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Strike hard, tread softly

The US and Nato need to minimise civilian casualties to win the war in Afghanistan.

india Updated: Sep 04, 2009 22:32 IST

At a time when the US is mulling increasing the boots on the ground by sending additional troops to Afghanistan — and Gordon Brown is urging a restive Britain to stay the course — despite plummeting support back home, a Nato air strike in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province has killed scores of civilians.

This latest episode of non-combatants being caught in the crossfire is definitely not going to win the allied troops any friends in the embattled country. The strike, aimed at the Taliban who had hijacked two fuel tankers, from which fuel was being siphoned off by villagers, is another example of how this war is slipping away.

President Barack Obama’s team has been trying to undo some of the damage caused by the Bush administration’s trigger-happy ways, but the US seems to be losing the battle for hearts and minds in Afghanistan. In the past, top officials in the US administration have been less than sympathetic to the plight of people in countries where Washington was committed to bringing about democratic change.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once dismissed the enormous casualties of children in war as ‘collateral damage.’ Later, a mouthpiece for the often offensive former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld famously chose to describe casualties, in areas where the US had seen it fit to stomp in, as ‘stuff happens.’

Now this may make for a Jerry Seinfeld-like comic show, but it hardly does anything to make people embrace American-style democracy. President Barack Obama had come to power on a platform of change, which included a review of American engagement with countries like Afghanistan and Iraq.

It was ten years ago that a successful Nato offensive in Kosovo marked a turning point in the way wars were fought. Over the years, precision air strikes have helped countries like the US and Israel take out targets such as Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.

Surgical strikes, though highly controversial, are possible at minimal cost to innocent civilians. But the US and Nato need to realise that given the socio-political and strategic complexities of war in difficult terrains like Afghanistan and Iraq, it is necessary to fight the battle not just militarily but also by engaging the civilian population. While the intolerance for bodybags returning to the US is understandable, technological prowess cannot be an excuse for using excessive force.