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May 15, 2009
Rights group accuses U.S. of failing Afghan civilians

A U.S. marine and an Afghan police officer provide security in Delaram, Farah, Afghanistan.

On Friday, Human Rights Watch accused the U.S. military of “inadequate” measures to protect civilians in Afghanistan. It called for “fundamental changes” to prevent civilian deaths, like those that resulted from U.S. air strikes during a battle with the Taliban early last week.

Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner looks at how the Obama administration has tried to revamp the war strategy in Afghanistan and the battle for hearts and minds. 

“I am in blood

Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more

Returning were as tedious as going o’er.” [Macbeth Act 3, Scene Iv. Lines 137-139]

There is much to be discovered and known about President Obama’s pursuit of the war in Afghanistan, but there are some constants, summed up in that line from Macbeth — paraphrased, “either way, people will die.”

An errant bomb attack by U.S. military forces in the Afghan village of Ganj Abad in Farah Province last week killed dozens of civilians, the exact toll uncertain. The United States has expressed regret and the military has said the number of deaths may have been exaggerated.

Nevertheless, such a deadly attack has blowback — it loses hearts and minds. While failure in Afghanistan may be the inheritance of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld, this is a milepost on Barack Obama’s watch. The New York Times put it this way: “It is bombings like this one that have turned many Afghans against the American-backed government and the foreign military presence.”

Human Rights Watch, the New York-based independent human rights monitor, reported that the May 3 attack certainly took place during clashes in a zone largely under Taliban control. But the organization, investigating the details said, “a small number of bombs are reported to have been dropped by U.S. forces, after which the fighting ended.”

“It was like Judgment Day,” Habibullah, a health worker who witnessed the attacks, told Human Rights Watch. “Words cannot describe how terrible it was. Who can bear to see so many killed, from a two-day-old baby to a 70-year-old woman?”

Also this week came word that the United States is sending a new commander to Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who has been in charge of special operations in Iraq for five years. Some, notably Bob Woodward, say McChrystal’s role in Iraq changed the tide of violence in Iraq — for a while — more than did the Bush administration’s much-touted surge of U.S. forces there. But six years after the fact, there is no “mission accomplished.”

It is widely believed that special operations in Iraq secretly identified and targeted key players in the Iraqi insurgency, and brought down the level of public violence in Baghdad, at least for a while. Gen. McChrystal is certain to have the confidence of Gen. David Petraeus, Obama’s choice to revamp the war strategy in Afghanistan. Are we to expect a surge of a different kind with new ferocity — a clandestine war to go after the chiefs of the Taliban insurgency? And will that work?

It could be that President Obama has concluded that any strategic decision in pursuing the war in Afghanistan will lead to prolonged bloodletting. In any case — whether an overt war versus a secret campaign by Army Special Forces — civilians are certain to be caught in the middle. And eventually, Barack Obama’s reputation made ride with the outcome.

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user larryzou@ under a Creative Commons license.

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Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

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