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.