The newswires are abuzz lately with the word that an ISAF airstrike killed over 50 people in Azizabad, Farah Province.  Exact numbers are still to be determined, but it looks at this point like approximately 30 civilians and another 20 or Talibs.  Not particularly good odds for a supposedly “population-centric” COIN campaign.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that at least some of the early reports (including the ones coming out of ISAF and CJTF-101) state that the Taliban intentionally took refuge in civilian residences after ambushing a combined ISAF/ANA unit, and that at least some of these civilians were then prevented from leaving the area by the insurgents.  In other words, the Taliban went looking for a fight, found one and then did everything they could to ensure that the local population got caught in the crossfire.  No telling if these allegations will turn out to be true this time, but it wouldn’t be the first instance of this sort of thing.

The usually-respectable Free Range International seems to blame the civilians for allowing the Taliban to operate out of their village in the first place (certainly a no-no by any standards).  However, I’m mildly more sympathetic to the dilemna of the locals in this instance.  The chance of being incinerated by an ISAF airstrike pales in comparison to the near-certainty of being shot by the insurgents for resisting.  The fact that (apparently) the Taliban was willing to sacrifice several dozen local villagers to accomplish their mission indicates that they had little regard for the locals well-being, a idea which would have been abundantly clear to said locals at the time.

More important in my mind is the differing approaches to Information Operations (IO) which come out of this incident.  ISAF is conducting a full inquiry, with teams of investigators on the ground, sifting through the rubble and attempting to determine the truth.  Eventually, I’m sure they’ll figure it out, and I’m fairly confident that ISAF will be at least partially vindicated.

The Taliban on the other hand did not conduct any investigation.  This however did not stop them from making numerous public statements in the immediate aftermath, including the first public acknowledgment of civilian casualties.  That makes sense if your goal is a) to discredit ISAF for their overly agressive use of airpower, b) take the moral high ground and claim that it wasn’t your fault, or c) both.  The interesting thing for me was a story I heard the next day from a member of my staff.  This officer, an Afghan and a medical doctor, has a brother who works in Farah Province for the ICRC.  He claimed that within hours of the strike, the Taliban had called the ICRC (one of the few NGOs with decent relations with the insurgents) and reported the casualties and requested aid.  An ICRC convoy of medical supplies and personnel was dispatched almost immediately, which is pretty good reaction time for an NGO.

So, while the wounded were still bleeding out and the ruins were still smoldering, the Taliban had already put into motion a sophisticated IO campaign involving public denouncements of the action, cooperation with a respected international NGO and detailed claims as to the causes and effects.  True or not, the first mover advantage is hard to overcome. 

Meanwhile, the PAOs at ISAF were still in the “Wait a minute, we did what……….!?” stage of their reaction to the public and international press.  No wonder most of the Muslim world has the good guys and bad guys mixed up.


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