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Is the US killing many Afghan civilians to save one US soldier?

Since before the US invasion of Afghanistan, there have been people who condemned it outright. They often compare the number of Afghan casualties with the number of casualties on September 11, as if to say that the invasion is legitimate only if it kills fewer people than Al Qa'ida did. That comparison is irrelevant, because killing even one person is not justified merely because someone else killed. The justification for this invasion is liberating Afghanistan from the Taliban. If the US invasion has killed a few thousand Afghanis, that is far less than the Taliban would have killed and oppressed if there had been no invasion.

However, a different accusation, based on a different view of ethics, calls for more consideration. This criticizes the US, not for the decision to invade, but for the way it uses its army.

Ever since Viet Nam, the US government has been very afraid of military casualties; it believes that the US public cannot tolerate casualties in wartime. So it does everything possible to avoid US troop casualties. That in itself is not a bad thing; generals are supposed to keep casualties down when consistent with other requirements. (The awareness that the public doesn't like casualties might also discourage some interventions to protect corporate interests.) The problem is that the US is overprotecting its troops, even at the cost of killing Afghan civilians who are not our enemies.

When US headquarters gets a report that there is a concentration of Al Qa'ida forces, rather than send ground troops to see what is really happening there, it launches a devastating air attack. If the group is really Al Qa'ida, the pilots face little danger in their planes moving at hundreds of miles an hour. If it is actually a wedding party, the pilots are moving too fast to note the difference. Only people on the ground can distinguish. Sending them means occasionally some of them will be killed. Not sending them risks killing large numbers of civilians by "mistake."

A recent survey reports 800 civilians killed by US forces in recent months. This is in addition to the thousands killed during the heavy fighting in 2001. If the US had sent ground troops to check out these situations before attacking, there would have been some additional US casualties, but not thousands.

I put "mistake" in quotation marks, above, because when you follow a policy that regularly imposes a risk on others, the harm done is predictable, even if the identities of the victims are not. In effect, the US is choosing to kill many Afghan civilians rather than let a few US soldiers die.

The decision to invade Afghanistan was not wrong, but the policy that endangers civilians unnecessarily needs to be changed right away.