You know that things aren’t going well in Afghanistan when NATO and its Afghan allies kill more civilians than the Taliban.
From January to June of this year, NATO and the Afghan security forces killed 314 civilians, while the Taliban murdered 279 civilians, according to the United Nations.
Now, I’m not drawing an equivalence between the slaughter caused by Taliban attacks and the deaths due to the recklessness of NATO and its Afghan allies. Far from it. In fact, I find the Taliban so repulsive that I wasn’t opposed to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow the regime and to find Osama.
But I was soon distressed by the American strategy of wanton carpet-bombing and massive air strikes to root out and decimate the enemy before sending ground troops into an area. Marc Herold, an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire, tracked civilian casualties from press reports.
“My most recent figures show that between 3,125 and 3,620 Afghan civilians were killed between October 7  and July 31 ,” he wrote in The Guardian in August 2002. “The thousands of Afghan civilians who perished did so because U.S. military and political elites chose to carry out a bombing campaign using extremely powerful weaponry in civilian-rich areas (the isolated training camps were largely destroyed during the first week).”
Alas, little has changed since then. In fact, there have been in recent months several incidents of civilian casualties caused due to NATO irresponsibility. The most serious one has been the killing of perhaps forty-five people in a military action just last weekend.
The issue of civilian deaths has become so serious that it dominated a recent conference in Rome on rebuilding Afghanistan. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, no anti-American radical, expressed concern at the gathering, stating that he was “very much saddened and troubled” by the killings and urging NATO and Afghan forces “to act strictly in accordance with international humanitarian law.”
NATO’s defense is that Taliban members deliberately mingle with the civilian population to evade detection and to increase civilian casualties for propaganda purposes. This assertion cannot be dismissed out of hand. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have come out with reports castigating the Taliban for failing to follow even the most elementary rules of war and for deliberately targeting civilians. Both the reports  also take to task, however, NATO and Afghan forces for not being careful enough to avoid civilian casualties.
This increasing toll is rattling Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is already facing criticism for misrule, graft, lawlessness, and the coddling of human-rights violators. (“The ongoing failure of the Afghan government to uphold the rule of law and effectively guarantee fair and transparent justice which meets international standards is impeding the country’s progress, contributing to increased insecurity, poor governance, corruption, a burgeoning illicit drugs trade and widespread human rights violations being committed with impunity,” states another recent Amnesty International report.) Karzai has appointed a commission to probe the recent killings. He has also accused NATO of an “extreme use of force.”
Karzai has previously had harsh words for NATO actions, and has asked that they be cleared with Afghan authorities first. “Our innocent people are becoming victims of careless operations of NATO and international forces,” he has said. “Afghan life is not cheap and it should not be treated as such.”
Karzai’s strong response is not just due to anguish at the death of his countrymen. He also knows that these civilian casualties are undermining his regime. Leaving aside the (massive) moral implications of the indiscriminate use of force, such tactics are also strategically counterproductive. A Toronto Globe and Mail story describes how the Taliban is taking advantage of NATO’s ineptness to draw people to its ranks. “In the two days since the overnight bombing left an unknown number of people dead on Saturday morning, residents say the Taliban have been busy drumming up support in the affected area, offering rudimentary medical care, and even helping journalists arrange telephone interviews with relatives of the victims,” it says.
NATO and the Afghan security forces need to change their approach. Otherwise, they may end up creating more enemies than they kill.