The media is buzzing in anticipation of the impending launch of Operation Moshtarak in Marja, Afghanistan. It will be the biggest military operation of the war so far, and, in many ways, the first fruit of President Obama’s repeated choices to add more troops and firepower to the mess that is the Afghanistan war. Marja is fairly densely populated area in Afghanistan: 85,000 in Marja proper and about 45,000 in the surrounding region. Missteps or neglegence on the part of the military could be tragic, to say the least. U.S. commanders are talking out of both sides of their mouths, promising the revelation of the oft-promised humane war while promising to rain death on our enemies.

What’s got me the most worried is the spadework being done for some sickeningly familiar hand-washing. One could announce one is about to attack a given location to reduce civilian casualties. One can also give said announcement if one plans on taking the gloves off–that way when innocent people die, you can say, “They were warned. They should have left when they had the chance.” The most vulnerable victims can fall into your trap of moral exculpation.

Marja. Fallujah. New Orleans.

Recall Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004:

Before the second Fallujah offensive, Willingham remembers seeing American planes drop flyers ordering citizens to leave the city.

“The flyers let them know we were getting ready to start bombing the city, (and) anyone who stayed we assumed was an insurgent,” Willingham said.

The Fallujah attacks created more than 200,000 internally displaced people and thousands of civilians were killed (predictable, considering that everyone remaining inside the city was treated as an insurgent). Estimates of the dead vary widely. Some exceed 6,000 people. Dispute the exact numbers if you like. The Fallujah operations were a fiasco. The coalition forces devastated the city. They killed many innocent people. Remember that. That’s what happens when you give an evacuation order to a populated area and then treat those left behind as if it’s their fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Remember New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Katrina. Remember that residents were warned to flee. Remember that despite notice of the oncoming storm, some couldn’t leave.

While some blamed public officials for not responding soon enough, others blamed the victims for not evacuating when they knew the hurricane’s arrival was imminent. One fundamental insight of social science is to understand the illogic of blaming the victim (Ryan 1976)…

New Orleans is a city in which 27.9 percent of residents live below the poverty line, 11.7 percent are age 65 or older, only 74.7 percent are high school graduates and 27.3 percent of households do not have cars. Furthermore, a larger than average percentage of residents have disabilities: 10.3 percent of 5-20 year olds, 23.6 percent of 21-64 year olds, and 50.1 percent of those age 65 and older have disabilities according to the 2000 U.S. census. In addition, 77.4 percent of New Orleans residents were born in Louisiana and have lived most of their lives there. These statistics alone go far to explain why tens of thousands of the 500,000 residents of New Orleans did not evacuate; in so many ways they were more rooted in place than the average American.

…New Orleanians’ plans for evacuation were strongly shaped by their income-level, age, access to information, access to private transportation, their physical mobility and health, their occupations and their social networks outside of the city. These social characteristics translated into distinct evacuation strategies for different sectors of the population.

Low-income residents had fewer choices with respect to how to prepare for the imminent arrival of Katrina. Since the storm was at the end of the month and many low-income residents of New Orleans live from paycheck to paycheck, economic resources for evacuating were particularly scarce. …[L]ow-income New Orleanians are those who are least likely to own vehicles, making voluntary evacuation more costly and logistically more difficult.

…Not everyone can evacuate the city, even in a mandatory evacuation. Doctors, nurses, hospital employees, police officers, and other essential city and state employees remained in the city to perform their jobs. …Accounts from this group of people are harrowing and heroic and go far to explain why a total evacuation of the city was impossible.

…People living in social isolation and poverty, especially the elderly, the disabled, and those with chronic diseases, have scarce economic resources and social networks that are more locally concentrated and connect them to people in similar socioeconomic circumstances. Therefore, they are less able to use these social networks to evacuate before a hurricane or recuperate their losses after such an event.

Now, consider the poverty and state of social networks in Afghanistan. The country is one of the ten poorest in the world. GDP per capita is about $425 per year, and more than a third of that meager sum is consumed by corrupt officials demanding bribes, to say nothing of the illicit taxes the Taliban levy on goods. The adult literacy rate is just over 28 percent. We like to say Afghanistan is a “tribal” society, but in reality it is an atomized society, with geographically isolated social networks having been pulverized by decades of war. If many in New Orleans found it hard to evacuate, the residents of Marja will find it doubly so.

Judging by the L.A. Times article on the upcoming operation in Marja, the U.S. commander is saying all the right words when it comes to the issue of insulating the non-combatants from the carnage:

…[I]n the weeks leading up to the imminent offensive to take the Helmand River Valley town of Marja in southern Afghanistan, the Marines’ commander, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, sat with dozens of Afghan tribal elders, drinking endless cups of sweet tea and offering reassurances that his top priority will be the safety of Afghan civilians.

“In counterinsurgency, the people are the prize,” Nicholson said

That would be reassuring if Nicholson weren’t talking out of both sides of his mouth:

US Second Marine Expeditionary Force commander Larry Nicholson said that the evacuation of most civilians would give commanders leeway to use air-to-ground missiles, declaring that he was “not looking for a fair fight.”

ABC News quotes Nicholson explaining some truly worrisome logic:

Nicholson underscored the point saying a heavy handed approach will reduce the chance for civilian casualties.

“Our feeling is if you go big, strong and fast, you lessen the possibility of civilian casualties as opposed to a slow methodical rolling assault. You go in and you dominate. You overwhelm the enemy,” he said.

Okay, let’s put these two things together. Nicholson is telegraphing he’s letting the air strikes off the chain and that he intends to use rapid, furious attacks in Marja, and somehow that is supposed to lead to reduced civilian casualties. Well, that would be great if we didn’t already know that the single greatest cause of U.S.-caused civilian casualties was airstrikes in support of troops involved in intense firefights.

Now, one should give people the benefit of the doubt. Nicholson is gearing up for a fight, and when he speaks, he’s got at least two audiences: the Afghan public and his troops. So, one could just write this off as (pardon my French) a little bit of dick-swinging machismo meant to get his troops fired up and his enemies scared. But the problem is that he’s talking trash about using the tactic most responsible for U.S.-caused civilian casualties in a densely populated area, and if he follows through on his swagger, lots of people not a party to the conflict will be torn to pieces by U.S. munitions.

Oh, and “leaflets have been dropped in the Marja district, urging residents to get out of the area.” In a country with 28 percent literacy rates.

As residents flee Marja in advance of this operation, some that remain behind will be members of armed opposition groups like the Taliban. They will be mixed, however, with the poor, the elderly, the sick and the heroic who stay behind to help them.

Members of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, for God’s sake, remember Fallujah. Remember New Orleans. Remember who is really in those buildings. Remember that many of them are trapped, and that many of the trapped got there through a life of misery. Love your neighbor as yourself. Remember the least of these. And as for your enemies, remember, with God watching you, that you must love them, too.

For those of us here in the United States – remember those who are in the path of the hurricane. And remember that the hurricane is us.

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Comments
  1. Excellent DCrowe: I posted on my Blog my feelings about this today,
    and your post spells out in great detail how much of a mistake this is to begin killing/displacing many innocent civilians, and for WHAT?

    Keep up the great work. Here’s my post of today:

    Helmand, Afghanistan: Swat Valley, South Waziristan destruction to be Repeated? End the Cycle of Genocide, Recognition of the Armenian Genocide coming up for Committee Vote, please sign the Petition and call your legislators http://outofcentralasianow.wordpress.com/

  2. Nathan Smith says:

    Thanks for this. It’s amazing how short our memory can be.

  3. Richard S. Lowry says:

    Please quote your source of information that supports your claim that “thousands” of civilians were killed in Fallujah.

    Also, why is it you don’t understand the concept of “No better friend, No worse enemy?” Nicholson is working to protect innocent civilians, but he is going to go after the enemy fighters with everything he has.

    He is not making contradictions. He is doing everything he can to protect the people. He is warning them of the coming fight, assuming some additional dangers for his Marines by signaling to the enemy that he is coming. How can you make this into Americans are the bad guys?

    Look back to when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan and remember that they were executing women every week in Kabul’s soccer stadium.

    Get some real perspective based on fact.

    • dcrowe says:

      Hi Richard:

      IPS News relayed reports by the Study Centre for Human Rights and Democracy that as many as 5,000 civilians were killed. That’s one of the more maximal estimates. I’m sure someone with your expertise and experience on the topic of Iraq has access to these and other estimates, however.

      No better friend, No worse enemy

      It’s going to be hard to be “no better friend” to the noncombatants who didn’t/couldn’t evacuate during an operation like this. See below.

      Nicholson is working to protect innocent civilians, but he is going to go after the enemy fighters with everything he has.

      You’re making an assertion without dealing with the material I set out above. He’s on the record saying a) he’s going in fast and hard, and b) that he feels he has leeway in the use of air-to-ground missiles. I’ve pointed out above that the area will most certainly not be clear of civilians during his use of these tactics, and that we know the use of air power in support of troops in contact is responsible for most civilian casualties caused by the U.S. Please address these points.

      How can you make this into Americans are the bad guys?

      I’m not attempting to make “Americans the bad guys.” That’s a cartoonish depiction of the conflict. Many sides are involved in morally reprehensible behavior. I’m pointing out that the Americans are about to do something that has the very strong potential to kill innocent people. But on a related note, armed foreign people are often considered “bad guys” by local folks. A lot of the people we’ll see fighting won’t be Taliban-connected insurgents. They’ll be “accidental guerillas.” Those folks will see the U.S. as the bad guy. See Kilcullen.

      Look back to when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan and remember that they were executing women every week in Kabul’s soccer stadium.

      Again, a cartoonish depiction of the conflict. The reactionary attitudes re: women are pervasive cultural attitudes independent of the Taliban. Shall we discuss what local women’s activists refer to as “the rule of the rapists?” Or the number of women immolating themselves? Or the “personal status law”? Or the assertion of the head of the Afghan supreme court that “all people in Afghanistan have equal rights…women have two equal rights: to obey their husbands and to pray”? Come on.

      Get some real perspective based on fact.

      You mean perspective based on your interpretation of some facts.

      • Richard S. Lowry says:

        If you want to go point by point, so be it. You say:

        “IPS News relayed reports by the Study Centre for Human Rights and Democracy that as many as 5,000 civilians were killed. That’s one of the more maximal estimates.” Where will you ever see a credible footnote like above? ‘IPS relayed reports of estimates.’ What estimates. Based on what? I do not doubt that innocent people were killed in the five-day first fight in Fallujah. I seriously doubt that there were anywhere close to 5,000 innocent deaths. And, in Operation al Fajr, the city was nearly void of civilians. Actually, the Marines found innocent civilians that had been murdered by the insurgents (and I have the documentation to prove my statement of fact).

        “It’s going to be hard to be “no better friend” to the noncombatants who didn’t/couldn’t evacuate during an operation like this. See below.”

        What do you know about the area in which the Allies are about to fight? Did you know that it is nothing like the tangled urban streets of Fallujah. It is mainly a rural area. The Marines are trying hard to not disrupt the lives of the people in that area while they clear out more than 1,000 Taliban fighters. As in Fallujah, Marines have been, and will be, risking their lives to insure that civilians remain safe.

        “You’re making an assertion without dealing with the material I set out above. He’s on the record saying a) he’s going in fast and hard, and b) that he feels he has leeway in the use of air-to-ground missiles.”

        I do not make cartoonish depictions and you should not evade my points by insulting me. What do you know about Marine Corps military operations? What do you know about the accuracy of any of the weapons in their arsenal? We are not talking about the CIA lobbing missiles at some Taliban bad guys from a UAV. We are talking about precision guided weapons. A Marine officer told me in an interview about a situation inside Fallujah where the Marines were forced to drop a 500lb bomb on a house full of insurgents. The family cowering in the house next door was scared to death by the explosion but unharmed. When the Marines went into the third house on the block, on weapons hold, fearing they would encounter more civilians, they were ambushed and gunned down by more insurgents barricaded inside.

        That wa in a compact urban environment. Those people were trapped. In the rural environment, not many will be trapped.

        “You mean perspective based on your interpretation of some facts.”

        The only righteous indignation I read in your articles is against Larry Nicholson and his Marines, making wild assumptions that they are going to indiscriminately kill civilians. Where is your indignation regarding the Taliban and the fundamentalists who are hell bent on killing Americans?

  4. dcrowe says:

    Richard:

    Where will you ever see a credible footnote like above?

    Come on, you see credible footnotes like this all the time. Are you telling me you don’t have footnotes in your books that say something like:

    Qtd. in Smith, p. 29

    If you like I can rephrase: IPS News reported that the Fallujah-based Study Centre for Human Rights and Democracy estimated that… I was trying to be precise and tell you I got the number from an article but do not have a copy of the report cited in the article. Are now jettisoning information that comes from journalists reporting what their sources tell them? Here is a version of the article housed on antiwar.com.

    I seriously doubt that there were anywhere close to 5,000 innocent deaths. And, in Operation al Fajr, the city was nearly void of civilians.

    You’re welcome to seriously doubt the particular number. Note, please, the caveat in my original post and in the comments. There are other estimates in the 1500-or-so range.

    Did you know that it is nothing like the tangled urban streets of Fallujah. It is mainly a rural area.

    Yes, I know this.

    As in Fallujah, Marines have been, and will be, risking their lives to insure that civilians remain safe.

    I’m sure most individual Marines will follow their orders in the most humane way possible that also doesn’t place their comrades at what they feel is unjustified risk. However, that’s a different thing than saying the orders they will follow conform to a strategy or set of tactical decisions that will create a larger environment that protects civilians. Again, note Nicholson’s indications that he feels he has leeway with airstrikes in support of troops in combat. That’s toxic to civilian life. You’re not addressing it. Your anecdote does not negate the data we have on this set of tactics.

    What do you know about Marine Corps military operations? What do you know about the accuracy of any of the weapons in their arsenal?

    You’re being silly – like either of us are going to pound out in a blog comment everything we know about COIN doctrine, military strategy and tactics and the Marine Corps in specific. But let’s talk about those precision guided munitions below.

    We are not talking about the CIA lobbing missiles at some Taliban bad guys from a UAV. We are talking about precision guided weapons.

    Actually, Nicholson flat out said he’d be using drones. But that aside, would these be the same precision guided 500lb bombs that hit Balah Buluk last year and killed scores of civilians? A precision guided bomb may go where you tell it to, but that’s a little different than saying it doesn’t hit civilians, isn’t it? To underline the point: 0f the first 50 “precision” air strikes launched at the opening of the Iraq War, all were unsuccessful. Yes, technology has improved since then. That does not explain away, however, the numbers we have on the numbers of civilians killed in airstrikes in support of troops in combat specific to the Afghanistan conflict.

    The only righteous indignation I read in your articles is against Larry Nicholson and his Marines, making wild assumptions that they are going to indiscriminately kill civilians. Where is your indignation regarding the Taliban and the fundamentalists who are hell bent on killing Americans?

    Sigh. See here. For the record, I do not think they are going to go on some Rambo killing spree. I am very worried, however, that the indications from Nicholson indicate we may be about to see the reappearance of a kind of strategy that made such a hash out of Afghanistan that helped lead to the rapid resurgence of the Taliban and that killed lots of civilians.

    And for the record, I’m not insulting you. I said you made a cartoonish statement re: “bad guys.” I reject the frame that there are “cops and robbers” in this situation.

    Please note that I revised this comment several times after saving the initial version–just in case you’re responding as I revise.

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