Justin Elliott decided to highlight an amazing passage in the New York Times from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which garnered very little attention in subsequent days. In a town hall meeting with troops in Afghanistan, McChrystal said, “We’ve shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force.” Elliott got the full context of the remark:

Q: “On Escalation of force, have you considered engaging the local community on the issue? We could explain at the brigade/battalion level what behavior we find threatening, and how we are trained to react when we feel threatened. We could negotiate with the community leaders over mutually agreeable actions and reactions that are better understood by both and gives part ownership of the issue to the community and empowers them in line with our approach to reintegration.”
GEN McChrystal: “That’s a great point. I don’t know if we have, but we certainly ought to be doing that. We have so many escalation of force issues, and someone gets hurt in the process, and we say, ‘They didn’t respond like they were supposed to.’ Well, they may not have known how they were supposed to respond, so as they approached an area or checkpoint or whatever, they may have taken actions that seemed appropriate to them, and when a warning shot was fired they may have panicked. I think this is a great thing to do, to engage people and tell them the kind of behavior on their part that would lower the chance that they would run into problems.

“I do want to say something that everyone understands. We really ask a lot of our young service people out on the checkpoints because there’s danger, they’re asked to make very rapid decisions in often very unclear situations. However, to my knowledge, in the nine-plus months I’ve been here, not a single case where we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it and, in many cases, had families in it. That doesn’t mean I’m criticizing the people who are executing. I’m just giving you perspective. We’ve shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force.”

Every indication is that McChrystal is working to reduce the amount of civilian casualties, and of course there’s no explanation of the meaning of “amazing” numbers of people. The New York Times put the number in the story at 30 deaths and 80 wounded. And these are military checkpoint deaths, not airstrikes where the military leadership has more control.

But as Michael Cohen notes, this is mainly a reminder that a country engaging in occupation cannot possibly sanitize it to the level of perfectly avoiding civilian deaths. In fact, in the case of a counter-insurgency, with the proximity of troops closer to the people, it’s arguably a more hazardous environment for civilians.

It’s not that we shouldn’t try to protect civilians – or even that the American military shouldn’t take the issue incredibly seriously. We should and we do. But by placing 100,000 troops in Afghanistan we are actually increasing the likelihood that ordinary Afghans will be killed – no matter how much effort is expended to spare their lives. Our soldiers are trained to protect themselves and use overwhelming force when they are threatened; the notion that a directive from the commanding general in Afghanistan will change this overnight and turn American soldiers into “armed social workers” is pure fantasy: a fact that is being seen on the ground.

For all of the lovely sentiments about protecting civilians in Afghanistan the simple reality is that we have chosen to place furthering our national interests above protecting the lives of ordinary Afghans; the loss of civilian life while regrettable is a direct result of that decision. I suppose this is defensible – certainly countries that go to war do it all the time. But let’s at least be honest about why we’re there and the resulting effect on innocent civilians.

Somehow Hamid Karzai has to be criticized for a “scorching attack” on the occupying forces. Given the inevitable outcome of occupation on Karzai’s constituency, I don’t know how else any head of state is supposed to react. Karzai’s no saint, obviously, but the experience of the past several occupations shows that political survival is connected to denouncing the needless deaths of civilians from outside foreign powers.