July 16, 2018:
An American researcher surveying opinions of people in northwest Pakistan (the “tribal territories”, mainly Waziristan and some adjacent areas) discovered a pattern already well known by American troops who served across the border in Afghanistan and also had to deal with Pushtun tribes and the Taliban groups recruited from both Afghan and Pakistani Pushtun. The Pakistani Pushtun are fighting against the Pakistani government while the Afghan Taliban are fighting for the Pakistani government. Both Taliban organizations see the United States as an enemy and both have suffered greatly from American airstrikes using UAVs and laser-guided missiles. But the civilians who were often victims of the Taliban violence had a different view of the American UAVs and their missile attacks.
The conventional wisdom (at least among local and international media) was that these airstrikes killed a lot of civilians and aided recruiting for Islamic terror groups. The opinion surveys of the Pakistani civilians (in areas where these missile attacks took place) showed that the missile attacks had little or nothing to do with why young men joined the Pakistani Taliban. The main causes of “radicalization” were the large number of religious schools extolling the spiritual benefits of being an Islamic warrior and defender of Islam. While some of these students go to Afghanistan to join the Afghan Taliban most now stay in Pakistan and join the fight against the corruption and violence the Pakistani military has brought to the tribal territories and Pakistan in general. As in Afghanistan, the locals saw the American missile strikes as a benefit because they were precise and usually killed leaders of Islamic terror groups that had declared war on the Pakistani government and that gave the Pakistani military a reason to invade the tribal territories in mid-2014, an aggressive action that is still not over. The Pakistani troops were much less accurate in applying firepower than the Americans and the Pakistani Pushtuns noticed that.
There was a similar situation in Afghanistan, where it was mostly about the ROE (Rules Of Engagement) used by American forces and demands for fewer civilian casualties, even if it means the troops are put in more danger. Sometimes this approach actually puts civilians in more danger. For example, when American efforts against the Taliban increased after 2008 American troops increasingly encountered angry Afghan civilians who demanded that the Americans act more decisively in pursuing and killing Taliban gunman, even if it put Afghan civilians at risk. This was an unexpected side effect of a change, in 2009, of the U.S. ROE in Afghanistan. The revised ROE was in response to popular (or at least media) anger at civilians killed by American smart bombs and laser-guided missiles. As a result of the new ROE, it became much more difficult to get permission to drop a smart bomb when there might be civilians nearby. Now American commanders have to decide who they should respond to, Afghan civilians asking for relief from Taliban oppression or Taliban influenced media condemning the U.S. for any Afghan civilians killed, or thought to be killed, by American firepower. What to do?
Taliban propaganda, and the enthusiasm of the media for jumping on real, or imagined, civilian deaths caused by foreign troops, made people forget that far more civilians (about four times as many) had been killed by the Taliban. But because Afghans have been conditioned to expect more civilized behavior from the foreign troops, much less media attention is paid to the civilians killed by the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Of course, Afghan civilians are aware of who is killing most of the civilians, and that's why the Taliban and al Qaeda get low numbers in local opinion polls. But the media, hammering foreign troops every time they kill a civilian or are simply (often falsely) accused of doing so, urged that the ROE become far more strict than it ever was in Iraq. Thus, one Taliban victory you don't hear much about is how they turned their use of human shields into a powerful, and very successful, propaganda weapon against NATO and U.S. troops and an excellent way to avoid getting attacked.
Under the 2009 ROE you had to, in effect, do a casualty analysis and consult a lawyer before a deliberate missile or smart bomb attack is made on the Taliban. To their credit, the U.S. Air Force targeting specialists (who do most of this) could carry out the analysis quickly (often within minutes). Even the lawyers soon got quick at the decision making game. The bad news was that attacks were often called off just because there's some small risk of harming civilians.
The Taliban were aware of the ROE and took advantage of it. The Taliban tried to live among civilians as much as possible. But the Taliban and al Qaeda did have to move around, and the ability of NATO and U.S. ground forces, aircraft, and UAVs to keep eyes on a Taliban leader for weeks at a time led to the deaths of many smug guys who thought they had beat the system.
The situation across the border in the Pakistani tribal territories was different. The only American airstrikes there were by UAVs armed with laser-guided missiles. These were used to kill key members of Islamic terror groups (leaders, technical specialists) and these rarely hurt civilians because the Americans preferred to hit their targets while they were traveling. The Americans paid a lot for the information and while the money was attractive a lot of the informants were motivated by a desire to hurt the Islamic terrorists who, along with the army, were making life miserable for civilians in the tribal territories. But the civilians in the tribal territories did suffer from attacks by American smart bombs delivered by American made (but Pakistan Air Force operated) F-16s. The Pakistani ROE was different. When the Pakistani army invaded North Waziristan in 2014 civilians were warned to evacuate the area and most of them did. That’s because the Pakistani ROE considered anyone on the ground who was not military as a legitimate target and human shields were ineffective.
In contrast, the U.S. Air Force managed to reduce civilian casualties, from deliberate air attack, to near zero. Most of the Afghan civilian casualties occur when airpower is called in to help NATO and U.S. troops under attack. In these conditions, the ROE is much more flexible but now Taliban use of civilians as human shields can sometimes be allowed to get friendly troops into very dangerous situations. The tactics used by foreign troops will change to adapt to this and there may be tense situations where Afghan troops are getting hammered, calling for a smart bomb, and told that they can't have it because of the risk of civilian casualties. Another risk is the possibility of the Taliban dragging some women and kids along with them when they move, simply to exploit the ROE and avoid getting hit with a smart bomb.
The 2009 restrictions on the use of air power and the greater Taliban use of civilians as human shields enabled the Taliban to avoid a lot of situations where they would otherwise get killed. When they are out in the open, the Taliban still got toasted regularly by foreign troops (with or without the use of smart bombs). The 2009 ROE was based on the fact that the Taliban are increasingly openly hated by Afghan civilians. This has led to more tribes getting angry enough to fight the Taliban. This is why outside of Pushtun areas (most of southern Afghanistan) you see very few Taliban. The Taliban are basically a Pushtun thing and non-Pushtun people are violently opposed to any Taliban moving into their territory. The 2009 American ROE was hoping to exploit that growing hatred of the Taliban in the south. But in some areas of the south, particularly Helmand province (where most of the world’s heroin comes from), the Taliban and locals are in the drug business together, there are still fans of the Taliban. Moreover, the Taliban recruits heavily in Helmand and adjacent provinces. This is where the Taliban came from (initially as refugees living in Pakistan). Helmand has always been ground zero in the fight against the Taliban, and now the fight has gotten harder and more dangerous.
Afghanistan also made it clear that you often have terrorist situations that only military type operations can deal with. Police are not much use in a war zone. And what the media reports on the situation is often what the journalist wants it to be, not what is. The recent opinion survey in the Pakistani tribal territories did not produce any new revelations, at least not for the locals. But it reminds you that reality is what the locals tell you it is. This is what makes the American Special Forces for valuable in situations like this. Most of the Special Forces troops sent to Afghanistan knew the languages and customs of the local tribes and took for granted that they had to go in, politely introduce themselves and then “drink a lot of tea” and listen. The Pustuns welcomed visitors that spoke their language and respected their customs. The Special Forces did not find gossip about distant cousins a few provinces away to be boring, much fewer details of why one tribe or clan was not on speaking terms with another (often it had to do with a dispute generations old). The Special Forces were often considered annoying by their own superiors, the CIA and senior government officials because the Special Forces operators, after much tea and much listening reported a much different reality than the media was pushing. Who to believe?