Because Afghans expect better

The Open Society Foundations’ Erica Gaston, in a brilliant piece for the AfPak Channel, explains why civilian deaths caused by international forces raise as much, or more, ire among Afghans as insurgent-caused deaths, despite the fact that insurgents are responsible for 76 percent of all civilian deaths.

1. Afghans take it as a given that insurgents will kill civilians, but don’t expect the same from international forces.

[…] insurgents suffer less backlash than international forces even though they cause a greater proportion of civilian harm because Afghans have lower expectations of insurgents. Afghans are more outraged when international forces cause collateral damage than when the Taliban do because they credit international forces with seemingly limitless precision technology. They expect them to have the capacity to avoid such harm, whereas they do not have a similar expectation of the low-tech suicide bomber.

2. Afghans expect international forces to actually make good on those COINtastic ‘protect the people’ promises, so international forces are blamed for the deaths they fail to prevent as well as those they cause.

[…] civilian casualties generate more resentment against international forces — and relatively less against insurgents — because Afghans often blame international forces for both the harm they cause and harm caused by insurgents. Given their promises of protection, high troop levels, and international forces’ real and perceived capabilities, Afghans expect international forces and the Afghan government not only to refrain from harming civilians but to protect them from insurgent attacks. When they fail to do so, they are blamed for the deaths that result. Thus the more insurgents cause civilian casualties, it perversely causes more blowback for international forces.

3. The Taliban are damn good at propaganda. ISAF isn’t.

Those who have analyzed Taliban propaganda and messaging have found that Taliban spokespeople and commanders have paid attention to the civilian casualty issue for years, using it as a recruitment tool and as a way to undermine support for the Afghan government. The Taliban have gone to great pains to defuse local anger when they cause civilian casualties, by only accepting blame for incidents that cause low civilian casualties, by issuing statements or propaganda blaming international forces for prompting an attack, by directly pointing the finger at ISAF for perpetrating attacks committed by the Taliban, or by justifying indiscriminant attacks by saying their fighters lack the capacity to be more precise. For most of the last nine years, ISAF has made little effort to respond at all to accusations of civilian casualties, aside from frequent denials issued in the wake of an incident.

4. International forces’ failure to come clean on civilian casualty incidents has eroded civilian trust and made the work of Taliban propagandists easier.

[…] international forces’ knee-jerk denials of civilian casualties allegations that later proved to be true have weakened their credibility and thus their ability to counter Taliban propaganda when it counts. This general lack of accountability of foreign forces to affected communities has also been a useful tool for the Taliban. Unchecked by any competing accounts for years, Taliban have been able to spread real and exaggerated stories of incidents of civilian casualties for many years, ratcheting up local resentment against international forces.

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