, for example, issued a suspension of the use of the rocket system that led to the civilian deaths - the more risks our troops may face and the more difficult they may find the military operation.

At bottom, the war in Afghanistan is as much, in the Vietnam-era phrase, a struggle to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people as it is a military operation to defeat an insurgency.

And like Vietnam, the ultimate success of the Marja offensive is not in our hands. It will depend on the ability of the Karzai government in Kabul to win the backing of people who, either out of sympathy for their cause or out of fear of retribution, have up to now at least tacitly supported the enemy.

Winning them over cannot be achieved with guns alone. Instead, they will have to be shown that the corruption and ineffectiveness that have hindered the Afghan central government's ability to establish order have been eliminated and that their country's leaders are both willing and able to provide the opportunity for a better life. The Obama administration's goal to put "more of an Afghan face" on the war against the Taliban, as national security adviser James L. Jones said Sunday on CNN, won't make much difference if that Afghan face isn't one that the people trust.

Readers respond
America can never win another war with the politically correct rules of engagement we must follow.

If fighting means every time a civilian is killed in a war zone we hold hearings and face complaints from the world, we may as well give up.

Why do we never hear the same voices when Islamists walk into a mosque with explosives belts and kill other Muslim civilians? The Taliban and al-Qaeda are TARGETING civilians, and the sappy voices are never heard. But if America accidentally kills a civilian, the world cries about it.

The rules of engagement we face are going to kill more military personnel than the enemy will.

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