I am looking at a heartwarming 1945 photograph of a Canadian-liberated town in the Netherlands, all joyous spontaneity and relief as townspeople (two wearing wooden shoes) celebrate their liberation from Nazi Germany. Nearly 70 years later, this snapshot in time is relevant to events currently swirling around a tragic, aberrational incident in which a U.S. Army staff sergeant apparently walked off base and killed 16 Afghan civilians.
Nazi liberation was a costly liberation. Allied air raids on German-occupied Rotterdam alone killed 884 citizens and wounded 631. Such losses were negligible next to the millions of civilian casualties during World War II caused by Axis and Allies alike.
How, I have long wondered, might Presidents Bush and Obama and all of our top military commanders explain the welcome that Allied forces received across Europe in 1945 despite the massive suffering the Allies, too, inflicted on unarmed citizens? The answer is that the liberated peoples rejected the Nazis and their ideology. So why doesn't the same logic work on 'liberated' Afghans? Maybe they don't reject either the Taliban or their ideology. Maybe there's just way too much overlap on both counts.
Nah, say our counterinsurgency (COIN) strategists. The problem is too many civilian casualties. So goes the COIN mantra of at least the past three years in Afghanistan, since Gen. Stanley McChrystal came on the scene openly promoting 'population protection' over 'force protection.' Indeed, more than anything else, the war in Afghanistan may be seen as a war on civilian casualties in which the ultimate prize is the 'trust' of the Afghan people. Or, as current military commander Gen. John R. Allen likes to say, 'the noble Afghan people.'
A week ago, the website of international forces in Afghanistan (ISAF) ran a report on the third Civilian Casualty Conference, where new figures on civilian casualties were unveiled. 'In the last four months, insurgents have caused 93 percent, or 958 civilian casualties,' Lt. Gen. Adrian Bradshaw, ISAF deputy commander, reported, explaining that the majority are inflicted by roadside bombs (IEDs). 'In the same period of time, 7 percent, or 72 civilian casualties, regrettably were caused by ISAF forces,' he said.
The report went on to quote Bradshaw as saying 'that 72 casualties are too many and that ISAF is committed to bring that number down to zero.'
Ninety-three percent of the civilian casualties are caused by Taliban and other jihadist forces, and 7 percent are caused by pro-government forces. If COIN theory were correct, numbers like these should produce scenes of relief and joy as seen in my 1945 photo from Holland.