Losing hearts and minds

A NATO airstrike killed 14 civilians in Afghanistan’s Helmand province the other day. A statement from President Hamid Karzai’s office condemned the incident in very strong words. It said, “The president called this incident a great mistake and the murdering of Afghanistan’s children and women, and on behalf of the Afghan people gives his last warning to the US troops and US officials in this regard.” The coalition forces issued an apology but as per their statement, nine civilians were killed and not 14. This is not the first time that airstrikes have led to civilian deaths. US-led airstrikes also resulted in the death of 18 civilians and 20 policemen on the same day according to the governor of Nuristan province. In recent months, Mr Karzai has been very vocal about airstrikes and night raids conducted by coalition forces in Afghanistan. He wants the Afghan troops to conduct night raids independently and has ordered the Defence Ministry “to prevent foreign troops from uncoordinated and arbitrary operations”.Granted that the coalition troops cannot totally avoid civilian casualties, especially during an airstrike, but the increase in collateral damage is reaching a critical point as is evident from Mr Karzai’s public statements. It seems that President Karzai’s patience has run out and the backlash of civilian deaths is damaging his government’s credibility, or what is left of it. The strategy after the troops surge was to degrade the Taliban to such an extent that they were forced to lay down their arms. But that has not happened because there are not enough boots on the ground.

The coalition forces have to mainly rely on heavy weapons and air power. Blunt weapons are bound to cause collateral damage and in the pre-withdrawal scenario, this issue has become even more critical. Instead of winning the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan, the coalition forces are damaging their own cause. For any counterinsurgency campaign, this is akin to death. Not only will this lead to anti-coalition sentiment but the Taliban will use such incidents as an opportunity to recruit new members.The coalition forces must pay heed to Karzai’s warning despite the fact that he cannot do much to stop them. This will not only benefit the Afghan people but also help the coalition to leave behind a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. – Dailytimes