Three wrongs don’t make a right

Rosa Brooks, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, writes a weekly Op-Ed column for The Times.

Is Barack Obama a dishonorable troop-hater?

According to John McCain and Sarah Palin, you betcha. As one recent McCain ad puts it, Obama “says our troops in Afghanistan are ‘just air-raiding villages and killing civilians.’ How dishonorable.”

But what exactly is wrong with decrying military tactics that cause needless civilian casualties and undermine our own counterinsurgency efforts? What’s wrong with denouncing the stupid strategic decisions that forced the adoption of those tragic and counterproductive tactics in the first place?

That’s what Obama was doing in New Hampshire in August 2007, when he made the comments the McCain-Palin team has so enthusiastically ripped out of context. He was arguing that the diversion of U.S. troops to Iraq has had devastating consequences for our efforts in Afghanistan. We need more troops in Afghanistan, Obama asserted, so that U.S. forces won’t need to rely so much on airstrikes as an anti-insurgency tool. “We’ve got to get the job done there,” he said. “And that requires us to have enough troops so that we’re not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous problems there.”


Not exactly eloquent, but Obama’s fundamental point is unassailable. With so many U.S. troops bogged down in Iraq, our troops in Afghanistan are spread dangerously thin. As the Afghan insurgency picks up steam, overwhelmed U.S. ground troops increasingly call in close-air-support bomb attacks. These airstrikes are, in turn, far more deadly for Afghan civilians than U.S. ground attacks, for the simple reason that while a soldier can usually tell the difference between an unarmed child and an insurgent, a bomb dropped from thousands of feet can’t. So far this year, at least 395 Afghan civilians have been killed in NATO airstrikes, and the civilian death toll from NATO airstrikes is up by 21% over last year.

Should we care?

The mothers of dead Afghan children and the wives of dead Afghan husbands definitely care. And we should too, both for moral reasons and for self-interested reasons. Again, it’s classic counterinsurgency doctrine: If your anti-insurgency tactics have the unintended consequence of killing innocent civilians, you’re going to drive more civilians into the arms of the insurgency, thus undermining your own efforts.

Is it “dishonorable” to say that we need to change our approach in Afghanistan, so we’ll rely less on airstrikes, cause fewer unintended civilian casualties and therefore increase our chances of a successful counterinsurgency campaign?

If it is, Obama will have plenty of company in the “dishonorable” corner. He’ll be joined there by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Gen. David D. McKiernan, who have repeatedly voiced nearly identical concerns.