Small Wars Journal

Blame Taliban, Media for Afghan Civilian Deaths

General: Blame Taliban, Media for Afghan Civilian Deaths - Noah Shachtman, Danger Room.

Top commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal has issued strict new guidelines on air strikes, to keep civilians from getting killed. "It is literally how we lose the war or in many ways how we win it," he recently said.

But many in the Air Force see the civilian casualty problem may be more a product of media hype and Taliban human shielding than of errant U.S. bombs. "It is curious that it appears there is more ink spent on casualties from air attacks than there is on the criminality and violation of the ethical tenets of Islam that occurs daily as a result of Taliban actions," writes Lieutenant General David Deptula, the Air Force's Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.

Deptula e-mailed me last night, in response to my story on the American air war. Here's what he wrote...

LtGen Deptula's response at Danger Room.


Slap - Ken White was where? From your 1920's reference, I assumed you were talking about the Brit effort in Iraq using RAF to subdue the anti-royalist factions. Or was that just a crack at how old Ken White is?

IntelTrooper (not verified)

Fri, 12/11/2009 - 9:13pm

The last sentence of my previous post should read:

<em>I'm not sure that the Waigal incident was specifically the cause of the Wanat attack, though.</em>

I blame the cold medicine.

IntelTrooper (not verified)

Fri, 12/11/2009 - 9:11pm


I was thinking of a couple specific incidents where a visiting HVI and his entourage were bombed while in the vicinity of non-combatant friends and family. I heard about the Waigal incident, and I would chalk that up as bad. I'm not sure that Wanat had a specific correlation to that mishap, though.

slapout9 (not verified)

Fri, 12/11/2009 - 8:35pm

JT, ask Ken White he was there.......

Unequivocally, it depends. My experience is that CAS in semi-permissive to permissive areas resulting in civilian casualties is not an IO win at all.

"Looking at the available polling data, they have some surprising results in the Afghan reactions to civilian casualties. Basically, there appears to be an almost complete lack of indication to support the conventional wisdom, popularized in the media, that air attacks have been provoking deep hostility toward the U.S. and the Kabul government."

Interesting to see that this General is refuting Gen McChrystal's thesis based on...polling data...from Afghanistan? Most the polling data that I have come across might as well be printed on toilet paper because that is about as useful as it is for deciphering anything outside of urban areas.

Slap -- remind me, how did those air blockades end up working out for the Brits?


With due respect to someone there, not sure "sloppy/ill-advised airstrikes" helped when Apaches killed Waigal valley's medical staff while probably also getting a few mortarmen on Independence Day, 2008. Wanat was 9 days later. Same unit used "861 bombs with few questions asked."

While those bombings may demonstrate failure to establish security using kinetics, it is no indictment of airpower, that unit, or its leadership. It simply may show that COIN, not kinetics, generally is a better solution in Afghanistan. "Captain's Journal" says that 2nd, 503rd Abn is returning to the same area. Considering what they went through in terms of casualties who would blame them for going kinetic again...but hopefully they won't??

In the gas truck incident, believe it was non-Pashtuns who weren't upset that minority Pashtuns were killed. Given Pashtunwali, can anyone believe harming Pashtun civilians would create fear rather than actions of revenge?

Finally, since many of our largest mass- casualty battles were caused by fighters from Pakistan, what Afghans may poll may not matter. Collateral damage encourages more foreign fighters to come to Pakistan, more madrassa extremism, and more border crossings to mass against our forces. Even if it doesn't, IMHO it encourages worldwide jihad at worst and Arab-American tension at best.

slapout9 (not verified)

Fri, 12/11/2009 - 5:50pm

Inteltrooper, agree 100%. Belive it or not during the 1920's under Air policing they reverse blockaded certain villages, seperated them from bad people.....then handed out blankets and flour not before.....carrot and stick philosophy.

IntelTrooper (not verified)

Fri, 12/11/2009 - 4:46pm

Slap --

It's definitely one of those things that just doesn't fit the neo-COIN paradigm -- the unintended secondary effect of a couple sloppy/ill-advised airstrikes was, in my opinion, an overall IO win for the coalition.

As far as dividing the civilian population and the insurgents, it was infinitely more effective than handing out flour and blankets (especially considering the Taliban were getting booted from places we'd never even gone).

Should we have a policy of carelessly inflicting unnecessary civilian casualties? <em>Absolutely</em> not. But swinging violently into the direction of over-caution seems to be equally unnecessary given the net effects (at least from the perspective of this <a href="…;.

slapout9 (not verified)

Fri, 12/11/2009 - 4:34pm

Inteltrooper, I imagine that was the USAF intended effect,part of the original Air Policing Theory.

IntelTrooper (not verified)

Fri, 12/11/2009 - 2:28pm

It was my experience that fear of coalition airstrikes created more friction between villagers and the Taliban, and led many tribal leaders to forbid Taliban from hanging out in their villages.