In the simmering controversy over U.S.-caused civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Washington has been sending decidedly mixed signals. It has acknowledged that civilian protection must become the top priority for U.S. forces, and, in appointing counter-insurgency acolyte Stanley McChrystal to lead the mission in Afghanistan, has sent the signal that military operations must undergo a top-down shift in strategy and focus. A U.S. military report has even agreed that troops who conducted a particularly devastating air raid in early May committed grave errors that jeopardized civilian lives.

Yet, even as it has castigated its own, the U.S. has still insisted that the Taliban was responsible for the deaths of the 30 (the U.S. number) to 140 (Afghanistan’s number) civilians in the raid. (And, for that matter, the continued squabbling over mortality figures, which are consistently lower than either Afghan or UN totals, does not ultimately help the cause of reducing these fatalities.) Even if Taliban fighters did force these civilians to remain in the combat zone, the U.S. military’s use of this rationale belies the purported goal of civilian protection: if the primary aim of the operation was to attack the Taliban, then it was not, by definition, to protect civilians.

A stronger critique than the United States’ own has come from UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, who issued this sharp rebuke:

“The government has failed to effectively investigate and punish lower-ranking soldiers for such deaths, and has not held senior officers responsible,” Alston said. “Worse, it has effectively created a zone of impunity for private contractors and civilian intelligence agents by only rarely investigating and prosecuting them.”

Actual prosecution is less important than creating an atmosphere of deterrence. All 68,000 American troops that are to be deployed to Afghanistan under President Obama’s plan will need to embrace the principle that civilian protection comes first. Criticism from a UN envoy is ultimately less important than negative reactions from those who matter most — the Afghan people.

(image of a U.S. drone in Afghanistan, from flickr user jamesdale10 under a Creative Commons license)

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