Afghan President Hamid Karzai is coming to Washington next week to meet with President Obama. Afghan government officials have said that their top priority for these talks is to get President Obama to agree that the U.S. will fully back efforts of the Afghan government to reconcile with senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban insurgency in order to end the war.
On the merits, saying yes to the Afghan government's request for US support for peace talks would seem like a no-brainer.
Few civilians have managed to escape the Afghan town of Marjah ahead of a planned US/NATO assault, raising the risk of civilian casualties, McClatchy Newsreports.
Under the laws of war, the US and NATO - who have told civilians not to flee - bear an extra responsibility to control their fire and avoid tactics that endanger civilians, Human Rights Watch notes. "I suspect that they believe they have the ability to generally distinguish between combatants and civilians," said Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch. "I would call that into question, given their long history of mistakes, particularly when using air power. Whatever they do, they have an obligation to protect civilians and make adequate provision to alleviate any crisis that arises," he said. "It is very much their responsibility."
"If [NATO forces] don't avoid large scale civilian casualties, given the rhetoric about protecting the population, then no matter how many Taliban are routed, the Marjah mission should be considered a failure," said an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
A report in the Wall Street Journalcast fresh doubt on the ability - and even on the interest - of U.S. forces to distinguish combatants from civilians. "Across southern Afghanistan, including the Marjah district where coalition forces are massing for a large offensive, the line between peaceful villager and enemy fighter is often blurred," the Journal says. The commander of the U.S. unit responsible for Pashmul estimates that about 95% of the locals are Taliban or aid the militants. Among front-line troops, "frustration is boiling over" over more restrictive rules of engagement than in Iraq, the Journal says - a dangerous harbinger of potential war crimes when the U.S. is about to engage in a major assault in an area densely populated with civilians.
Today, AFPreports, military helicopters dropped leaflets over Marjah as radio broadcasts "warned residents not to shelter Taliban ahead of a massive assault." Doesn't this suggest that the invading U.S. forces may regard any civilian alleged to be "sheltering Taliban" as a legitimate target, including women and children?
If the U.S. assault in Marjah results in large scale civilian casualties, the U.S. will have committed a major war crime. If the United States cannot protect civilians in Marjah, as the U.S. is required to do under the laws of war, the assault should be called off. Under international law, every U.S. citizen is legally obligated to work to bring about the compliance of the United States with international law. Raise your voice now, before it is too late.
It's a time-honored Washington tradition. If you want to bully the government into doing something unpopular and the public into accepting it, manufacture a false emergency. Iraq war? If you don't approve it, mushroom cloud. Banker or IMF bailout? If you don't approve it, financial collapse. Social security privatization? If you don't approve it, the system will go "bankrupt."Our brand is crisis, as James Carville might say.
General McChrystal says that if President Obama does not approve 40,000 more U.S. troops for Afghanistan, and approve them right away, "our mission" - whatever that is - will likely "fail" - whatever that is.
But even if President Obama were to approve General McChrystal's request, the 40,000 troops wouldn't arrive in time to significantly affect the 12-month window McChrystal says will be decisive. So McChrystal's request isn't about what's happening in Afghanistan right now. It's about how many troops the U.S. will have in Afghanistan a year from now and beyond.
There is no emergency requiring a quick decision by President Obama.