When I was picking targets for the Iraq invasion as chief of high-value targeting for the Pentagon, collateral damage was a side issue. We treated civilian deaths like a fire drill: When they happened, it was seen as a media problem to be dealt with, not a sign we might need to change our procedures. Today, however, protecting civilians is taken as seriously as killing the target. When civilians are killed, Afghanistan commanding Gen. Stanley McChrystal apologizes on Afghan national television and the military investigates. Casualties in this latest offensive in Marjah were down nearly 30 percent from previous operations as a result.
After years of constant offensive operations, the U.S. military finally understands the negative impact of dead civilians. They cause riots, they undermine confidence in the government, and they boost distrust of foreign forces -- all things that could ultimately lose the war. Yet despite general success in cutting civilian casualties, a Feb. 21 airstrike that claimed an estimated 27 Afghan civilians shows that one group in the military still needs to be reined in: Special Forces. Most civilian deaths are now caused by this one subset of the armed forces. As the rest of the armed forces change around it, Special Forces needs to catch up.
Between 2007 and 2009, the majority of civilians killed in U.S. airstrikes died when Special Forces summoned a strike to support them during what is called a TIC, or "troops in contact" -- that is, contact with the enemy. Special Forces are designed to be small, mobile units. When they come into contact with the enemy, it is often an unexpected or unequal circumstance, where they are caught off guard and find themselves outnumbered. In scenarios like that, they frequently believe they have few options other than to call in an airstrike. Knowing this, U.S. commanders have begun requiring troops to withdraw when possible rather than get into a protracted firefight that could claim civilian lives. McChrystal's latest tactical directive restricts the use of air power for the same reason.
Oddly, the Feb. 21 incident was not a TIC -- and that's what makes it so jarring. Initial reports indicate that a U.S. Special Forces helicopter was tracking a convoy of Afghan buses when it was alerted to the potential movement of Taliban forces. The information came through a signals intercept. (Hopefully the military had more than single-source intelligence; when we pulled the trigger in Iraq based only on phone calls, civilians typically paid the price.) Whatever intelligence the military did or didn't have, it turned out the trucks were carrying civilians, including women and children.
It is too early to know to what extent U.S. forces had performed a pre-strike "pattern of life" analysis, wherein they observe a target to determine if it is civilian in nature (a recent innovation and something we never did in Iraq in 2003). Nor do we know whether they completed a collateral-damage estimate. But what does seem clear is that no U.S. forces were ever directly in danger, so options other than air power should have been on the table. Special Forces could have called in to other supporting troops with the aim of capturing the enemy. The military could have followed these on-the-run Taliban to even more Taliban. Instead they chose to fire.
This wasn't the first time Special Forces have killed civilians in internationally minded territory. Back in 2007, Britain asked U.S. Special Forces to leave the part of Helmand province they patrolled because of the Americans' overreliance on airstrikes and high civilian deaths, both of which the British found to be undermining the war effort. In several of the embassies that I visited in Kabul, I heard diplomats comment that it was time to reign in the Special Forces "cowboys."