As the September 28th Afghanistan elections draw near, both the Taliban and the U.S. have bombed its civilian population, inflicting well over 100 casualties within the span of a few days. The Taliban has explicitly stated its opposition to the country’s electoral process, proclaiming that civilians present at political rallies and voting stations are deliberately endangering themselves and no longer qualify as innocent bystanders. Subsequently, when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited the province of Parwan for a rally bolstering his reelection campaign—a break from his usual policy of appearing at rallies via Skype for security purposes—a Taliban suicide bomber detonated explosives at the event, slaughtering at least 26 individuals and wounding around 40 more. Ghani himself was unharmed and has pledged to continue campaigning. The very same day, another suicide bombing killed 22 people in the capital city of Kabul, most of them civilians. Just two days later, yet another Taliban bombing struck a hospital in the city of Qalat, killing 39 Afghans and wounding nearly 100 more. The escalating series of bombings evidently seeks the suppression of Afghanistan’s upcoming election—a “sham” according to Taliban Spokesman Zabibullah Mujahid. Al Jazeera reports that around the number of active polling stations for this election will be about 2,000 less than the 7,000 used in the 2014 election, largely due to security concerns. Over nine million Afghans are expected to vote, with about 70,000 Afghan security forces protecting them, but Taliban assaults all but certainly will have dissuaded many voters, who quite reasonably may not want to put themselves at a targeted site.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that US counterinsurgency efforts increased following the attacks. This claim was morbidly verified when a September 19th U.S. drone strike in the Nangarhar province, ostensibly targeting members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL): killed 30 Afghan pine nut farmers, raising the death toll of all these collective bombings to a possible estimate of 117. The strike closely follows the collapse of diplomatic talks between the U.S. and the Taliban (the Afghan government was not involved), which Trump dissolved after the Kabul bombing. Afghan civilians have clearly borne the brunt of the violence originating from the Taliban’s anti-U.S. animus, their simultaneous opposition to the Afghan election, and the steepening of US strikes against putative Taliban and ISIL locations.
The U.S. strike was a blatant overstep of national boundaries, the latest of many atrocities in an interminable war. The aberrance of the Taliban’s own bombings is also apparent, but condemnations of the Taliban are already both frequent and profound. U.S. citizens possess more power (however faint) over U.S. policy than over Taliban actions, so an emphasis on U.S. military and foreign policy is warranted from an American perspective. Singling out any particular U.S. strike may appear absurd insofar as such events are hardly rare, but the military ethics of one bombing usually applies to others. Identifying a single case of insufficient concern for civilian lives can be indicative of larger trends. Colonel Sonny Leggett, a U.S. military spokesman, proffered the following rationalization for the U.S. drone strike: “We are fighting in a complex environment against those who intentionally kill and hide behind civilians, as well as use dishonest claims of noncombatant casualties as propaganda weapons.”
Legget’s defense of the strike exemplifies a typical exculpation of U.S. policy, emphasizing the heinousness of the U.S.’ enemies and the sheer difficulty and complexity of modern warfare to obfuscate the question of whether a strike should have occurred. The defence largely boils down to four central points: modern warfare is complex and tortuous, our enemies intentionally kill civilians, our enemies deliberately mingle with civilians and use them as human shields, and our enemies use U.S.-inflicted casualties as propaganda. The recourse to a “complex environment” is a nonstarter; it presents no substance of its own on why the U.S. might kill civilians, but merely implants the subtle notion that war’s difficulty and complications are too vast to be truly surmountable. To expect fewer civilian deaths would, therefore, be unreasonable and unrealistic, the task is simply not conceivable, says the institution that pulled the trigger. Such defeatism hardly appears grounded in extensive contemplation. That the Taliban and ISIL murder civilians are obviously true and reprehensible, but this surely doesn’t necessitate killing civilians in response. Even if killing some Afghan civilians alongside genuine insurgents would save lives in the final analysis, we would have to ask whether the Afghan people approve of the U.S. making utilitarian calculations that often end in their deaths. We would also need to consider how U.S. bombings could enhance the influence of radical insurgent groups motivated by antipathy for the U.S.. That these terrorists might also use human shields or otherwise protect themselves by remaining in civilian populations likewise does not demonstrate that accepting collateral damage (i.e. civilian deaths) is justifiable or that there are no viable means of minimizing or avoiding such deaths whatsoever. It has not been divulged what prospective benefit was gained from killing these civilians or whether it was known that civilians would be caught in the crossfire, nor have Americans demanded these answers. Lastly, an easy way to minimize one’s enemies using noncombatant casualties as propaganda would surely be to avoid those noncombatant casualties. Afghan civilians do not receive all of their information about these deaths from terrorists; their families and friends and associates are the victims. What will civilians in Nangarhar make of the deaths of these pine nut farmers?
While there are no simple solutions to a country as besieged as Afghanistan, these events do implore a careful accounting of the war’s ethics and efficacy and the priorities governing U.S. foreign policy. That US drone strikes are generally dismissed as inevitabilities generated by vague notions such as “complexity” suggests a lack of direct accountability. If these deaths are so unavoidable, that fact should be explicitly and transparently demonstrated. The mere semblance of a probable justification is not sufficient, nor is merely pointing to the atrocious conduct of the Taliban or ISIL. Given the perpetual threats and bombings originating from the Taliban in connection to the upcoming election, far more attention is demanded from the UN (which is currently assisting and monitoring the election) and the U.S. towards the reality that the Taliban is perniciously interfering, militarily and psychologically, with the election. If Afghan security forces are unable to fully and evenly protect the Afghan people, and if the U.S. does indeed remain in Afghanistan with the stated purpose of preventing the country from falling into the hands of the Taliban, then it cogently follows that the U.S. would offer (but not force) more direct protections and aids towards the election process, assuming this is something the Afghan population desires. Campaigning had been put on hold during the Trump-Taliban talks, and only resumed after their dissolution; the U.S. is not a detached, spectating third party in Afghanistan or its election. But the actual wishes of Afghanis, a factor rarely given much consideration amidst decisions of diplomacy and military, warrants the sincerest attention. Analysts in the US should not be the primary influencers of U.S. policies within Afghanistan, and any decision making should incorporate genuine knowledge of the terrain of Afghanistan and its people.
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