The headline from the front page of yesterday’s Washington Post reads “Less Peril for Civilians, but More for Troops.” The opening paragraphs summarize the issue:
Concern is rising in Congress and among military families over a sharp increase in U.S. troop deaths in Afghanistan at a time when senior military officials acknowledge that American service members are facing greater risks under a new strategy that emphasizes protecting Afghan civilians.
On July 2, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, issued a directive restricting the military’s use of airstrikes and artillery bombardments. In July and August, the number of Afghan civilians killed by coalition forces was 19, compared with 151 for the same two months last year.
The article goes on to discuss the more restrictive “rules of engagement” (ROEs) imposed by General McChrystal, which are consciously designed to decrease the number of civilian casualties caused by collateral damage. Tragically, there is a cost to be paid for this concern to reduce the harm done to innocent Afghan civilians: America’s warfighters will be put at greater risk because they are required to employ more discriminate force when engaging the enemy.
I’m going to have more to say about all this in due course, but for now it might be worth calling attention to a certain irony in this situation.
It is no secret that the most vocal advocates for General McChrystal’s new counterinsurgency strategy are those often herded together, inexplicably at times, under the label “neoconservative.” Neoconservatives, of course, are variously described as warmongers, imperialists, liberals with teenaged daughters, and a few less complimentary names as well. I suspect that your average blue state liberal, if queried on the matter, would tend to associate the neocons with the “kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out” understanding of the jus in bello principle of discrimination and noncombatant immunity.
But, quite to the contrary, here we find them advocating a policy in which the rules of engagement are considerably more restrictive than they were prior to General McChrystal’s implementation of a counterinsurgency strategy and certainly more restrictive than they would be under the kind of proposed light-footprint counterterrorism, the kill-the-Taliban-from-afar-with-Predator-strikes strategy popularized by George Will and advocated by Vice President Joe Biden. Moreover, it should be noted that the ROE’s are certainly more restrictive than required by either law or morality. This seems to suggest that the advocates of the General McChrystal’s comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy—including the neocons—are considerably more concerned about the lives of innocent Afghan civilians than the advocates of a counterterrorism strategy.
I don’t mean to suggest that Vice President Biden and other advocates of a counterterrorism strategy are imperialist warmongers or anything like that. For now, I just thought I’d call attention to the irony of it all.