The intricacies of Afghanistan’s mosaic of tribes, sub-tribes and clans, and its ethnic and sectarian fault lines have befuddled the American enterprise there since 2001. Although U.S. intelligence officials and military specialists have tried to create maps of the power structure in rural areas – including who owes allegiance to the Taliban and who doesn’t – for the most part it’s been a decade-long fool’s errand, since, among other things, those allegiances often change without notice.
That’s why the August 18 drone attack in Kunar province, which killed dozens of Afghans, is so disturbing.
So far, there appears to be no independent investigation of the attack, outside of the media, either by the United Nations or by human rights groups, and there’s plenty of disagreement about what happened. But all accounts agree that somewhere between two dozen and over fifty people died in a lethal drone strike conducted in a remote area of Chapah Darah district. Perhaps no one has looked into the truth of what occurred that day because the region is isolated and, like much of rural Afghanistan, not under government control.
What’s known about the events that day goes as follows: A quarrel, apparently between families or clans erupted in a small village in the Chapah Darah district in Kunar, which sits hard against the Afghan-Pakistan border east of the capital, Kabul. Because the government has little or no authority there, tribal elders – who may or may not be loyal to the Taliban – summoned Taliban officials to the scene. “According to locals and the police chief of the Chapah Darah district,” the New York Times reports, “the insurgents had gathered after a quarrel between two families resulted in a death. The victim’s relatives surrounded those they said were responsible for the death and called in the Taliban to administer justice.”At least two dozen Taliban gathered, presumably surrounded by the alleged perpetrators, aggrieved, and tribal observers, to carry out an execution of one or more of those involved. At some point during the affair, U.S.-directed drones bombed the gathering. According to various accounts, as many as 50 people died.
The official statement by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which claimed that the Taliban commander in Kunar and his deputy were among those killed, is antiseptic in its report:
“During the operation, the Afghan and coalition security force observed a large group of heavily armed insurgents engaging in insurgent activity. After ensuring there were no civilians in the area, the security force engaged the insurgents with a precision airstrike. After the strike, the security force conducted an initial follow-on assessment and confirmed the strike had not injured any civilians or damaged any civilian property.”
But the statement raises many questions. How, exactly, does ISAF know that no civilians died? How do they distinguish between armed and unarmed civilians, those that may support or at least lean toward the Taliban, and hardcore Taliban fighters? According to news reports, the Obama administration dealt with the inevitable conundrum that drone strikes create by redefining combatants to include all “military-age males” in a strike zone, “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent,” to use the New York Times’ phrasing. This is a faulty, catch-all term that makes no real distinction between, say, the Taliban and civilians. It also gives the military an incentive to avoid conducting an extensive probe into drone strikes, as these might uncover “explicit intelligence” proving that some of the military-aged males were not combatants. Thus, it’s hardly surprising, then, that the ISAF statements merely says it “observed a large group of heavily armed insurgents engaging in insurgent activity,” and completely ignores the report that at least some of those killed were adjudicating a local, family dispute. And, while ISAF says that it conducted an after-action investigation at the scene, an ISAF spokesman refused to say anything about how the inquiry was conducted or how thorough it was.
According to Xinhua, the Chinese news service — which says “about 50 militants were killed” — Najibullah Khan, the district chief of police, said: “The drone targeted four suspected vehicles in Shinallai area of Chapah Darah district at around 1 p.m. local time Saturday, killing 50 militants, including 13 insurgent local commanders.” Even if those were the targets, it’s unlikely that 50 people were crammed into four vehicles, making it clear that many if not most of the dead were villagers who’d gathered for the event. Another account reports that the bombing occurred “as Taliban swarmed around their intended victim(s) in preparation of carrying out an execution.” That, like other reports, suggests that a large gathering was underway when the drones fired what ISAF calls a “precision airstrike.”
The fact is that the word “precision” applies to little or nothing about this event. Instead, it’s yet another marker on a confused and misguided counterinsurgency strategy that, while scheduled to end in 2014 – with 200 U.S. bases already shut down – is achieving few of its declared aims. It’s a sad but sobering thought that the disputed death of 50 Afghans in Kunar on August 18 merited precious little news coverage and, so far, no real inquiry by either the government of Afghanistan or by most independent observers. At the same time, the cumulative deaths of 40 NATO service members so far in 2012 at the hands of Afghan army and police – only a small portion of which have been tied to the Taliban-led insurgency – have attracted widespread attention, investigations, commentary, and concern at the highest levels of the U.S. command. On August 23, just five days after the slaughter in Kunar, General John R. Allen, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, presided over a lengthy news conference during which he fielded numerous questions about the so-called green-on-blue attacks, but not a single question on Kunar.
Yet the events in Kunar may hold great significance for the ultimate success of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. That’s because events like the one in Kunar are what generate outrage and desperation among Afghan villagers, often pushing them closer to the Taliban or making them susceptible to Taliban propaganda about jihad against the foreign forces.
That’s why the latest pronouncement about the course of the war by Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations ought to be ringing alarm bells. Biddle, who maintains close contact with U.S. military commanders, has long been relatively optimistic that a political accord with the Taliban might allow for a settlement of the conflict before 2014. Now, he says, “I’m significantly less optimistic than I have been.”
Biddle adds, “I am very concerned about the direction that the war has been taking because of some shortsighted decisions we’ve made that have undermined our long-term prospect for getting an acceptable result. When people ask the question, ‘How’s the war going?’ usually they are focusing on the short term and the battlefield. So the issue usually is: Are casualties up or down? Are we in control of more of the country this month than we were last month? Are civilian causalities up relative to a year ago at this time, or down relative to year ago at this time? Those are all perfectly worthwhile questions, but the more important set of questions has to do with how we get to an acceptable outcome. Our ability to drive the war to a successful conclusion on the battlefield is nil at this point.”
Perhaps a deal between the United States and the Taliban is still possible. But as the U.S. force in Afghanistan draws down, the United States is likely to rely increasingly on airstrikes like the one in Kunar to suppress the insurgency. And because airstrikes often lead to civilian casualties, more often than not they make things worse, not better, from a counterinsurgency point of view. That can only bolster the Taliban as America pulls out, and no doubt many within the Taliban leadership are arguing that it’s better to keep fighting rather than negotiate. Still, there are new reports that the Taliban is once again headed back to the bargaining table in Qatar, reinforcing Biddle – and the Obama administration’s – hope that a political settlement isn’t impossible.