Monday, February 8, 2010

The Marines and Civilian Safety in Helmand Battle

The last few days have seen unusual advance publicity for the impending Marine attack on the important village of Marja in Helmand, as well as a lot of focus on the Petraeus/McChrystal counter-insurgency doctrine of protecting the civilian population against the Taliban (who, however, often are the civilian population; bit of a dilemma there) and exercising restraint in calling in air strikes.  This is, of course, good to see, even if saving some civilian lives may mean more Marines put at risk, at least in the short run.  (On the other hand, the calculus here must be, in part, that operational restraint will win hearts and minds; which will turn the locals against the Taliban; which will hasten "success" in Afghanistan (however that's to be measured) and therefore save Marine lives over the long haul.

Today's LA Times reports, however, that the Marines are also warning civilians to flee the area - which again points to what good guys we are and how evil the "enemy" is.  But as the LAT notes, "Many Afghans . . . are reluctant to leave homes and farms unattended. For cultural reasons, Pashtun tribesmen are also often unwilling to let women and children take shelter elsewhere without a male family member."  So, in other words, ideally our warnings to the locals may make us out to be humanitarians solicitous of their welfare, but the fact of the matter is that a large percentage of them simply can't leave, and are therefore going to be in harm's way.  Again, the LAT notes:

The Marja assault will be the largest joint effort by U.S., coalition and Afghan troops since the Taliban was chased from power in 2001, and the first major offensive since President Obama's decision to authorize sending 30,000 additional troops to the country.

It is also a test of whether a large-scale ground battle can be conducted in a densely populated setting without large numbers of civilian deaths and injuries. About 85,000 people live in Marja itself, and an estimated 45,000 more in outlying parts of the district.

At least one source warns of another Fallujah in the making.  For those of you who don't remember, that was the Iraqi city on the Euphrates that US Marines pulverized in 2004, at the cost of thousands of Iraqi lives and the demolition of much of the city, in an attempt to squelch the then burgeoning Sunni insurgency.  All it did was enrage the people of Iraq, who still look back on it as one of the more egregious atrocities perpetrated against them by the US.  (Today, of course, given the 24/7 news cycle and the short memories of most Americans, I'd wager that most of our fellow citizens wouldn't be able to distinguish Fallujah from Flagstaff.)

But thinking back to the early days of the invasion of Afghanistan, I remember participating in an open forum here on campus, in which I spoke about the devastation US forces were wreaking there.  One member of the audience, however, criticized my comments by noting that, after all, we had warned the population to clear out before we came in, so what's the problem.  I just about lost it completely, sitting up on that stage.  You'd have thought, from this young man's comments, that it was simply a matter of gassing up the SUV, piling the kiddies and grandma and grandpa into those comfortable seats, maybe even hitting the MacDonalds drive-thru window for some Happy Meals on the way out of town, and then taking off for a few pleasant days in the countryside until the danger had passed.

Let's face it: most of us are clueless as to the misery of most Afghans' lives even before we force them onto the roads (such as they are) to flee for their lives.  And when they come back (if they're still alive), they're likely to find their homes and villages destroyed, their pitiful fields and crops trashed, and their livelihoods ruined.

Our media and military, however, will be celebrating "success", and the "liberation" of the locals.





2 comments:

Richard S. Lowry said...

"the Marines are also warning civilians to flee the area"

Not True:

Military press release today:

"Despite reports of large numbers of civilians fleeing the area,
the facts on the ground do not support these assertions.
Current estimates are that fewer than 200 families have left
Nad-e Ali since Operation Moshtarak was announced. Combined force
commanders are encouraging civilians to remain in the safety of their
homes. Every effort is being made to ensure minimum disruption to the
residents during the operation."

And, you have your "facts" about Fallujah completely wrong too.

Readers, do not confuse this man's opinions with the truth. Search out the real stories on your own.

John Robertson said...

Here's what I said about Fallujah, Mr. Lowry:

"that was the Iraqi city on the Euphrates that US Marines pulverized in 2004, at the cost of thousands of Iraqi lives and the demolition of much of the city, in an attempt to squelch the then burgeoning Sunni insurgency. All it did was enrage the people of Iraq, who still look back on it as one of the more egregious atrocities perpetrated against them by the US."

Would you care to be more specific as to how what I wrote is "completely wrong"? I'm betting you can't.

And the day that we all start trusting implicitly in the accuracy of military press releases will be a very sad day indeed. The people of Marja are in for a very tough time, regardless of all the efforts being made "to ensure minimum disruption to the residents." You can bet that any local who chooses to venture from his domicile is likely to be "lit up" by a Marine.

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