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U.S. Considers Ways to Prevent Civilian Deaths While Battling Afghan Insurgency

May 21, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Ray Suarez and analysts discuss U.S. and NATO efforts to minimize collateral damage during airstrikes in Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: For more, we go to Gen. Dan McNeill, who commanded the NATO force in Afghanistan until his retirement last summer, and Marc Garlasco, a former intelligence and targeting analyst at the Pentagon. He’s now the senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch.

Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Let me begin with a brief explanation from both of you on how a place is targeted, how a target is chosen, and how an air strike is unleashed at it.

General McNeill?

GEN. DAN MCNEILL (Ret.), U.S. Army: Ray, first, we should bear in mind that this is an insurgency and, by its very nature, it’s in and among the people. The people will have some vulnerability, some exposure to combat when you’re prosecuting counterinsurgency operations.

There are two occasions when aerial munitions are delivered, in my experience, in Afghanistan. The first would be a planned target, which goes through a fairly rigorous process in which you have to consider the identification and make it positive. You have to consider patterns of life, what’s around the targets you intend to hit, and then you have to consider the munition and what it is likely to do to things that are not the target but are in that immediate vicinity.

Secondly, there would be the unexpected encounters, a small unit patrolling, perhaps a PRT somewhere out in the countryside, some place that is perhaps is more stable than some of the others, and they get into a fire fight and they need some help. Using an aerial munition is well within the parameters of the law of armed conflict.

RAY SUAREZ: Marc Garlasco, you were involved in the kind of work the general just described. What can you add?

MARC GARLASCO, Human Rights Watch: Well, it’s important first that we’re intellectually honest here and note that the Taliban are actively targeting civilians, and they kill civilians willfully. We’re speaking tonight about mistakes that are made by the U.S. and NATO forces, things that can be improved upon.

The general is absolutely correct that there are two types of air strikes that go on. And Human Rights Watch produced a report called “Troops in Contact,” based upon my on-the-ground research in Afghanistan, in which we determined that, in pre-planned air strikes, the U.S. Air Force has basically removed civilian casualties as a problem in Afghanistan.

However, in the “Troops in Contact” situation, primarily when special operations forces with low numbers are on the ground, come into contact with the Taliban, al-Qaida, or criminal elements, they do then have a situation where they call in air power at times to save them and civilians do die.

But it’s a very complex issue. And a number of factors play into this, including communications, rules of engagement, and the types of munitions used.

Taliban endangers citizens

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Marc Garlasco, is there a sliding scale? Is sometimes the value of the presumed target such that you'll work on a pretty good assumption, but not necessarily certainty of what's going to be hit by an attack?

MARC GARLASCO: Well, first of all, it's important for us to recognize that shielding is an issue. And we at Human Rights Watch wrote extensively about how Taliban shielding is a problem.

I, in fact, spoke with civilians in Afghanistan who were forced to stay in homes, who were forced to dig trenches that the Taliban would then use and endanger them. But this is a known quantity, a known situation, and the U.S. needs to take this into account.

There is, then, this sliding scale. Who is important? How important are they? If you have a Taliban fighter and you're targeting them, it can be legal, perfectly legal to drop munitions on them, as General McNeill stated. The question, though, is, is this the best choice at the time?

RAY SUAREZ: When you are unleashing, General McNeill, munitions from a distance, are mistakes inevitable?

GEN. DAN MCNEILL: Mistakes sometimes do occur, Ray, and I agree with Marc, and I wouldn't try to play that down. And I believe it's been said by many and said very adequately, the risk we face if we continue to have not civilian, but noncombatant casualties.

And I draw this line and give you this anecdote. In June of 2007, we had a contact involving some of our European allies in Oruzgan province. In the end of that, President Karzai, after getting a call from some locals in Oruzgan, did a press conference in which he denounced NATO as being reckless and having no concern for civilian life.

I was the commander of NATO in Afghanistan. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I immediately went out, inviting President Karzai to come along with me, or any of his agents and go out to talk to these people who had suffered this harm and damage.

Here's what I found. One man told me a story -- and I cannot recall the name exactly -- but let's just say the man he spoke of was Hakim. The story he said to me is, "You killed Hakim, and he was a civilian." My question was, "What was Hakim doing?"

We were right where the battle had taken place. He pointed towards a wall. He said, "Hakim was there shooting his Kalashnikov." And I asked, "Who was he shooting at?" He said, "He was shooting at you." And I said, "How can you call Hakim a civilian?" He said the Arabs -- and I'm using his expression, and that's an Afghan expression for anybody that's not from Afghan -- came into his house, pulled him out, said, "Hakim, fight with us or we'll kill you. And after we kill you, we'll go in and kill your family."

"So, of course," he said, "Hakim was going to fight." I said, "My friend, you and I have a different view. Hakim perhaps was a civilian, but he certainly was not a noncombatant."

Noncombatants injured and killed

RAY SUAREZ: General, I understand the thrust of your story, in that there are sometimes people who are shooting at American forces who thereafter are called civilians, but aren't there also cases and aren't these causing problems in Afghanistan where women and children who live in areas of residence where there are -- where there's insurgent activity are also being killed?

GEN. DAN MCNEILL: Keep in mind, Ray, I said at the outset: An insurgency is in and among the people. And without question, when there is shooting, there is likelihood in an insurgency that the shooting will be around noncombatants. Women and children would fall in that category.

Without question, in my time in Afghanistan, some women and children were killed. And they clearly were noncombatants.

But to suggest -- if anyone, I should say, were to suggest that NATO, the alliance there, the international forces, do not take the most extreme of measures to try to mitigate this, they would be wrong and they would be far over the top in such an accusation.

RAY SUAREZ: Marc Garlasco, what do you think happened in the recent incident in Farah?

MARC GARLASCO: Well, it's unclear, and the investigation is ongoing. But I think what we need to really look at here is that the U.S. has and can do better.

When we look at how civilian casualties tripled in air strikes from 2007 up until the Azizabad incident in the summer of 2008, we saw there a point where change had to happen.

And then Human Rights Watch put our report on and the U.S. and NATO instituted many of the changes that we stated and suggested to them: improving communications; putting in better liaison with special operations forces; putting unified command between U.S. and NATO; and also, changing rules of engagement.

Now, they have yet to institute and implement the use of low collateral damage bombs, as they do in Iraq, and these are some things -- further steps that they could take to improve the civilian situation with air strikes. But they've shown they can implement these changes.

Was this an outlier? Is this one incident that shows that a mistake or error happened? Perhaps. But instead of leaving it to organizations like Human Rights Watch to go on the ground and do these lengthy investigations, it's now turn and time for the U.S. military to take this on in a better and more sustained manner.

Considering changes in strategy

RAY SUAREZ: Well, General McNeill, you heard Marc Garlasco. American military leaders keep assuring the Afghans they're trying to minimize civilian casualties. How do you do that? What can you change?

GEN. DAN MCNEILL: I agree with Marc that we have to work all the time and steadily at our activities to review them, to assess them, and make sure we're applying our resources in the best way we can, because, as Admiral Mullen said, any time a noncombatant is harmed or killed, we do harm to our own cause.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Marc Garlasco just suggested using lower collateral damage bombs. Would that help? Using instead of 2,000-pound bombs on civilian targets -- on human targets, using, perhaps, less lethal ones or with lethality spread over a less widespread area?

GEN. DAN MCNEILL: Let me address that question, Ray. By your question, you're suggesting that every aerial munition drop is a 2,000-pound bomb, and nothing could be further from the truth.

As a NATO commander, I cannot recall the number of times that I sat with a lawyer on one side to make judgments on the law of armed conflict and the likelihood of harm to things that were clearly considered noncombatants and a weaponeer who was advising me on what was available and what could be applied.

So NATO imposes some really strict steps and concepts to execute aerial munition attacks. And, frankly, I think they're good. Are they always perfect? I'm not advertising that; certainly, they are not.

But I think there are far more episodes that go relatively uneventful than this tragic episode that we're discussing right now and the others that have gone before it.

But I do not disagree with Marc. We have to work everyday to make it better. We have to work harder. We have to reduce the harm and deaths to noncombatants.

RAY SUAREZ: General McNeill, Marc Garlasco, gentlemen, thank you both.