The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Posts Tagged ‘COIN

The need for accurate civilian casualty figures in Afghanistan

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This piece was originally published on Foreign Policy’s Afpak Channel, titled “NATO’s responsibility to Afghan civilians”.

June was the deadliest month for the NATO-led force in Afghanistan since the start of the conflict. As fighting intensifies and as British troops pull out of Sangin, proponents and detractors are still squabbling over the relative success of the counterinsurgency strategy (COIN), spearheaded under the Obama administration, and the GOP is arguing over whether chairman of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele’s recent ill-advised comments about the war should be a cause for his resignation.

While domestic discussion over whether various countries should remain in Afghanistan gathers steam, a key metric that should be strongly related to the ‘success’ narrative is not getting enough airtime. Much has been made of whether NATO is ‘winning’ the war in Afghanistan or what it really means ‘to win’ such a war in the first place, but civilian casualties have rarely been discussed in any precise context.

According to a UNAMA survey released in January, 2009 was the deadliest year to date for Afghan civilians and a striking amount were killed by increased Taliban activity. But whether it’s the Taliban, suicide attacks, or U.S. forces killing civilians, the pain for the families of those killed is on the rise — and they may not care who is responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. The lack of attention from coalition governments to the details of how many civilians are killed is not encouraging.

According to James Denselow, neither the U.S. Defense Department nor the British Ministry of Defense “maintain records that would enable a definitive number of civilian fatalities to be recorded.” This is in stark contrast to scrupulously maintained numbers of military casualties. Denselow thinks that this is part of the propaganda war and that it’s aimed at maintaining control over the ‘win’ narrative. NATO governments need to take more responsibility for the accurate recording and reporting of information related to civilian casualties, much as they do for military casualties. This should not be left solely to UNAMA.

Military casualties are an understandable cause for concern for those at home, but we must also care about civilian casualties and the increasing humanitarian crisis in the country. While far from a perfect measurement, Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index has rated Afghanistan as 6th in 2010, a position that has deteriorated every year since the Index began in 2005 (when Afghanistan was 11th).

It is notable that under General McChrystal’s rules of engagement, more protection was supposed to be provided for civilians. Equally notable is the news that General Petraeus might change the rules of engagement again due to concerns that they are putting coalition forces in greater danger. The UNAMA survey mentioned above indicates that during 2009, with McChrystal’s changed rules of engagement in place for half the year, the number of civilian casualties killed by coalition forces had indeed decreased, but statistics are not yet available for 2010.

So far the debate over rules of engagement has focused greatly on the balancing act between protecting civilians and endangering coalition forces; however, I struggle to see how this debate can be properly carried out when reliable metrics are not available for half of the balance.

Apart from policy wonks and military types engaged in the debate over rules of engagement, the tax payers who are bankrolling this war need to start thinking independently about what it means to ‘win’ and whether three Australian soldiers killed is so momentous that Afghan civilian casualties pale in comparison. In the war over numbers, we need to stop looking after our people only and look deeper into what the ‘win’ narrative means. While the U.S. and its allies have a lot at stake in this war, the people of Afghanistan have immeasurably more. Whether history judges NATO or the Taliban to be the ‘winners’ in Afghanistan, the Afghan people could end up being the losers.

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Written by alexlobov

July 13, 2010 at 9:46 pm

General McChrystal prefers Bud Light to Biden

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Obama & McChrystal | GETTY Images

The upcoming issue of Rolling Stone is carrying a piece of hellfire for Obama. General Stanley McChrystal, Commander of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan is profiled, in all of his brash arrogance and his comments to reporter, Michael Hastings will make for some chilling reading in the White House. Although the piece cannot yet be found online, Politico has put it up and so has TIME, check it out while it’s still up.  Update: Piece is now up on RS in full.

The piece doesn’t tell us much that we don’t already know. However, having these comments by McChrystal out in the open is something else. Namely, it’s open insubordination.

McChrystal has already issued a public apology, reportedly apologised to Biden personally, and been called into what promises to be a fairly fiery meeting with President Obama.

In the RS piece, McChrystal openly trashes Vice President Joe Biden, Richard Holbrooke, Karl Eikenberry and his distaste for Obama himself is veiled pretty thinly. I’m not going to fill this post with quotes from the article, you can read it yourselves via the links above or check out some of the choice bits here.

But such revelations! Who knew about the General’s preference for Bud Light Lime and his set of custom nunchucks, engraved with his name? How is the US going to win the respect & fear of the enemy if it gets out that top Generals are drinking Bud Light for fun? And custom “McChrystal”-engraved nunchucks? What is he, the karate kid? But I digress…

As I said, not much of the controversial stuff is new. McChrystal’s disdain for Biden & Eikenberry have been doing the rounds among pundits for quite some time now and I don’t think anyone really thought that all was well between him and Obama.

The real question of course is: what now? Will Obama dismiss him for insubordination?

The political implications of this for Obama are also a challenge. One one hand, it’s clear insubordination and to not fire the General will make Obama look terribly weak, as well as setting a negative precedent for future disgruntled men in uniform. On the other hand, Obama does not need another high-profile fracas for the GOP to exploit, given that they are likely to back McChrystal and his hawkish plans for COIN and Afghanistan. With the mid-terms looming and Obama already looking politically fragile, he doesn’t need more pain by looking soft on Afghanistan and National Security. It seems Obama is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Here’s what I think Obama will do. I predict that Obama will let things slide with McChrystal but muzzle him for the rest of his tenure. Whether the damage has already been done is another question. It’s no secret that McChrystal opposes the drawdown in 2011 and wants another surge in Afghanistan, will he force this issue back to center stage and successfully avoid a drawdown or is the war’s supposed growing unpopularity among Americans enough to ensure that Obama’s drawdown remains unchallenged?

Here’s what I think Obama should do. Obama should fire General McChrystal. The political reasons for why he should remain are important, sure, but what’s more important is surely preserving the Constitution of the United States, the authority of the President and the moral fabric of the world’s supposedly leading democracy. Regardless of how arrogant a General is, he has no right to openly mock his democratically elected leaders. Allowing him to do so would set a nasty precedent and would forever enshrine Obama as a toothless President.

What’s really appalling about all this is how things got this far. How could McChrystal and his staff possibly be so stupid? How could they deliver such brazenly unconstitutional remarks to a reporter (and one who writes for Rolling Stone no less)?

More answers will come after the results of Obama’s meeting but one thing’s for certain, the President takes another hit.

Written by alexlobov

June 23, 2010 at 12:53 am