06.29.10

Protecting Afghan Civilians

Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, as we take stock of the changes made last week by President Obama to the military command in Afghanistan, there is a related issue that has been discussed in the press that is of particular concern to me.

   I believe the President's decision to replace General McChrystal was the right decision. The published comments of the general and his aides were unquestionably insubordinate. They portrayed extraordinarily poor judgment and disrespect, and a deterioration of discipline that was unacceptable.

   But putting aside those matters, I believe General McChrystal's command was notable for his recognition, to an unprecedented extent, of the importance of protecting the lives of innocent Afghan civilians for the safety of U.S. troops and to improve the chances of success of the mission.

   Before General McChrystal's tenure, the need to do more to reduce civilian casualties was discussed, particularly after each incident when civilians were inadvertently killed or injured. But far too little was done about it. The frequent reliance on air power in areas where civilians were present caused many innocent casualties. Whole villages were destroyed. Wedding parties were wiped out. Night raids also often caused civilian deaths or injuries, as well as widespread anger and resentment towards U.S. troops who were perceived as disrespectful of Afghan customs.

   General McChrystal implemented stricter rules of engagement to reduce these tragic incidents. While in some cases these rules have limited our troops' actions, they do not prevent soldiers from acting in self-defense when there is a real or perceived threat. There is no basis, as far as I am aware, military or otherwise, to criticize these efforts to protect civilian lives. Indeed, I believe more can still be done, particularly to prevent such unfortunate incidents at roadblocks and checkpoints, where those killed have, with few exceptions, turned out to be unarmed civilians who posed no threat. Their deaths caused great suffering for their families, and incited support for the Taliban in their communities.

   Reducing civilian casualties, and by doing so winning the support of the Afghan people, is essential. In late April, the people of the town of Gizab, north of Kandahar, took up arms and ousted the Taliban. This is encouraging, but it is unlikely to continue to occur if the United States and our ISAF partners are perceived by the civilian population as another invader.  I have my own concerns with the President's strategy in Afghanistan, which I will discuss at a later time. But today, as General Petraeus prepares to assume command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, it is fortunate, I believe, that he knows from Iraq that winning the support and respect of the local population means much more than the cliche it has become. Progress in Afghanistan depends on it.

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