More on Afghanistan: Peace Talks and Civilian Casualties

In his post below, John Rosenthal pointed to Europe as the source of much of the push for (most probably futile) negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, much of the news coverage of the issue following the Afghanistan Senate’s recent vote in favor of negotiations pointed toward internal Afghan origins for the apparent movement toward negotiations.

In a story in the Sunday New York Times, for example, Carlotta Gall and David Sanger suggested that there is an upsurge in anger among the Afghanistan public after a number of incidents in which U.S. and NATO air strikes caused civilian deaths.

It’s difficult to assess the significance of the backlash among the Afghan people, however. The Gall/Sanger piece cited “Afghan, American and other foreign officials” and “military commanders and diplomats” at NATO headquarters in Brussels most prominently as sources for the notion of a growing Afghan political backlash. Given these sources, and the recent history of European calls for negotiations that John cited in his post, one can’t help but wonder if the Afghan political backlash story is made in Europe.

The one quote in the NYT story from an Afghan talking about his feelings toward NATO and American forces hardly reflected zealous domestic support for ending foreign military operations against the Taliban:

“We are not saying that the foreigners should leave or stay, we are just saying they should not do this,” said a farmer, Fateh Muhammad, 55, gesturing with his scythe at an enormous bomb crater and his neighbor’s collapsed house.

Indeed they should not do these things. In the cases when they do, they should do everything they can to avoid a political backlash that could undermine the war effort. Last week, the Pentagon demonstrated some understanding of the dangers of Afghan anger resulting from civilian casualties when it issued an apology that appeared unprecedented in its contrition.

Following a March 4 incident in which a Marine Corps Special Forces unit that had been attacked by a suicide bomber allegedly went on a rampage and killed several innocent civilians, the U.S. military apologized and paid the families of the slain civilians $2000 each.

In a May 8 briefing for the Pentagon press corps by video conference from Afghanistan, Col. John Nicholson read part of the DOD apology:

We came here to help the Afghan people and the Afghan government, not to hurt you. We deeply appreciate the hospitality you’ve shown us by allowing us to stand beside you and to fight our common enemy together. America has stood by you in the anti-Soviet jihad, and we stand by you today. God has blessed us with success, and Insha’Allah we will continue to see a better life for all Afghans, a life of dignity, honor and opportunity.

Most American soldiers here have families of their own. When we see Afghan children smiling and waving, we think of our own children. And this brings a smile to our faces and joy to our hearts.

We wish for you and your children, just as for our own children, to have a happy and healthy life. All life is precious. Our soldiers believe this; the American people believe this. When our soldiers see suffering and death, as we do very frequently in this war, we are very sad. When children or other innocent people suffer or die, it breaks our hearts.

So I stand before you today, deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people. We are filled with grief and sadness at the death of any Afghan, but the death and wounding of innocent Afghans at the hand of Americans is a stain on our honor and on the memory of the many Americans who have died defending Afghanistan and the Afghan people. This was a terrible, terrible mistake, and my nation grieves with you for your loss and suffering. We humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness.

Was the payment and this apology enough? In a well-argued op-ed in this morning’s New York Times, Jon Tracy, a former Army JAG in Iraq, argued that the United States has failed to offer sufficient compensation in too many cases:

A condolence payment — which is also what the money given to the Afghan families last week was labeled — is not the same thing as official compensation under United States law. The difference is substantial. Official compensation under the Foreign Claims Act acknowledges wrongdoing; a condolence payment explicitly denies wrongdoing, and the incident is considered, in effect, an accident of war. The Foreign Claims Act offers full compensation for the loss along the lines of what Americans can receive in civil court; condolence involves a nominal payment. But the military has conflated the two, giving condolence payments to the victims’ families even as it has investigated and punished wrongdoing by our troops.

. . .

The Army’s new counterinsurgency manual, which is the blueprint for the next stage of the Iraq war, places a strong emphasis on winning hearts and minds. Today’s top brass should understand, just as their forebears did in 1942, that to allow injustice in the cases of American misconduct only breeds more resentment. Ignoring the Foreign Claims Act will only lengthen the time our troops will have to stay abroad. Offering honest compensation to the survivors may help the families of victims find forgiveness; more important, perhaps, it may give their neighbors, and all Iraqis, new respect for America’s willingness to right its wrongs.

Given the billions the United States has spent on the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which have been prolonged for years by dogged insurgencies, it seems to us that, in addition to being just, paying more to victims families to ensure that potential American allies aren’t radicalized by “collateral damage” incidents would be money that could not possibly be better spent.