What is an acceptable ratio of death between the enemy and an innocent civilian? Is it 4 to 1? Is it 2 to 1? Are you willing to kill one innocent life to be able to kill 4 of the enemy? Are you willing to kill one innocent life to kill 2 of the enemy? How far are you willing to go to defend freedom? Would you offer your own life so that 2 or maybe 4 of the enemy may be killed? I want to know.
Today in Afghanistan the United States military launched air strikes in the village of Azizi in Kandahar that killed 60 suspected Taliban militants and 16 innocent civilians. One report puts the estimated number of civilians killed as high as 35. The lower number puts the ratio of Taliban to civilians killed at 4 to 1.
The Associated Press quotes eyewitnesses as saying the suspected Taliban militants ran into peoples’ homes to seek shelter from US bombing of their positions in a nearby madrassa:
Many of the wounded sought treatment at Kandahar city’s Mirwaise Hospital. One man with blood smeared over his clothes and turban said insurgents had been hiding in an Islamic religious school, or madrassa, in the village after fierce fighting in recent days.
"Helicopters bombed the madrassa and some of the Taliban ran from there and into people’s homes. Then those homes were bombed," said Haji Ikhlaf, 40. "I saw 35 to 40 dead Taliban and around 50 dead or wounded civilians."
Another survivor from the village, Zurmina Bibi, who was cradling her wounded 8-month-old baby, said about 10 people were killed in her home, including three or four children.
"There were dead people everywhere," she said, crying.
Reuters quotes the Governor of Kandahar, Khalid Assadullah, as follows:
Khalid said the 16 civilians had been killed in air strikes after Taliban took up positions in their houses.
"The Taliban used people’s houses as their trenches. They were killed in the bombardment," he said.
Some of wounded civilians were brought to Kandahar’s main hospital.
A wounded boy, Daad Mohammad, said all seven members of his family were killed.
"They are all dead," he told Reuters from his hospital bed.
MSNBC quotes the Governor of Kandahar:
"These sort of accidents happen during fighting, especially when the Taliban are hiding in homes," he told reporters. "I urge people not to give shelter to the Taliban."
The Associated Press quotes a US military spokesman:
U.S. military spokesman Col. Tom Collins said the coalition forces targeted a Taliban compound and "we’re certain we hit the right target."
"It’s common that the enemy fights in close to civilians as a means to protect its own forces," he added.
The latest fighting is part of the heavy fighting that has broken out in recent weeks as a result of the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Despite 4 years of American military dominance and American reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, the Taliban have not been defeated. In fact, the Taliban are increasingly seen as the protectors of Afghanistan against foreign occupation. Jim Maceda of NBC News reported just last week:
The Taliban’s comeback is not only on the battlefield, but, increasingly, in the hearts and minds of Afghans. Why?
Analysts say the democratic values embodied by Afghan President Hamid Karzai haven’t caught on.
"In a lot of parts of the country, nothing really has changed from a few years ago," says Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch.
Despite some $12 billion in aid and the loss of more than 220 U.S. soldiers, many Afghan men in the street want the Taliban back.
Increasingly, the Taliban is seen here as a protector of Islamic values against the invasion of Western ways.
Kabul is now dotted with luxury hotels and malls, and Afghans say they like their higher salaries, but not the crime and prostitution that are also on the rise.
"We need the Taliban," one Afghan man says. "Otherwise Westerners and foreigners will corrupt our religion."
The battle with the Taliban in Afghanistan is more about hearts and minds than military engagements. In that battle we are losing, perhaps we have already lost. We have installed ruthless warlords as Governors in provinces all over Afghanistan. We cannot engage in the same heavy handed tactics as these thugs. They may not value human life but we must. Every time we bomb a village and kill innocent civilians, we are creating more enemies. The people of Afghanistan do not have the luxury of choosing between a grand idea of Liberty and the darkness of the Taliban. From their perspective the choice boils down to who will keep them safe. If the Americans will indiscriminately bomb their villages to try to kill a few Taliban, the choice for the Afghan man or a woman becomes rather clear. When an errant American bomb destroys an Afghan family, the surviving members will not be worshipping Americans as their saviors. They will instead look to the Taliban to offer them protection. This very need for protection is what led to the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the mid 1990s. Hearts and minds are won by offering security and stability not by offering Democracy at the point of the gun.
The United States, with every civilian death, is creating more ill will toward itself in Afghanistan. As in Iraq, liberation has been morphing into heavy-handed occupation. Afghan nationalism that demands American withdrawal will be the result of this spin toward failure. In this environment the Taliban will find fertile ground to preach their brand of hate by offering, once again, security at the expense of liberty. The legacy of the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan is becoming clear. The United States is creating the very extremism it tried to defeat when it invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. In the case of Iraq, the extremism was created as a consequence of American actions. In the case of Afghanistan, the extremism that crept into the shadows during the initial invasion has been given fertile soil as a result of American actions.
There must be a better way to fight extremism without creating more death and hate. Surely a 4-to-1 or 2-to-1 ratio of extremists to innocent civilians is not an acceptable mathematical formula for success in the War on Terror. Innocent life has value far greater than the term "collateral damage" suggests. So I ask again, how much is an innocent life worth?