Push into Helmand triggered severe spike in civilian death rate, failed its objectives

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. Learn how the war in Afghanistan undermines U.S. security: watch Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six), & visit http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog.

ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal set out a clear marker for what he considers “success” in Afghanistan:

American success in Afghanistan should be measured by “the number of Afghans shielded from violence,” not the number of enemy fighters killed, he said.

Unfortunately, according to updated totals from the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan, Operation Khanjar, launched on July 2, was followed by a severe spike in civilian casualties. The vast majority of these casualties were caused by IEDs and suicide bombings attributed to anti-Kabul-government elements. But, with the spike coinciding so closely with the launch of the ISAF push into Helmand, it’s clear that NATO choices continue to feed into a dynamic that has become toxic for civilians.

NATO forces might take comfort in the fact that they tamped down the number of civilian deaths attributed to them compared to the elevated levels of recent months. But McChrystal (rightly, I might add) put forward a measure of success as the total number of Afghans protected from violence, not just the number killed by U.S. and NATO troops. Measured by that criteria, Operation Khanjar was a blunder that triggered a wave of civilian deaths caused by insurgent push-back.

This should not have been a surprise to campaign planners. We’ve known since forever that the Taliban would employ indiscriminate means against us when put under pressure. From the most recent report of the UN Secretary General, “The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security“:

The tactics adopted by the insurgency since its resurgence in 2005 have remained unchanged in their essence. These are an avoidance of force-to-force encounters, a reliance on asymmetric tactics, deliberate targeting of representatives of State institutions and international organizations and a disregard for human lives.

From the September 2008 version of the same report:

The majority of civilian casualties attributed to anti-Government elements are the result of suicide and improvised explosive device attacks…which are often carried out in crowded civilian areas.

Etc. etc. etc.

So again, Taliban and other insurgents are directly responsible for the consequences of their actions, but it’s not like we can hold up our clean(ish) hands and say, “Hey now, don’t blame us, we didn’t do it.” We had (or should have had) a pretty clear idea how the insurgents would respond, and our decision to go ahead with that in mind gives us a bit of culpability as well for putting these civilian deaths in the category of “acceptable risks.” I’m sure NATO/ISAF gets this point as well, which is why you haven’t really heard a lot of crowing about the fact that the anti-Kabul-government elements were directly responsible for more than ten times the number of civilian deaths than ISAF in August; they know that’s not the point. The rationale of our presence in Afghanistan has never been “we’ll kill fewer of you than the other guys.” Rather, the rationale has been that the presence of ISAF increases security for ordinary Afghans, and that by doing so, it wins legitimacy for the government which ISAF supports.

Some might object that the spike in civilian deaths could be attributed to election-related violence. This is true in only the broadest of senses. Khanjar was intended to secure the population to allow their participation in the upcoming election, which, it was hoped, would help legitimize the national government in the eyes of the Pashtun population. But the casualty data and analysis from the UN make it clear that the violence classified as directly “election-related” occurred in the week prior to and during election day, and by the time they’d published their most recent report they could only attribute roughly 45 or so of the civilian deaths in August to election-related violence. Even if you subtract those numbers from the August total, it’s still a marked increase from the June total. The markedly heightened level of civilian-killing violence, on the other hand, remains constant from July – August–with Khanjar having been launched on July 2nd.

And, the overall rationale for the operation–to secure voter turnout for a legitimizing election–fell flat on its face. In Helmand, turnout was dismal, and the election was an illegitimate sham. In fact, UNAMA’s most recent report warns that the election may be a trigger for more, not less, violence. Peter Gailbraith, the recently dismissed U.N. official in Afghanistan, was apparently forced out over his objections to what he saw as the UN whitewash of an election whose fraudulent ballots may have totaled 30 percent of the votes tallied.

Operation Khanjar echoes the surge in Iraq: it’s backers can point to certain statistics, but when we measure its success by the larger strategic measures given as justification, there’s no way to call it success. Something to keep in mind as we debate whether to send more troops into more insurgency-prone areas.

More troops are not the answer in Afghanistan. We need to lower the overall level of military conflict as quickly as possible, and the only way to do that is to sharply reduce the number of U.S. troops in theater while assisting national political reconciliation and humanitarian efforts. Due to the consequences of past choices, we may not be able to find “success” along this route either, but at least it has the relative benefit of not having a history draped in failure.

  1. […] Evaluating Operation Khanjar posted on October 5th, 2009 at Return Good for Evil […]

  2. sporkmaster says:

    Except that when I see stuff like this I openly question how ideas of “assisting national political reconciliation and humanitarian efforts.” is going to work.

    Suicide bomber kills 5 at UN office in Pakistan

    ISLAMABAD – A suicide bomber disguised as a security officer struck the lobby of the U.N. food agency’s Pakistan headquarters Monday, killing five people a day after the new leader of the Pakistani Taliban vowed fresh assaults, authorities and witnesses said.

    The blast raises questions as to how the bomber managed to evade tight security at the heavily fortified World Food Program compound in the capital, Islamabad. It could also hamper the work of WFP and other aid agencies assisting Pakistanis displaced by army offensives against al-Qaida and the Taliban in their strongholds close to the Afghan border.


    This is the danger that I am worried about that the Taliban and friends will not care who they attack as long as they view them as a threat.

    It has been 10 days since the Journey’s to Smiles meeting on the 25th. I cannot find any news about how it went. Have you seen anything?

    • dcrowe says:

      Hey sporkmaster:

      I haven’t heard from Hakim at all. I’m going to respond to one of his prior comments and check in. That will send him the WordPress auto-email that someone has replied to him, and hopefully he’ll let us know how he’s doing.

      I get your worry. I’m worried about it too. That’s one of the reasons I’m supportive of a solution articulated by the broad majority of folks interviewed in this DFID study. Basically, they say they want a fair standard applied across the board when it comes to who can and can’t stand for election, whether they are Taliban or not, and then have an election. That will eliminate (hopefully) the worst human rights abusers from both sides, while giving each faction a stake in the survival of the government. The trick is, though, that that’s a decision the Afghans have to make. But that’s really the trick to the whole mess: we can’t solve it. The Afghans have to solve it, or not solve it.

      It really comes down to this for me: first, as you know, I oppose the use of violence in all circumstances. But second, and just as relevant to our discussion, we all know the U.S. won’t stay forever. We may stay another year, or another 50 years, but we are not staying forever. Knowing that, we have to decide what our limits are. I don’t see that from our leaders, and I certainly don’t see it coming from the folks arguing for a full COIN deployment. That’s kind of what I was getting at a couple of days ago re: who sets policy. Generals, given a task, tell you what they need to get the job done. It’s the politicians’ job to a) determine the task, and b) to decide if the nation can or should spend the resources demanded when the general tells you what they need for a given plan.

  3. sporkmaster says:

    Sorry about the late reply, got caught up in things. His blog has updates but I am not sure who is doing it.

    I agree that this is something that the Afghan people will have to decide. But even if we discount the fighting as a issue there Unexploded ordinances that litter that nation are a huge issue. As it stands the NATO forces are better equipped in large numbers to deal with this threat. That is a reason that I am advocating the continuation of the mission in Afghanistan.

    I know that we cannot stay there forever but what really make me want to hold back on leaving right now is that there is not a civilian force that can replace the different reconstruction jobs that are going on there. One thing that I would love to see being bloged about is what to do about Afghanistan and a plan on how do it. I would disagree with it but I would respect those that are willing to go into harms way.

    Think of it this way. There is a call to arms in a time of war, so consider this a call to peace. It is not just putting up signs saying how peace is good and war is bad at a local drum circle. But a serious commitment to travel to areas in Afghanistan to help with a trade skill. So far this idea has just been slogans.

    If we can have people actually do this you might get more consideration and people willing to listen to you.

  4. […] of troops into insurgency-prone areas like Khandahar and Khost. Operation Khanjar earlier this year did likewise, and the results from that operation show one that concerns about Afghan civilian casualties take a […]

  5. […] killed by NATO and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. When this summer’s Operation Khanjar pushed into Helmand province, anti-Kabul-government forces responded by laying more IEDs, which led […]

  6. […] killed by NATO and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. When this summer’s Operation Khanjar pushed into Helmand province, anti-Kabul-government forces responded by laying more IEDs, which led […]

  7. […] killed by NATO and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. When this summer’s Operation Khanjar pushed into Helmand province, anti-Kabul-government forces responded by laying more IEDs, which led […]

  8. […] killed by NATO and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. When this summer’s Operation Khanjar pushed into Helmand province, anti-Kabul-government forces responded by laying more IEDs, which led […]

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