President Karzai has reacted ferociously to the news of heavy civilian casualties as a result of coalition forces' raids on Taliban hideouts. The latest incident has marked a new low in the volatile relations between the president and the international coalition present in Afghanistan. The President had some very harsh words for the NATO-led forces saying this will be the "last warning" he delivers to these forces. In one of the most candid remarks about civilian casualties to date, he warned that any more civilian casualties as a result of coalition forces' bombardments will make these forces into "occupiers" and that "the history is a witness to how the people of Afghanistan treat the occupiers".
He emphasized that the people and government of Afghanistan accept the NATO-led forces in the country as allies in a war against the common enemy of terrorism. He said his government wants the NATO-led forces to treat their relationship with respect failing which they will be unwelcomed in Afghanistan. This latest shockwave in the rocky relationship between president Karzai and the western countries has come after at least nine civilians, some of them women and children were killed in NATO's raid in a compound in Nawzad district of Helmand province. The impact of the incident has been explosive as far as the fragile relations between Karzai and his western allies are concerned. Night time raids and aerial bombardments by NATO-led forces often result in death and wounding of unknown numbers of civilians. The question that arises here is that who is to be blamed for the civilian casualties. Is the President of the country simply over-reacting to the incidents or civilian deaths are a fair price to pay in achieving the objective of defeating the Taliban and their allies?
On closer investigation, it appears that the NATO-led international forces indeed deserve to be blamed and condemned for their extremely heavy-handed approach to the war in the southern swaths of the country. The majority of the civilian deaths are caused by aerial bombardments by the NATO forces on hideouts where they suppose Taliban fighters take refuge or the places where they engage the foreign forces in hit and run firefights or ambushes. NATO forces excessively rely on aerial bombardments when targeting insurgent hideouts or coming to the aid of their embattled foot patrol units on the ground. NATO forces especially the patrolling squads and units on the ground often quickly move to call in air support when they encounter Taliban fighters. Aerial bombardment sorties are often carried out indiscriminately against whatever bears the looks of insurgents. In fact, many times, instead of deploying ground troops in company of local Afghan soldiers to the spot, NATO forces do rely on aerial bombardments to clear suspected hideouts of insurgents.
We have to bear in mind that Taliban insurgents, contrary to their claims of waging Jihad to protect people from "infidel occupiers", do indeed use common people and women and children as human shields. Taliban fighters regularly hide in the middle of civilian population centers and homes and rooms of ordinary villagers after they carry out their hit and run/ambush attacks. This fact and the careless aerial bombardments by NATO forces are a sure recipe for more civilian casualties in the future. Therefore, excessive reliance on aerial bombardments by NATO forces while Taliban continue to use ordinary villagers as human shields have had the accompanying result of civilian deaths giving rise to rage and anger among the local people and in the Presidential palace in Kabul. Officials from the NATO headquarters in Afghanistan have already made it clear that, despite strong warnings from President Karzai, they will not halt their aerial bombardments and night time raids as night time operations are one of the main strategies in their counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations. Continuation of night-time raids on Taliban hideouts by NATO forces would invariably mean more civilian casualties in the future.
The most effective way to prevent civilian casualties is to speed up and accelerate the process of training of Afghan security forces and giving them ever larger share and responsibility in anti-insurgent operations. Transferring the bulk of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations to local Afghan forces is, in fact, the only way to further reduce civilian casualties. In the long-term, there can be no alternative to having capable, trained and equipped Afghan National security Forces who are prepared and able to carry on the battle against Taliban and their allies. The military commitment of U.S. and NATO to Afghanistan will be insignificant beyond 2014 therefore the window of opportunity is open before Afghanistan until the deadline of 2014.
One persisting problem in Afghan National Army has been the shortage of supplies and military equipments and other logistical problems in some areas that have faced the preparation of forces with challenges. President Obama has many times reaffirmed his unwavering support to building a strong and capable Afghan National Army and the U.S. government has so far spent billions of dollars on the Afghan National Army; but still certain logistic problems remain in place that should be sorted out as the deadline of 2014 draws closer.
Many foreign military experts have pointed out weak civilian oversight on the Afghan National Army as one of the more important challenges that need to be addressed. However, they are right in pointing out that in the absence of international forces' support, this problem can lead to severe disruption in the ranks and activities of the army. This appears to be a structural problem and the civilian authorities in the Ministry of Defense need to address the problem in the run-up to the 2014 deadline. These are some of the main problems in the way of preparing the Afghan National Army for the deadline of 2014. Before that, Afghan forces should be given the central role to prevent civilian casualties and thus avoid the political fallout.
As discussed, the NATO-led forces present in Afghanistan should be willing and able to delegate more operational authority to Afghan forces, make them self-sufficient and let them take the lead in military operations against Taliban and other insurgent groups. In this way, in addition to preventing civilian casualties, Afghan National Security Forces including the Afghan National Army will gradually prepare itself to take over security provision for the whole country in the lead-up to the 2014 deadline.