WASHINGTON - At his confirmation hearings two weeks ago, Gen. Stanley McChrystal said reducing civilian deaths from air strikes in Afghanistan was "strategically decisive" and declared his "willingness to operate in ways that minimise casualties or damage, even when it makes our task more difficult."
Some McChrystal supporters hope he will rein in the main source of civilian casualties: Special Operations Forces (SOF) units that carry out targeted strikes against suspected "Taliban" on the basis of doubtful intelligence and raids that require air strikes when they get into trouble.
But there are growing indications that his command is preparing to deal with the issue primarily by seeking to shift the blame to the Taliban through more and better propaganda operations and by using more high-tech drone intelligence aircraft to increase battlefield surveillance rather than by curbing the main direct cause of civilian casualties.
U.S. officials at a NATO conference in Brussels last Friday were telling reporters that "public relations" are now considered "crucial" to "turning the tide" in Afghanistan, according to an AFP story on Jun 12.
CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus also referred to the importance of taking the propaganda offensive in a presentation to the pro-military think tank Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) Jun. 11. "When you're dealing the press," he said, "when you're dealing the tribal leaders, when you're dealing with host nations... you got to beat the bad guys to the headlines."
The new emphasis on more aggressive public relations appears to respond to demands from U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan to wrest control of the issue of civilian casualties from the Taliban. In a discussion of that issue at the same conference, Gen. David Barno, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, said, "We've got to be careful about who controls the narrative on civilian casualties."
U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan "see the enemy seeking to take airstrikes off the table" by exaggerating civilian casualties, Barno said. He objected to making civilian casualties an indicator of success or failure, as a CNAS paper has recommended.
The U.S. command in Afghanistan has already tried, in fact, to apply "information war" techniques in effort to control the narrative on the issue. The command has argued both that the Taliban were responsible for the massive civilians casualties in a U.S. airstrike on May 4 that killed 147 civilians, including 90 women and children, and that the number of civilian deaths claimed has been vastly exaggerated, despite detailed evidence from village residents supporting the casualty figures.
Col. Greg Julian, the command's spokesman, said in late May that a "weapon-sight" video would show that the Taliban were to blame. However, Nancy A. Youssef reported Jun. 15 in McClatchy newspapers that the video in question shows that no one had checked to see if women and children were in the building before it was bombed, according to two U.S. military officials.
The Afghan government has highlighted the problem of SOF units carrying out raids which result in airstrikes against civilian targets. Kai Eide, the chief of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, has now publicly supported that position, saying in a video conference call from Kabul to NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels Jun. 12 that there is an "urgent need" to review raids by SOF units, because the civilian casualties being created have been "disproportionate to the military gains".
But McChrystal hinted in his confirmation hearing that he hoped to reduce civilian casualties by obtaining more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. Petraeus confirmed that approach to the problem in remarks at the CNAS conference last week, announcing that he was planning to shift some high-tech intelligence vehicles from Iraq to Afghanistan.
Petraeus referred to "predators, armed full motion video with Hellfire missiles", "special intelligence birds", and unmanned intelligence vehicles called Shadows and Ravens, which fly 24 hours a day.
Although such intelligence aircraft may make U.S. battlefield targeting more precise, Petraeus's reference to drones equipped with Hellfire missiles suggests that U.S. forces in Afghanistan may now rely more than previously on drone strikes against suspected Afghan insurgents. Given the chronic lack of accurate intelligence on the identity of insurgent leaders, that would tend to increase civilian casualties.
Petraeus's past reluctance to stop or dramatically reduce such SOF operations, despite the bad publicity surrounding them, suggests that high level intra-military politics are involved.
The Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MarSOC) has been involved in the most highly publicised cases of massive civilian casualties in Afghanistan. It was established by the Marine Corps only in February 2006, and the first MarSOC company arrived in Afghanistan just a year later.
MarSOC was unable to recruit the more mature officers and troops needed for cross-cultural situations, and its recruits had only a few months of training before being sent to Afghanistan.
The unit's commanding officer had been warned by one participant in the training before the unit had arrived in Afghanistan that his troops were too young and too oriented toward killing to serve in Afghanistan, according to Chris Mason, a former U.S. official in Afghanistan familiar with the unit's history.
In March 2007, a company of MarSOC troops which had only arrived in the country the previous month were accused of firing indiscriminately at pedestrians and cars as they sped away from a suicide bomb attack, killing as many as 19 Afghan civilians. Five days later the same unit reportedly fired on traffic again.
As a result, a powerful Pashtun tribe, the Shinwari, demanded to the governor of Nangahar province and Afghan President Hamid Karzai that U.S. military operations in the province be terminated. Within a month, the 120-man MarSOC company was pulled out of Afghanistan.
Significantly, however, a new MarSOC unit was sent back to Afghanistan only a few weeks later, assigned to Herat province. Last August, a MarSOC unit launched an attack against a preplanned target in Azizabad that combined unmanned drones, attack helicopters and a Spectre gunship. More than 90 civilians were killed in the attack, including 60 children, but not a single Taliban fighter was killed in the attack, according to Afghan and U.N. officials.
Karzai said the operation had been triggered by false information given by the leader of a rival tribe, and no U.S. official contradicted him.
When Petraeus took command at CENTCOM just a few weeks later, Afghans were still seething over the Azizabad massacre. That would have been the perfect time for him to take decisive action on MarSOC's operations.
But Petraeus took no action on MarSOC. Meanwhile, other SOF units were continuing to carry out raids that did not get headlines but which regularly killed women and children, stirring more Afghan anger. Petraeus may have been confronted with the necessity of stopping all the operations if he wished to discipline MarSOC, which would have been too serious a blow to the reputation of U.S. Special Operations Forces.
For two weeks, from mid-February to early March, the rate of SOF raids was reduced. But in early March, they were resumed, despite the near certainty that there would be more embarrassing incidents involving SOF operations. The worst case of massive civilian deaths in the war would come just two months later, and involved the MarSOC unit.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.