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Civilian casualties in Afghanistan? Who cares, exactly?

When President Barack Obama told his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, that the United States was fully committed to reducing civilian casualties, he had obviously not consulted his rank-and-file.

With all due respect to the Commander in Chief, he is not the one pulling the trigger.

According to the Pentagon, so far this year 90 civilians have been killed by U.S. and NATO troops, a 76 percent rise over the 51 killed in the same time period in 2009. This is undoubtedly an unavoidable by-product of the troop surge and a concomitant rise in offensive operations in primarily civilian areas, such as Marjah, in Helmand province, where Operation Moshtarak caused the deaths of at least 20 non-combatants.

But how to explain the deaths of five civilians, including two pregnant women and a teenaged girl, in Paktia this winter? The U.S. military at first tried to deny their involvement, and allegedly engaged in a cover up. To be fair, the commanding officer did offer the head of the family two goats in compensation, once the truth could no longer be hidden.

For an insight into the thinking behind such incidents, we can look at a blog posted by a serving Army officer in Kandahar, Rajiv Srinavasan. He is commenting bitterly on the negative coverage given to another case, in which U.S. soldiers fired on a passenger bus in Kandahar this past April. The shooting resulted in the deaths of five civilians, including a child. The soldiers say that the bus was coming up on them too quickly; they also say that they signaled the bus to stop, a claim disputed by surviving passengers.

Srinavasan, who was not directly involved in the shooting but is part of the company that was, gives short shrift to any criticism of the Army’s actions. He writes:

“Why does its matter that it was a bus full of civilians? …. I make a very serious assumption: that the soldiers used lights, lasers, and horns [to warn the bus driver]. But even if they hadn’t, it wouldn’t matter at all … Those soldiers didn’t know if that bus was going to stop. But quite frankly, no matter what anyone else says, I’m not here for the Afghan people. I’m here for the American people. I’m an American platoon leader here to protect Americans. It sounds callous, but the risk to just one American life on that morning would have given me enough of a reason to open fire.”

There have been endless speeches in the halls of power about the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, to the people of Afghanistan, to their protection. But the Afghan people figured out a long time ago that the U.S. military was not here for them — something that Srinavasan makes abundantly clear.

According to Srinavasan, any U.S. soldier has a right to engage with deadly force if he feels in the least threatened. There is no need to establish that the soldier is actually in danger, only that he is afraid that he might be. And, of course, any number of Afghan lives — a bus full, in this case — is an acceptable sacrifice to save even one American soldier.

This does not sound like the “hearts and minds” campaign at the center of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy — something that Srinavasan appears to hold in contempt:

“Unfortunately, after a year of our population-centric Rules of Engagement, the locals seem to have figured out that we can’t shoot back at them just for being unsafe ... Just as children will degrade their already poor behavior when their actions go without consequence, Afghan drivers have been pushing the line of acceptable unsafe driving for quite some time.”

Srinavasan is not unique; almost any officer or soldier one runs into will have the same reaction; when in doubt, they argue, the tendency is to shoot first. But how does this jibe with Obama’s high-sounding rhetoric at his press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai?

"Our troops put themselves at risk, oftentimes, in order to reduce civilian casualties,” Obama said, according to Reuters. "Oftentimes they're holding fire, they're hesitating, they're being cautious about how they operate, even though it would be safer for them to go ahead and just take these locations out."

This is the theory, and these are the orders that the military is receiving from the top. But McChrystal cannot control every soldier in a risky situation. War itself is risky — and a soldier knows he is putting himself in harm’s way when he signs up for duty. Coming to Afghanistan and insisting that American lives always and in any situation trump Afghan lives is not a policy that is going to win us friends.

But Srinavasan’s blog hints at a deeper division within the military — a chasm, really between those in the trenches and those who write the manuals in Kabul or the press releases in Washington:

“The minute a soldier feels his life is at risk, his inclination is to turn to the leaders he trusts. If those leaders turn to him and explain that his “life is being risked for Afghan civilians” Well ... personally, I would stop trusting my leaders.”

As Karzai heads home to Kabul on Friday, he will certainly have Obama’s words ringing in his ears:

"When there is a civilian casualty, that is not just a political problem for me," said Obama. "I am ultimately accountable, just as Gen. McChrystal is accountable, for somebody who is not on the battlefield who got killed."

Fine sentiments indeed. Let’s hope the Afghan president does not happen upon Srinavasan’s blog.

If this is one rogue officer, then fine — get him out of the fray. But if this is indicative of the military mindset in Afghanistan, then our entire mission here is in very deep trouble.