A prominent narrative relating to the offensive in Marja has been the military’s emphasis on reducing civilian casualties. For example, the Brookings Institution notes that unlike past operations, the recent US offensive into Marja was announced in advance to Afghanis in order to reduce civilian casualties:
This battle is fascinating for the fact that it was announced repeatedly in advance by NATO commanders. The unusual tactic deprived us of tactical surprise, but General Stanley McChrystal and others clearly felt it even more important to minimize civilian casualties by trying to convince resistance fighters to vacate the area in advance. Even if those insurgents who flee remain free to fight another day, our key premise is that they will not be successful in galvanizing widespread support in Helmand province or elsewhere if we can establish positive momentum first—on the battlefield, and then in improving the lives of Afghan citizens.
The strategy adopted by General McChrysal also serves a broader PR purpose, bolstering US efforts to “win hearts and minds” in Afghanistan, and, indeed, the US. But this approach can only work if it is actually effective in reducing the humanitarian cost of the battle. In reality, civilians always pay dearly for war. That is, as we’ve argued, one of the most fundamental strategic failings of war. As an interview with Radio Free Europe reveals, many civilians remain in the city because they did not escape in time.
“The civilians are trapped because although they had planned to leave after the fighting started in cars or anything they could find, all the roads are mined now and they cannot leave their homes,” said Rahman. “Their food supplies are running out and they face thirst and hunger. People are slaughtering and eating up their cattle. All the shops are closed even as most people stayed behind. Less than 10 percent of the residents left. We have information that civilians have also suffered deaths and injuries and they cannot bury their dead or help their wounded.”
Moreover, as we covered earlier, some 20 civilians have already been killed in the battle. Worse, more are dying because the battle has greatly restricted their access to hospitals:
Most of the wounded civilians recuperating at the whitewashed Italian-run hospital said their injuries were caused by “the foreign soldiers” — a claim that does not bode well for international and Afghan forces who are trying to get residents to renounce the Taliban and embrace the Afghan government.
Bernard Metraux, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Helmand province, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that as many as 40,000 people trapped by fighting in and around Marjah have little to no access to medical care.
The emphasis on the direct casualties of the battle masks a humanitarian crisis of equal magnitude occurring outside of city limits – the plight of the internally displaced. The LATimes reported last Tuesday that since the beginning of the offensive, some 4,000 families have escaped the town. While most currently have access to proper food and shelter, their inability to return home has begun to jeopardize their livelihoods, and there is no guarantee their resources will last:
For agricultural families, the great majority of the town’s residents, each passing day is a countdown to ruin. Worry beads click late into the night as farmers envision their crops dying, livestock scattered or starving, irrigation ditches choked with debris.
Still, many believe their decision to flee may have saved their lives. NATO says 16 civilians have been killed in the offensive, but the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission on Wednesday put the civilian death toll at 28, of whom 13 were children. At least 70 others have been hurt, the group said.
Although most of the displaced have access to food and at least rudimentary shelter, the privations are beginning to grate. Kinship dictates that a family must take in fleeing relatives without question. But many people in rural Helmand already live at the subsistence level, so host families and their guests alike face growing hardship.
The problems began in the planning stages of the Marja operation. For all the attention paid to making civilians aware of the impending battle, the advance efforts fell short of ensuring that fleeing civilians had places to stay with secure access to necessary resources.
NATO and Afghan leaders said they hatched the assault in close co-operation so the military phase can be immediately followed by the establishment of civil administration and services.
But Norine MacDonald, the president of the International Council for Security and Development, which has an office in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, said planners had paid little regard to civilian well-being.
”The forward planning we heard so much about did not include ensuring that the local population would be able to leave and live elsewhere in decent conditions, with access to food and medical care,” she said.
More than 2800 families – averaging about five members each – had been displaced before and during the fighting, said Abdul Rahman Hutaki, the head of the Human Rights and Environment Organisation, an independent Afghan group.
NATO commanders say it could be another three weeks before the area is under control as fighting between militants and the 15,000-strong force of US marines, NATO and Afghan troops is proving ”difficult”.
The US and NATO decision to reach out to the civilian population prior to the offensive in Marja is commendable, but efforts like this will likely continue to fall short in the face of a messy war. In Marja as in so many other places in Afghanistan, a military solution has only made existing problems worse.