Mistakes from Iraq to Af-Pak


The Obama administration’s offensives in Afghanistan and Pakistan fail to learn the lessons of the failure of the same methods in Iraq in 2004

Afghan Mourners

Afghans mourn people killed in a US air strike in August 2008 (Photograph: Fraidoon Pooyaa/AP – guardian.co.uk


The Obama administration’s reliance on airstrikes and military offensives in Pakistan and Afghanistan suggest it’s not learned from failures in Iraq in 2004 where the Coalition and Iraqi army ‘won’ in battles for control of Fallujah, Samarra and other cities, without ever making any progress in the war. Any full scale military offensive using heavy weaponry such as air forces and artillery kills at least as many civilians as combatants. This is true whether you look at Israeli offensives in the occupied territories, Russian ones in Chechnya (until a few years ago), Coalition offensives in Iraq or current NATO, Afghan army or Pakistani ones. Of course the fact that armies are frequently ordered to fire on ambulances and anyone else present – as reported by both Iraqis and western journalists and aid workers who were eye-witnesses of the April 2004 assault on Fallujah (1) , (2), (3),(4) .

The assumptions involved seem to be that anyone left is a terrorist and that if someone’s got to do it’s better that it’s one of ‘them’ than one of ‘our guys’. Whether you choose to blame the militaries for indiscriminate fire or the guerrillas and terrorist groups for hiding among civilians the result is the same though. Military offensives kill at least one civilian for every combatant. Killing the people closest to them is not a great way to win anyone’s heart or mind, nor is such an extreme action likely to make them more moderate in their beliefs or their actions.

That’s why, apart from the obvious moral issues involved in using methods you know from experience will kill as many innocent people as guilty ones, superior military force is worthless in a war against a much weaker enemy.

When fighting irregulars using overwhelming military force each battle won loses the war by killing so many civilians and alienating so many survivors that the insurgents get more recruits and more supporters than they lost. That (plus lots of massacres of civilians using napalm, carpet bombing and ‘free fire zones) is why the Americans lost in Vietnam (5) . It’s why the Soviets lost in Afghanistan. It’s why the American offensives in Iraq in 2004 ended up going round in circles taking and re-taking the same cities – Fallujah for instance twice in the same year, first in April and then again in November. It’s one of the main reasons that NATO and its allies are losing in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Everyone will be familiar with the condemnation of ‘cowardly’ insurgents for ‘hiding among civilians’. A force that has no air force, artillery or tanks doesn’t stand a chance in open combat against regular militaries that have all three. So it is forced to use guerrilla or terrorist tactics – not wearing uniforms and escaping or blending in among civilians when a major assault by the regular forces arrives. We can condemn this as cowardice if we want but the reality is that it’s the only way a much weaker force can fight a much stronger one and these tactics were used by French and Italian partisans against the Germans in World War Two and by Zionist groups in the British Mandate of Palestine before the foundation of Israel in the 1948 war (6) . They do not mark a side as morally inferior or superior, only as militarily weaker. They are a breach of the Geneva conventions, but then so are many of the methods used by regular militaries.

Some claim that the Coalition ended the war in Iraq after General Petraeus’ surge. There was certainly a reduction in attacks on Coalition forces during the surge, but there was actually an increase in sectarian killings by Iraqis of other Iraqis. This was because the surge did not reduce attacks on Coalition forces because there were more of them in Iraq, but because the US began paying Iraqis more than Al Qa’ida or the militias or organised crime could offer to fight for Iraqi government ‘awakening’ militias. Some of the same people joining these militias had previously fought for Sunni groups fighting the Coalition – some of them had even fought for Al Qa’ida (7), (8), (9), (10)

Wars and poverty result in increased support for extreme sectarian ideologies and violent crime replacing jobs as the main source of income. The presence of foreign troops – and ones not of the same religion as the majority in that country - only makes this problem worse, because it boosts nationalism and fundamentalism.

The latest NATO air strike in Afghanistan was confirmed by International Red Cross staff to have killed dozens of civilians. The strikes went on for 14 hours, long after Red Cross staff told NATO there were civilians present, which should have been obvious anyway; and also bombed compounds full of civilians 8 kilometres from ground fighting. There are also reports of the use of white phosphorus wounding and killing civilians (11), (12), (13), (14), (15), (16).

Injured Afghan girl

An Afghan girl injured in NATO airstrikes on the village of Farah (Photograph: Independent newspaper

There are claims from Afghan police that the Taliban forced villagers to stay with them in houses or compounds they’d occupied (17). Even if that turns out to be true it can’t justify razing three villages to the ground with air strikes and killing over 100 civilians in order to kill enemy fighters though. How would we react if, when British and American civilians were taken hostage, our governments responded by having the building they were held in bombed to dust with everyone inside it in order to avoid casualties among those fighting the hostage takers? It’s unlikely we would praise the decision as the right thing to do, so, unless we want to send the message that Afghan and Pakistan civilians’ lives don’t matter to us we shouldn’t do the same there either.

The US military denies reports of over 100 civilians killed by the strikes but they have been proven to have taken place in many other cases in which the US military flatly denied civilians had died or claimed the numbers were lower. Independent investigations by Human Rights Watch and the UN found past US military investigations of other air strikes which killed dozens of civilians were ‘deeply flawed’ and inaccurate(18), (19), (20), (21), (22), (23).

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates felt it necessary to make up a story about the Taliban running from house to house throwing grenades in order to kill civilians and then blame it on NATO air strikes. To be fair he did withdraw this fairy tale later and he’s probably got into bad habits what with having been involved in white-washing CIA involvement in drugs and arms running during the Iran-Contra inquiry and then being part of the Bush administration. (23a), (23b)

President Karzai of Afghanistan has repeatedly publicly demanded that air strikes end after many strikes causing civilian deaths over years, but he’s been repeatedly been ignored. His latest demand was refused on the grounds that it would risk the lives of Afghan Army forces (24), (25), (26), (27). So Afghan civilian lives aren’t a concern and the Afghan government has no right to say what foreign troops can do in it’s country or what methods should be used to fight the Taliban? This makes a mockery of claims that NATO are only in Afghanistan at the request of the elected government and provides more propaganda to the Taliban who can point to Karzai as a powerless puppet of the US. If it really respects the Afghan government as a democratically elected one NATO has to act in accordance with the wishes of the elected President and Afghan public opinion, both of which oppose air strikes.

Making people homeless refugees also kills indirectly through lack of clean water, sanitation, food and medical care. Making people destitute refugees also creates a huge pool of potential criminals, insurgents or terrorists. Hundreds of thousands fled the cities assaulted by the coalition in Iraq in 2004 and a cholera epidemic followed in 2007(28), (29). Half a million people are now fleeing the Pakistan military offensive in the North-West of the country (30). Since the Soviet invasion in 1979 refugee camps in Pakistan full of homeless Afghans have been the main recruiting grounds for the different factions in Afghanistan. If fighting in Pakistan continues they will be full of Pakistani recruits for Pakistan’s Taliban too, especially as some are grieving family members killed in US missile strikes and Pakistan army air and artillery strikes (31), (32)


Refugees queue for food
Refugees queue for food in North-West Pakistan, May 2009 (Photograph: Fred Baker/AP – The Star (Lebanon)

While the Obama administration has now replaced the most senior US general in Afghanistan and announced a new strategy it remains to be seen if that strategy is significantly different from the Bush administration’s, which was also meant to combine non-military reconstruction and development with ‘counter-insurgency’. The new US commander in Afghanistan, General David Kiernan, was involved in ‘special operations’ in Afghanistan and Iraq and was head of Special Operations commanding units involved in torture in Iraq, including at Camp Nama – where methods included punching prisoners in the spine till they passed out and kicking them in the stomach till they vomited (33), (34).

copyright©Duncan McFarlane2009




(1) = BBC News 23 Apr 2004 ‘Picture emerges of Falluja siege’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3653223.stm

(2) = Guardian 17 Apr 2004 ‘'Getting aid past US snipers is impossible'’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/apr/17/iraq

(3) = Iraq Body Count 26 Oct 2004 ‘No Longer Unknowable: Falluja's April Civilian Toll is 600’, http://www.iraqbodycount.org/analysis/reference/press-releases/9/

(4) = B’Tselem Press Release 31 Dec 2007, ‘131 Palestinians who did not participate in the hostilities killed by Israel's security forces in 2007’, http://www.btselem.org/english/Press_Releases/20071231.asp

(5) = Marilyn B. Young (1991), The Vietnam Wars , HarperCollins, New York , 1991

(6) = Benny Morris (1999), ‘Righteous Victims : A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict 1881-1999’, John Murray Publishers, London, 2000, Hardback Edition, pages 147, 173-179

(7) = Guardian 10 Nov 2007, 'Meet Abu Abed: the US's new ally against al-Qaida', http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/nov/10/usa.alqaida

(8) = Sunday Times 25 Nov 2007, ‘American-backed killer militias strut across Iraq’, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/iraq/article2937104.ece

(9) = Guardian 20 Dec 2007, 'A surge of their own: Iraqis take back the streets', http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,2229892,00.html

(10) = NPR 17 July 2008, 'U.S. Trains Ex-Sunni Militias as Iraqi Police', http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11240000

(11) = ICRC News Release 06 May 2009 ‘Afghanistan: ICRC confirms dozens killed in air strikes’, http://www.icrc.org/web/eng/siteeng0.nsf/html/afghanistan-news-060509!OpenDocument

(12) = Independent 06 May 2009 ‘Afghans riot over air-strike atrocity’, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/afghans-riot-over-airstrike-atrocity-1681070.html

(13) = Independent 08 May 2009 ‘US denies 147 Afghan civilians killed’, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/us-denies-147-afghan-civilians-killed-1681620.html

(14) = IOS 10 May 2009 ‘Patrick Cockburn: Who killed 120 civilians? The US says it's not a story’, http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/patrick-cockburn-who-killed-120-civilians-the-us-says-its-not-a-story-1682310.html

(15) = Independent 06 May 2009 ‘'Dozens die' in Afghan air strikes says Red Cross’, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/dozens-die-in-afghan-air-strikes-says-red-cross-1679930.html

(16) = guardian.co.uk 10 May 2009 ‘Phosphorus claim after fatal air strikes in Afghanistan’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/may/10/afghanistan-attacks-phosphorus-investigation

(17) = See (15) above

(18) = PBS 27 Aug 2008 ‘U.N. Says 90 Civilians Killed in Afghan Airstrike’, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/asia/july-dec08/afghan_08-27.html

(19) = Washington Post 29 Aug 2008 ‘Pentagon Reports U.S. Airstrike Killed 5 Afghan Civilians, Not 90’, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/28/AR2008082802203.html

(20) = Guardian.co.uk 28 Nov 2007 ‘US air strikes kill civilian roadworkers in Afghanistan’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/nov/28/afghanistan.davidbatty

(21) = Guardian.co.uk 11 Jul 2008 ‘US air strike wiped out Afghan wedding party, inquiry finds’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/jul/11/afghanistan.usa