Posts Tagged ‘Operation Khanjar’

AFP reports that a NATO airstrike from a helicopter gunship killed three civilian men and wounded a woman in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) press release claims the helicopter crew fired at men placing IEDs next to the road and afterwards “discovered civilians in a car adjacent to the IED site.”

On Thursday, a “roadside mine” killed another seven civilians in Kandahar province.

Expect more civilian casualties as President Obama’s latest escalation sends more troops into Kandahar. Most civilians killed by insurgents die from IEDs and suicide attacks, while airstrikes in support of troops in combat account for most civilians 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 to a severe spike in civilian deaths.

Based on the Helmand experience, we know sending more troops into insurgent-controlled areas will mean IED attacks. We know new IED attacks will mean many more civilian deaths, not to mention the number of civilians that will be directly killed by U.S. forces. We’re doing it anyway. The people who will be killed have a right to life that exists independently of our goals in the region. We’re essentially making a decision for them that it’s better for them to be dead than under the thumb of the Taliban. If they want to make that decision, fine, let them. But that’s not our decision.

End the war in Afghanistan. Bring the troops home.

Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. The views expressed are his own. Sign our CREDO petition to reject escalation in Afghanistan & join Brave New Foundation’s #NoWar candlelight vigil on Facebook and Twitter. But make these your first steps as an activist to end this war, not your last.

“Loyalty to the community is…morally tolerable only if it includes values wider than those of the community.”
–Reinhold Niebuhr, one of President Obama’s “favorite philosophers,” in The Irony of American History, p. 37.

According to The New York Times, the new plan in Afghanistan will involve sending large new deployments of troops into insurgency-prone areas like Khandahar and Khost. Operation Khanjar earlier this year did likewise, and the results from that operation show that concerns about Afghan civilian casualties take a back seat to the U.S. government’s goal of dislodging the Taliban from their traditional strongholds.

Note the graph below, which summarizes casualty data compiled by the U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan for January – August 2009. Following Operation Khanjar’s initial thrust into Helmand province, the rate of civilian death attributed to the conflict skyrocketed.  Roughly as many civilians died in Afghanistan the two months following the launch of Khanjar as died in the prior 6 months. According to a U.N. spokesperson who responded to my email inquiries, “the overwhelming majority” of those deaths occurred in the south.

Civilian Casualty Information from UNAMA

Source: UNAMA public casualty data and private correspondence.

Most of the civilian deaths were caused by IEDs. The simplest explanation for the rise in the casualty rate would be that as our troops moved into insurgent strongholds in Helmand, the insurgents responded by either laying more IEDs or laying them in more populous areas, and the IEDs killed civilians. This certainly falls in line with the expectations of Joint IED Defeat Organization Director Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, paraphrased by Stars and Stripes on October 28, 2009:

IED attacks in Afghanistan have gone up along with the rising troop levels and likely will continue to increase if more U.S. forces are sent there…

Operation Khanjar could be viewed as a dress rehearsal for the much larger deployment of U.S. troops planned for early next year. The U.S. military expects the reaction to a new deployment will be a rise in IED attacks. We know new IED attacks will mean many more civilian deaths, not to mention the number of civilians that will be directly killed by U.S. forces. We’re doing it anyway.

This brings to mind a question asked by Wendell Berry in his “Questionnaire:”

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

At least we answered the second half of the question.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. Say no to escalation in Afghanistan by signing our CREDO petition at http://act.credoaction.com/campaign/saynotoescalation/. For each signature, CREDO will donate a dollar to support Crowe’s work. You can also join Brave New Foundation’s #NoWar candlelight vigil on Facebook and Twitter to show your opposition to the war. But make these your first steps as an activist to end this war, not your last.

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.

U.S. military casualties since the launch of Operation Khanjar (July 2):

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  • Derwin Williams,  age 41
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  • Tony Michael Randolph,  age 22
  • Aaron E. Fairbairn, age 20
  • Justin A. Casillas, age 19
  • Charles S. Sharp, age 20

Again, we lack reliable numbers for civilian deaths, although reports have surfaced in the American media of the death of a civilian woman killed by “ricocheting bullets.” (For more on the lack of coverage of civilian casualties by the U.S. media, see this excellent piece from TomDispatch.) However, according to a report from the Xinhua News Agency (the official news agency of the Chinese government–take it with a grain of salt, I suppose):

Air raids against suspected hideouts of Taliban militants in Ghazni province, south of Afghanistan, however, claimed the lives of eight civilians including two women, a member of the Provincial Council Abdul Nabi said Wednesday.

In talks with media, Nabi added that the raids took place at 3 a.m. local time (2330 GMT) in Gero district during which eight non-combatants were killed.

The victims, he added, include two women, two children and four men.

However, the U.S.-led Coalition forces admitted in a statement that “during this engagement, a ricocheting round killed a civilian female.”

It added that several armed enemy combatants were killed in the operation and Coalition forces found grenades and rifles in their hideout.

How many American troops and Afghan civilians have to die before Congress and the President end this war?

U.S. military casualties in Afghanistan since launch of new operation in Helmand:

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  • Aaron E. Fairbairn, Private 1st Class, age 20
  • Justin A. Casillas, Private 1st Class, age 19
  • Charles S. Sharp, Lance Corporal, age 20

I cannot find any confirmed civilian casualties in news reports regarding the operation. Let’s hope that’s because none yet exist.

War is not Christ’s way. Congress and President Obama: end this war.

Having just seen The Hangover, I’m tempted to ask if the U.S. press corps has just taken a bunch of rohypnol before reporting on the Helmand operation. Every single report I’ve seen so far:

  • emphasizes how absent we’ve been from the Helmand River Valley; and/or
  • neglects to give any history about the actions of U.S. and other pro-Kabul forces in the region that may affect the U.S. military’s attempt to win the loyalty (or at least the submission) of the local population to the Afghan national government.

Despite this convenient amnesia, we are not starting from a clean slate in Helmand, regardless of media portrayals of this region as a pristine Taliban haven untouched by U.S. forces. Here’s one scene from Helmand, circa August 2007:

Last week I saw the damage being done in the battle for hearts and minds. In the British headquarters a girl was brought in by her family. She lay on the table, blood leaking from her tiny frame. Occasionally her body would convulse, her screams reverberating around the base. On either side, three of her siblings whimpered. They, too, had been lacerated by masonry after a US bomber strafed their home last Sunday morning while the Taliban were firing from the same compound.

More recently:

Foreign troops continue to make mistakes that enrage whole sections of this deeply tribal society, like the killing of a tribal elder’s son and his wife as they were driving to their home in Helmand two months ago. Only their baby daughter survived. The tribal elder, Reis-e-Baghran, a former member of the Taliban who reconciled with the government, is one of the most influential figures in Helmand.

These awful, bloody blunders help explain the extreme hostility of the populace to coalition forces and their preference for the brutal-yet-predictable rule of the Taliban:

The mood of the Afghan people has tipped into a popular revolt in some parts of southern Afghanistan, presenting incoming American forces with an even harder job than expected in reversing military losses to the Taliban and winning over the population. Villagers in some districts have taken up arms against foreign troops to protect their homes or in anger after losing relatives in airstrikes…[T]hey preferred to be left alone under Taliban rule and complained about artillery fire and airstrikes by foreign forces…[M]istrust of the government remains so strong that even if the Taliban were defeated militarily, the government and the American-led coalition would find the population reluctant to cooperate…

Spencer Ackerman points out that this military assault is the largest Marine operation since Vietnam. He also points out that there are very meager civilian resources accompanying the assault forces, which probably isn’t great. But I’d point out that even if there were an equal number of civilians compared to military personnel, it wouldn’t matter much for the purposes of counterinsurgency because none of our people can speak the language. As of April 2009,

[A]ccording to an official at the State Department’s Bureau of Human Resources, the United States has turned out a total of only 18 Foreign Service officers who can speak Pashto, and only two of them are now serving in Afghanistan – both apparently in Kabul.

Noam Unger, commenting on Chandrasekaran’s article in the Post, summarizes the problem:

…As Chandrasekaran’s article on the Marines’ operation makes clear, the State Department and USAID are not yet capable of bringing their expertise to bear in Helmand through the deployment of personnel.

For all of President Obama’s rhetoric about the military power not being enough to turn things around, that’s what we’ve got and that’s what we’ll use in Helmand. We’re witnessing an almost totally military attempt to win the loyalty (or at least the submission) of the Afghan population to the Kabul government by killing the Taliban currently enforcing their own version of security in Helmand and then filling the hole with U.S. troops. But security means more than just safety from the Taliban–it also means safety from U.S. munitions. Let’s hope we manage to protect them from those as well.

Here’s a quick coda that gives me a sick feeling about the timing of this operation:

Helmand is a Taliban stronghold and the world’s largest opium poppy-producing area. The goal is to clear insurgents from the region before Afghanistan’s presidential election on August 20.

…Southern Afghanistan is a Taliban stronghold, but also a region where Afghan President Hamid Karzai is seeking votes from fellow Pashtun tribesmen.

Electioneering via the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade on behalf of the Rule of the Rapists…probably not what they signed up for.

Attempts to stop an escalation of U.S. military personnel and violence in Afghanistan officially failed this morning with reports of the “massive assault” under way on Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

Thousands of US Marines stormed into an Afghan river valley by helicopter and land early today, launching the first major military offensive of Barack Obama’s presidency with an assault deep into Taleban-held territory.

Operation Khanjar, which the Marines call simply “the decisive op”, is intended to seize virtually the entire lower Helmand River valley, a heartland of the Taleban insurgency and the world’s biggest heroin producing region.

It is the biggest operation launched by the US Marines Corps since the retaking of Fallujah in 2004 and seeks to break the grinding stalemate between Nato forces and the Taleban in the province.

US commanders stressed this morning their desire to move quickly and decisively with overwhelming force to seize the entire southern Helmand River valley from Taleban control ahead of the delayed Afghan Presidential elections on August 20.

“Where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces,” Marine Corps Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marines in southern Afghanistan said in a statement.

He told his staff before the operation: “The intent is to go big, go strong and go fast, and by doing so we are going to save lives on both sides.”

A tentative prediction: things will be relatively quiet over the first several days as Taliban melt back into the population, observing the new state of play and waiting for U.S. troops to dig in. Then, all hell will break loose. This is the big banana for the Taliban–more than half of the world’s opium is grown in Helmand. They will not roll over without a screeching brawl.

These troops from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade also come with their own integrated air support.  Note that air strikes in support of troops in contact with opposing fighters have accounted for the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties caused by pro-Afghan government forces (that’s the U.S., NATO and Afghan national government’s forces). Going “big,” “fast,” and “hard” with air support generally means dead civilians:

…[M]ost cases of civilian deaths from airstrikes occurred during the fluid, rapid-response strikes mostly carried out in support of “troops in contact” – ground troops who are under insurgent attack. Such unplanned strikes included situations where US special forces units – normally small in number and lightly armed – came under insurgent attack; in US/NATO attacks in pursuit of insurgent forces who had retreated to populated villages; and in air attacks where US “anticipatory self-defense” rules of engagement applied.

The U.S. forces have declared their intent is to protect the population. Let’s hold them to it. In the meantime, as Robert Greenwald’s Rethink Afghanistan Twitter feed points out, this escalation of the conflict will impact civilians, hard. Aside from pushing your lawmakers and media to remain focused on civilian casualties and well-being in Helmand, you can help by donating to the Afghan Women’s Mission to buy bare essentials for refugees of the fighting.