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What’s Missing From Improved US Rules of Engagement in Helmand Offensive

General Stanley McChrystal has revised airstrike targeting but not prisoner policy.

In the ongoing coverage of the NATO offensive in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, most articles make a point of the changed rules of engagement that have been developed to reduce civilian casualties. For example, consider this passage from a Washington Post article today:

To the Marines of Bravo Company, the black-and-white video footage from a surveillance drone seemed to present the perfect shot: more than a dozen armed insurgents exiting a building and heading to positions to attack U.S. and Afghan forces seeking to wrest control of this Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan.

Facing stiff resistance from Taliban fighters, the Marines radioed for permission to call in an airstrike on the insurgents at midday Monday. It appeared to be the sort of clear opportunity that would have prompted a rapidly executed bombing run during the Iraq war, or even in the first seven years of this conflict.

But not anymore: Officers at the Marine headquarters deemed the insurgents to be too close to a set of houses. In the new way the United States and its NATO allies are waging the Afghan war, dropping a bomb on or near a house is forbidden unless troops are in imminent danger of being overrun, or they can prove that no civilians are inside.

Reducing civilian casualties is one key to the proverbial battle for "hearts and minds". New reports are now suggesting that the largest civilian casualty event so far in the offensive may not have been due to improper targeting, but instead resulted from the use of civilians as human shields by Taliban fighters. Here is McClatchy on the continuing investigation of this event:

However, Afghanistan’s interior minister, Hanif Atmar, gave a different account Monday, saying that the dead civilians were being held as hostages.

"The Taliban were attacking (the soldiers) from five places. We took a decision to hit the fort (house) but we didn’t know they had civilian hostages," Atmar said at a news conference in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.

The ISAF later suggested that the coalition’s initial apology had been in error. Coalition investigators now think that the rocket hit its target and two insurgents died in the strike in addition to the 12 civilians, ISAF officials said. They’re trying to determine whether those Taliban were holding the civilians prisoner

It should not require pointing out that the use of civilian hostages as human shields is a war crime.

The revised rules of engagement for choosing targets to be bombed or hit with missiles are commendable. However, this change, by itself, will not be enough to convince the civilian population that US forces are present for their benefit. As Anand Gopal reported last month, secret detentions of innocent civilians are turning Afghans against the US presence:

Sometime in the last few years, Pashtun villagers in Afghanistan’s rugged heartland began to lose faith in the American project. Many of them can point to the precise moment of this transformation, and it usually took place in the dead of the night, when most of the country was fast asleep. In the secretive U.S. detentions process, suspects are usually nabbed in the darkness and then sent to one of a number of detention areas on military bases, often on the slightest suspicion and without the knowledge of their families.

This process has become even more feared and hated in Afghanistan than coalition airstrikes. The night raids and detentions, little known or understood outside of these Pashtun villages, are slowly turning Afghans against the very forces they greeted as liberators just a few years ago.

In the many articles that I have seen touting the improved rules of engagement for bomb and missile targeting, I have seen no mention of improved rules for detention. As I noted in this diary, the US appeared to play a "shell game" with prisons in Afghanistan ahead of the surge, denying the presence of secret facilities reported in the press to be under JSOC control and working to transfer publicly acknowledged prisons to Afghan control. When those actions are coupled with the line-up of personnel in charge of detainee treatment, it appears that the practice of detaining large numbers of civilians, including innocent civilians, and holding them in secret while denying status review indefinitely will remain in place.

How many prisoners are being taken in Operation Moshtarak? Where will they be held? What will be the procedure for status hearings for these new prisoners? What about status hearings for prisoners already held before the offensive?

If the US really wanted to win the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan population, the announcements of improved airstrike targeting would be coupled with announcements of the closure of secret JSOC prisons and rapid status hearings for all prisoners. Given the history of General Stanley McChrystal and his team in charge of prisoner policy, I’m not holding my breath on that one.

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Jim White

Jim White

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