May 28, 2009:
The Taliban continue to have success in pressuring American combat leaders to halt the use of smart bombs when there are civilians nearby. The Taliban have been aggressively using civilians as human shields. Although this makes the Taliban even more unpopular, they don't care. The Taliban lost their claim to widespread popularity a decade ago, when they were still in power, and proving to be as oppressive an any past tyrants. It was this unpopularity that led to their rapid (two months) loss of power in late 2001. Now they are determined to regain power at any cost.
While American politicians feel most of the media and diplomatic pressure every time Afghan civilians are killed by U.S. smart bombs, combat leaders warn that more restrictions on the use of smart bombs risks creating a real morale, and performance, problem among the troops. Soldiers and marines have put up with very restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement) in Iraq and Afghanistan. These ROE get little publicity (partly to prevent the enemy from knowing, and exploiting, the details), but the troops understand that civilian losses cause them problems. But when the ROE put them at greater risk, as they sometimes do, the enemy benefits.
So far, commanders have kept the politicians from instituting ROE that endanger the troops. But allowing the Taliban to get away with protecting themselves with human shields (which they often do now), enables the enemy to more lethal to American troops. Afghan troops and police are at the same risks. Currently, some 40 percent of smart bombs are used in support of Afghan security forces. Some Afghan leaders are willing to put more restrictive ROE on foreign troops than on Afghans. Part of this is because many Afghan leaders are in the pay of drug gangs, or even the Taliban. Corruption in Afghanistan is a national pastime, something which gets less media attention than Afghan civilians getting killed while being used as human shields by the Taliban or drug gang fighters. The Taliban strategy is a smart one, for they understand how the media works, and the innate hostility of Afghans to outsiders (which often includes Afghans from another tribe, or just from a few valleys away.)
Most U.S. bombing missions are now taking place in Afghanistan. In Iraq, less than a ton of bombs a month are being dropped. In Afghanistan, it's over 100 tons a month. But even in Afghanistan, this tonnage has declined nearly 40 percent in the last year. Partly due to the greater use of smaller bombs and missiles, and partly due to the greater use of civilians as human shields by the Taliban. About a hundred civilians are killed each month in Afghanistan. Most are killed by the Taliban, but 10-20 percent are killed by American smart bombs, missiles and shells.
The Afghan government can only condemn the Taliban use of terror (murder, kidnapping, arson and looting), but they are expected to do something about the civilian deaths caused by foreign troops. The government is forced, by media stories of the bombing deaths, to call for "fewer civilians deaths." When it's pointed out that this makes it more difficult to fight the Taliban, the Afghans suggest that foreign troops go in and kill the Taliban one by one. But this gets more U.S. and NATO troops killed, and even suggesting this is bad for troop morale. No one likes to discuss this openly, because U.S. and NATO commanders admit, at least off the record, that the lives of their troops are more valuable than those of Afghan civilians being used as human shields. Letting the Taliban get away, because of the use of human shields, is no solution either, because those Taliban will eventually kill more civilians and foreign troops. But the media outcry, often bought and paid for by the Taliban or drug lords, works its magic. The Taliban also use these fatalities to stir up those opposed to foreign troops even being in Afghanistan (an ancient and cherished tradition among many Pushtun tribes), and this results in newsworthy demonstrations and protests.
There are actually fewer civilian deaths in Afghanistan, compared to Iraq, because of terrorist attacks. Al Qaeda learned their lesson in Iraq, and are not as murderous against uncooperative Afghan tribal leaders as they were against Iraqi ones. This time around, the Taliban seek to either ally with, scare off, or buy off all the tribes in southern Afghanistan, and form a Pushtun coalition capable to defeating the tribes that comprise the other 60 percent of the Afghan population. At best, that will lead to another civil war. But this reality does not dissuade the Taliban leaders, who believe they are on a Mission From God. And those civilians who are killed while serving as human shields, are declared "involuntary martyrs."
The U.S. and NATO strategy is to clear the Taliban out of an area, and then arm and train local tribesmen to enable them to keep the Taliban out. The locals have some weapons, every Afghan village does. But when a few dozen armed Taliban show up, the locals rarely have enough weapons, or organization, to keep the "foreigners" (many of the Taliban are Pakistanis, or at least Afghans from another tribe) out. But with more weapons, ammunition and training on how to organize security and call for help (with a radio or satellite phone supplied by NATO), the Taliban are denied access to civilians for use as human shields.
This approach works, because in the more powerful (better armed and organized) tribes and clans, the Taliban stay away. The Taliban also avoid places with cell phone service. That's because the Taliban know that, even if they have a few supporters or spies in a village, someone will use their cell phone to call the police, or nearby NATO troops. If given a chance, the Taliban will avoid an encounter with foreign, or even Afghan, troops. Even with human shields, the Taliban know they are likely to die soon once discovered.