How to Cut Collateral Damage in Afghanistan

Rein in the Special Forces cowboys, and let Gen. McChrystal call the shots.

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."

Missteps like these are becoming the exception across the military. After civilian casualties spiked in 2008, to the point that Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded the United States stop using air power altogether, statistics today reveal the clear shift in emphasis since McChrystal took over. Close air support (CAS) missions have doubled since 2007, but the number of weapons dropped by aircraft has fallen 20 percent.  Many of those CAS missions are flying low and loud to scare rather than kill.

Yet though this certainly counts as progress, the bar is not high enough yet. A good next step would be setting a higher standard for intelligence before a strike is made. As I learned firsthand in Iraq, you need to be sure of what or who your target really is before you make the decision to kill. The U.S. military is expert in locating the enemy, but it lags in locating civilians. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance sorties are one answer; these flights have doubled in number since 2007, adding much-needed eyes in the sky. More unmanned aircraft are also in the air, targets are observed for longer so civilians can be weeded out, and collateral damage estimates are often performed. When these procedures, first set up in June 2009, are followed, fewer civilians die needlessly. When they are ignored -- as seems to have happened in the Feb. 21 airstrike -- the local population just gets even more alienated.

One piece of unadulterated good news is the Pentagon's progress in terms of accountability. A typical response to dead civilians in the past was to blame Taliban fighters for using them as human shields. While shielding is a contributing factor to civilian deaths, this reflexive response was a loud "not my fault" that did little to assuage anger in Afghanistan. Such responses contributed to the circulating rumors that U.S. forces can use technology to see into Afghans' homes or that U.S. bombs can target specific individuals without harming others. Investigations were also often halfhearted. "Yes, the Taliban target us, but we expected more from you," I often heard from Afghans when I was there during 2007, just as the casualties skyrocketed. Now, things have taken a 180-degree turn. These days, the military begins an investigation as soon as an incident is reported. It also takes responsibility and often provides a condolence payment. Lessons have clearly been learned.

But it's not time to celebrate yet. Civilian deaths at the hands of international forces have dropped, but only to 2007 levels -- the year civilian casualties first became a problem. As the recent airstrike reminds us, there is still a long way to go. If Special Forces are the main impediment, there is no better man for the job than the former head of Joint Special Operations Command, McChrystal. Regardless of who is in charge, the civilian population is the key.  Although most Afghans are killed by the Taliban, it is Afghan civilian deaths at the hands of Americans that will sway the outcome of this conflict one way or the other.



Adios, Amigos

How Latin America stopped caring what the United States thinks.

As Hillary Clinton travels through Latin America this week, the U.S. secretary of state will find it profoundly transformed from the relatively serene and accommodating region she encountered as first lady in the 1990s. During that period between the end of the Cold War and the onset of the 21st century, Latin America lacked the political stirrings, fragmentation, and disarray that now define much of the landscape.

It was also much more willing to hear advice from its neighbor to the north. In sharp contrast to the environment that prevailed when President Bill Clinton presided over the first Summit of the Americas in 1994 (when the now moribund Free Trade Area of the Americas was launched), today the region, led by Brazil and Mexico, is a rising force in its own right. Many countries have global aspirations and interests, and they expect Washington to treat them as such. The secretary of state is no doubt getting a taste of that shift as she visits South America's Southern Cone of Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, as well as Central America's Costa Rica and Guatemala.

To be sure, there is a reservoir of personal goodwill for Clinton in the region, as there is for President Barack Obama. Despite some disappointment in government circles, the administration remains popular with most Latin Americans, and Obama is likely to be cheered when he heads to South America for the first time in the next several months. But personal popularity aside, there are underlying frictions and misunderstandings between the United States and Latin America that are profound and growing. Building that oft-invoked "partnership" between Washington and South American countries looks harder now than ever.

The fissures began to show as early as Obama's first Latin America event, the Summit of the Americas last April in Trinidad and Tobago. Many hoped that Obama's appealing rhetoric would translate into concrete progress on issues ranging from economics and energy to drugs and the environment. Such hope, however, proved ephemeral. On this visit, Clinton is essentially batting cleanup. Nearly a year (and much diplomatic disappointment) later, Clinton will have to reassure key allies that Washington really is serious about pursuing common hemispheric goals.

In the year since Obama so eloquently laid out his agenda for the region -- one that resonated with Latin Americans -- common goals got sidetracked by disappointment over the Honduras political crisis, suspicion following a U.S.-Colombia military cooperation pact, and continued displeasure over the invariably divisive issue of Cuba.

Finding common ground on these issues has been especially hard because what Latin Americans see as matters of principle tend to get entangled in U.S. domestic politics or tied up in bureaucratic inertia. For the most part, Latin Americans wanted Washington to act more forcefully and impose a solution after the coup in Honduras; shorten, not extend, military involvement in the region; and end the fruitless embargo against Cuba once and for all.

The United States did none of those things. On Honduras, Obama's administration was irritated when Latin Americans urged a more aggressive posture after they had been counseled to be more multilateral in dealing with regional problems. The administration was meanwhile getting flak from congressional Republicans, who expressed their displeasure at supporting a key ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez -- Honduras's ousted President Manuel Zelaya; key senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) held up administration appointments to make the point. Then, Washington was stung by the Latin American (particularly Brazilian) reaction to what the Pentagon surely regarded as a routine and innocuous deal with Colombia. And the Obama administration has been disappointed by the lack of any insistence among Latin Americans for democratic progress in Cuba. The frustration, it is fair to say, has been mutual.

Matters have been further aggravated by the sensitive matter of Iran's involvement in the region. The concern is less about Chávez's predictable anti-U.S. alliance with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than Brazil's unexpectedly indulgent posture toward Tehran's nuclear program. Ahmadinejad visited Brazil in November, and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is scheduled to go to Tehran in May.

As a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council, Brazil will have a say about adopting a tougher sanctions regime against Iran. Whether Brazil can be persuaded to go along with U.S. policy will be the biggest test of Clinton's diplomatic skills this week, and perhaps the most important part of her regional tour. Her warning to Latin America last December -- that "if people want to flirt with Iran, they should take a look at what the consequences might well be for them" -- is unlikely to help. For Latin Americans, such an admonition hails back to the old days of U.S.-Latin American relations and seems at odds with the spirit of the new Obama administration.

These days, most Latin American countries don't depend on the United States as much politically; nor do they have to listen like they used to. Brazil in particular is not just a regional power but is increasingly assertive on the global stage. Within the G-20, Brazil is more inclined to form an alliance with China, India, and Russia (the so-called BRIC group) than it is with the likes of the United States, Canada, or even Argentina or Mexico. On Iran, Brazil wants to please some domestic constituencies who long for national greatness, while flexing its foreign-policy muscles to show that it can defy Washington's attempts to set the agenda.

Iran is not alone in trying to take advantage of Latin America's gradual metamorphosis and enhanced confidence in global affairs; China, India, and Russia are all jumping in. And though less worrisome than Iran, these new actors certainly pose a challenge to Washington's traditional mindset and way of operating in the region.

But Latin America is hardly just waiting for others to point out the growing distance between itself and Washington; regional meetings and negotiations are also moving that way. Just a week ago in Cáncun, Mexico, Latin American governments moved to create a new regional organization made up exclusively of Latin American and Caribbean countries -- and not the United States or Canada -- to challenge the current Organization of American States (OAS), which does include them. Countries in the region have vowed to do this countless times before. In fact, several smaller groups have already popped up, including the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), headed by Chávez.  This time, however, it appears that the all-in Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations will actually get off the ground at next year's meeting, to be held in Caracas. Although there are many doubts about the viability of such an organization -- its mandate, for example, remains nebulous, and Latin America has hardly been a model of unity -- its likely fruition won't go unnoticed in Washington as a not-so-subtle hint.

What, then, will become of the OAS? The world's oldest regional organization, housed in one of Washington's most majestic buildings, has been particularly maligned in recent years. True, the OAS has always had image problems, but now they have become acutely visible -- a reflection of other disputes now appearing the region. The many good deeds done (not least election monitoring and an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that has shone a necessary spotlight on violations of the rule of law) are slowly being overshadowed by mutual suspicions between Washington and its southern neighbors -- decades after they first cropped up in Cold War days.

On March 24, OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza will probably be re-elected for a second five-year term. Although the Chilean diplomat has his share of critics -- Washington Post editorials and a minority report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have accused Insulza of being politically selective in responding to democratic problems in the region -- he is the only serious candidate and has already garnered support from major Latin American countries.

The key question, though, is whether anyone in the hemisphere is prepared to take the OAS seriously anymore. It won't take much to keep the organization alive, despite its acute financial difficulties (the United States provides some 60 percent of its budget). But it is less likely to be useful in tackling the myriad, shared problems that afflict the hemisphere. With persistent irritation with the inter-American agenda -- and with the emergence of a parallel bloc that excludes Washington and Ottawa -- the main temptation of many U.S. policymakers will be to simply let Latin American countries go their own way and maintain only a perfunctory involvement in the region and the OAS. In many ways, this is happening already.

That temptation should be resisted. U.S. withdrawal from Latin America would be myopic and counterproductive. U.S.-Latin American country relationships, for all their occasional drama, require less and give back more than most bilateral ties that Washington has. The Americas' economies are tightly intertwined, to the benefit of all sides. Most U.S. citizens, for example, probably don't realize that their country exports as much to Latin America as to the entire European Union. Meanwhile, if threats such as drug trafficking and criminality are not tackled head-on, and jointly, they will imperil the entire region's security, including the United States'. And at the end of the day, the United States and Latin American countries are neighbors whose similar values and increasingly shared cultures really ought to mean that it's pretty easy to get along.  

Perhaps the shock of Washington's first real (if gradual) "ouster" from the region in this new regional grouping should get the message across: The United States will have to jettison its often patronizing attitude and engage patiently in hard diplomatic work if it hopes to work with its neighbors.

These days, Washington's quick and generous responses to the tragic earthquakes in Haiti and Chile won't be enough. Clinton's visit to Chile indeed shows solidarity and sends the right message, gaining regional goodwill. But if the warm feelings grow cold, Washington will be left with a host of issues that are too pressing -- and the opportunities too fleeting -- to allow Latin American disillusionment to set in once again.