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    South Asia
     Jul 9, 2010
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Bombs away! Remember Cambodia
By Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen

The United States war in Afghanistan is "going badly", according to the New York Times. Nine years after American forces invaded to oust the repressive Taliban regime and its al-Qaeda ally, "the deteriorating situation demands a serious assessment now of the military and civilian strategies".

Aerial bombardment, a centerpiece of the US military effort in Afghanistan, has had a devastating impact on civilians there. Along with Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents and suicide bombers, who have recently escalated their slaughter of the Afghan population, US and North Atlantic Treaty (NATO) aircraft have for years inflicted a horrific toll on innocent villagers.

When US bombs hit a civilian warehouse in Afghanistan in late


2001, then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld responded, "We're not running out of targets, Afghanistan is." There was laughter in the press gallery.

But the bombing continued and spread to Iraq in 2003, with the United States determined to use "the force necessary to prevail, plus some", and asserting that no promises would be made to avoid "collateral damage".

Afghan and Iraqi civilian casualties, in other words, were predictable if not inevitable. The show of strength aside, didn't the US underestimate the strategic cost of collateral damage? If "shock and awe" appeared to work at least in 2001 against the Taliban regular army, the continued use of aerial bombardment has also nourished civilian support for the Taliban and al-Qaeda anti-US insurgency.

In March 2010, the New York Times reported that "civilian deaths caused by American troops and American bombs have outraged the local population and made the case for the insurgency." Beyond the moral meaning of inflicting predictable civilian casualties, and contravention of international laws of war, it is also clear that the political repercussions of air strikes outweigh their military benefits.

This is not news. The extension of the Vietnam War to Cambodia, which the US Air Force bombed from 1965 to 1973, was a troubling precedent. First, Cambodia became in 1969-1973 one of the most heavily-bombarded countries in history (along with North Korea, South Vietnam, and Laos). Then, in 1975-79, it suffered genocide at the hands of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge communists, who had been military targets of the US bombing but also became its political beneficiaries.

Despite key differences, an important similarity links the current conflict in Afghanistan to the 1970-1975 Cambodian war: increasing US reliance on air power against a heterogeneous insurgency. Moreover, in the past few years, as fighting has continued in Afghanistan supported by US air power, Taliban forces have benefited politically, recruiting among an anti-US Afghan constituency that appears to have grown even as the insurgents suffer military casualties.

In Cambodia, it was precisely the harshest, most extreme elements of the insurgency who survived the US bombing, expanded in numbers, and then won the war. The Khmer Rouge grew from a small force of fewer than 10,000 in 1969 to over 200,000 troops and militia in 1973.

During that period, their recruitment propaganda successfully highlighted the casualties and damage caused by US bombing. Within a broader Cambodian insurgency, the radical Khmer Rouge leaders eclipsed their royalist, reformist, and pro-Hanoi allies as well as defeating their enemy, the pro-US Cambodian government of Lon Nol, in 1975.

The Nixon Doctrine had proposed that the United States could supply an allied Asian regime with the materiel to withstand internal or external challenge while the US withdrew its own ground troops or remained at arm's length.

"Vietnamization" built up the air and ground fighting capability of South Vietnamese government forces while American units slowly disengaged. In Cambodia from 1970, Washington gave military aid to General Lon Nol's new regime, tolerating its rampant corruption, while the US Air Force (and the large South Vietnamese Air Force) conducted massive aerial bombardment of its Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge communist opponents and their heterogeneous united front, across rural Cambodia.

United States policy in Afghanistan has shown a similar reliance on air strikes in fighting the motley insurgency there. These strikes, while far more precisely targeted than the earlier bombing campaigns in Indochina, inflicted substantial civilian casualties in the first year of the Afghan war in 2001-02.

The Project on Defense Alternatives estimated that in a three-month period between October 7, 2001 and January 1, 2002, between 1,000 and 1,300 civilians were killed by aerial bombing, and The Los Angeles Times found that in a five-month period from October 7, 2001 to February 28, 2002, between 1,067 and 1,201 civilian deaths were reported in the media.

Deaths reported in newspapers should be treated with caution, but not all are reported, and the total was undoubtedly high. And the toll has continued long after the initial US invasion. According to Human Rights Watch, air strikes by the US Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and its NATO-led coalition, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), killed 116 Afghan civilians in 2006, and 321 civilians in 2007.

And the number rose again in 2008: according to a United Nations study on the humanitarian costs of the conflict, air strikes accounted for 530 of the 828 civilians killed that year by US or Afghan government forces. The same study found that between January and June 2009, 200 of the 310 recorded civilian deaths were caused by air strikes. Overall in 2009, the UN reported that 2,400 civilians were killed in Afghanistan, though the number killed by foreign and Afghan troops was down 25%.

While their large-scale killing of civilians presented a moral challenge to the US-led coalition forces, there has also been increasing acknowledgment of strategic costs accompanying these casualties.

In mid-2007, the London Guardian reported that "a senior UK military officer said he had asked the US to withdraw its special forces from a volatile area that was crucial in the battle against the Taliban" after the US forces were "criticized for relying on air strikes for cover when they believed they were confronted by large groups of Taliban fighters".

The paper added: "British and NATO officials have consistently expressed concern about US tactics, notably air strikes, which kill civilians, sabotaging the battle for ‘hearts and minds'."

NATO's secretary general added that NATO commanders "had changed the rules of engagement, ordering their troops to hold their fire in situations where civilians appeared to be at risk". More recently Command Sergeant Major Michael Hall, the senior NATO soldier in Afghanistan, has argued that many of the insurgents being held at Bagram air base had joined the insurgency due to deaths of people they knew.

He told the troops, "There are stories after stories about how these people are turned into insurgents. Every time there is an escalation of force we are finding that innocents are being killed." The same report cited a village elder from Hodkail corroborating this argument: "The people are tired of all these cruel actions by the foreigners, and we can't suffer it anymore. The people do not have any other choice, they will rise against the government and fight them and the foreigners. There are a lot of cases of killing of innocent people."

Yet the bombings have continued and the civilian death toll has mounted. In 2008, after US aircraft killed more than 30 Afghan civilians in each of two bombardments of rural wedding parties, the top US commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, "ordered a tightening of procedures for launching air strikes" and proclaimed that "minimizing civilian casualties is crucial". In December 2008, McKiernan issued another directive, ordering that "all responses must be proportionate".

Again new procedures failed to stop the slaughter from the air. Following an investigation into a 2009 air strike in Farah province that killed at least 26 civilians (the Afghan government reported a much higher toll of 140 dead), McKiernan's replacement, General Stanley McChrystal, issued new guidelines meant to minimize civilian casualties.

In earlier testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, McChrystal had stressed the strategic importance of civilian protection. "A willingness to operate in ways minimizing causalities or damage ... is critical," he argued. "Although I expect stiff fighting ahead, the measure of success will not be enemy killed. It will be shielding the Afghan population from violence." So far the cost of failure, for instance by inflicting more civilian casualties, has included a political windfall for Taliban insurgents, who by 2009 posed a much stronger threat than they had in 2005.

Since the issuing of McChrystal's 2009 directive, however, air strikes have continued to kill civilians, the toll increasing with the escalation of the US ground war in response to the greater Taliban threat.

In February 2010 alone, 46 Afghan civilians were killed in just three strikes. An errant rocket attack on February 14 killed 12 civilians. Four days later, a NATO air strike mistakenly killed seven Afghan police officers. Another NATO strike on February 20 killed 27 civilians.

In comparison to the previous year, the three-month period from March to June 2010 saw a 44% drop in civilian casualties caused by the coalition. Yet, nine years after the US went to war in Afghanistan, bombing remains part of US strategy and the death toll in aerial strikes continues. In a March incident, a US air strike killed 13 civilians and in June, 10 more civilians, including at least five women and children, were killed in a NATO air strike.

One reaction to the McChrystal directive has been an increased US use of unmanned aerial drones to deliver air strikes. While proponents of targeted drone strikes argue that they offer greater precision, and therefore minimize civilian casualties, it is also possible that the greater ease with which they can be deployed could instead increase the number of raids and thus the civilian casualty rates. 

Continued 1 2

Surge' smoke follows Petraeus to Afpak (Jul 3, '10)

Counter-insurgency down for the count
(Jul 3, '10)

1. Al-Qaeda's new man eyes Pakistan

2. Weather clears for a strike on Iran

3. US takes hard look at China's secrets

4. Change is in the wind

5. Obama and Netanyahu all smiles

6. Sex scandal rocks Iraqi's Shi'ites

7. Europe keeps mum on Russian cobalt

8. Afghan probe excluded key witnesses

9. The anatomy of an attack on Iran

10. Japan takes a shot at China - via Taiwan

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jul 7, 2010)


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