Afghanistan Another Iraq? Try Another Cambodia
By Taylor Owen and David Eaves
Of the many complexities to emerge from our mission in Afghanistan, one is particularly troublesome. Almost one-third of the Taliban recently interviewed by a Canadian newspaper claimed that at least one family member had died in aerial bombings in recent years, and many described themselves as fighting to defend Afghan villagers from air strikes by foreign troops.
This should come as no surprise. Last year, the UN reported that over 1,500 civilian were killed in Afghanistan. In the first half 2007, this casualty rate had increased by 50 per cent. The NGO community and NATO remain at odds over who is accountable for a majority of these deaths.
What is indisputable, however, is that air sorties have increased dramatically. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sorties doubled from 6,495 in 2004 to 12,775 in 2007. More critically, aircraft today are 30 times more likely to drop their payloads than in 2004.
Civilian deaths are a moral tragedy. Equally importantly, however, they represent a critical strategic blunder. It has long been known that civilian casualties benefit insurgencies, who recruit fighters with emotional pleas. While an airstrike in a village may kill a senior Taliban, even a single civilian casualty can turn the community against the coalition for a generation.
This presents military commanders with an immensely challenging dilemma: Accept greater casualties in a media environment where any and all are scrutinized, or use counterproductive tactics that will weaken the enemy in the moment, but strengthen him over the long term.
While the choice is almost impossibly difficult, it is not new. Surprisingly, the case of U.S. air strikes in Cambodia offers a chilling parallel.
Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped over 2.7 million tonnes of munitions on Cambodia, making it potentially the most bombed country in history.
While the scale is shocking, the strategic costs were devastating. Over the course of the bombing period, the Khmer Rouge insurgency grew from an impotent force of 5,000 rural fighters to an army of over 200,000, capable of defeating a U.S.-backed government.
Recent research has shown a direct connection between casualties caused by the bombings and the rise of the insurgency.
Because Lon Nol, Cambodia’s president at the time, supported the U.S. air war, the bombing of Cambodian villages and the significant civilian casualties it caused provided ideal recruitment rhetoric for the insurgent Khmer Rouge.
As civilian casualties grew, the Khmer Rouge shifted their rhetoric from that of a Maoist agrarian revolution to anti-imperialist populism.
This change in strategy achieved stunning results. As one survivor explained:
“Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters…. Terrified and half-crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told…. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them.”
Compare this to what one Taliban fighter explained to a Globe and Mail researcher: “The non-Muslims are unjust and have killed our people and children by bombing them, and that’s why I started jihad against them. They have killed hundreds of our people, and that’s why I want to fight against them.”
The coalition risks repeating the same mistakes, and like the Khmer Rouge 30 years ago, the Taliban are capitalizing on its misguided tactics.
Amazingly, in Cambodia, American administration knew of the strategic costs of the bombing. The CIA’s Directorate of Operations reported during the war that the Khmer Rouge were “using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda.” Yet blinded by grandeurs of military might, the sorties continued.
The Khmer Rouge forced the U.S. out of Phnom Penh, took over the country, and the rest is a tragic history.
We know our tactics in Afghanistan have a similar effect. Civilian casualties drive a generation into the hands of an insurgency we are there to oppose.
Initially Canada deployed without Leopard tanks and CF-18s with the goal of prioritizing personal engagement and precision over brute military might. Today, however, our allies’ tactics—and increasingly our own—do not adequately reflect strategic costs incurred by civilian causalities. In addition, Canada has not allied itself with other NATO members—particularly the British—to reign in the coalition’s counterproductive use of aerial bombings.
Cambodia offers a powerful example of aerial warfare run amok. What is Canada doing to ensure we don’t relive the failures of the past?
Taylor Owen is an Action Canada fellow and a Trudeau Scholar at the University of Oxford. David Eaves is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen’s University.