By Editorial Board
We were struck by how the media treated the news of America’s recent air and ground operation in Afghanistan against terrorists there that resulted in the deaths of 16 Afghan civilians. That the event made news at all seems attributable to the fierce condemnation by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who seems to be trying to counter growing criticism of his rule by U.S. and NATO officials. The back-and-forth comes as the new Obama administration must decide whether to support Mr. Karzai when he seeks reelection later this year.
Nor does it seem that civilian deaths are the rarity one might think given the paucity of such news. Civilian casualties in U.S. operations have made for longstanding friction between the Afghan government and U.S. and NATO forces. A particular point of difficulty is the use of air power in civilian areas. President Karzai was reported to have complained to his parliament that the U.S. and NATO have not heeded his calls to stop air strikes in civilian areas.
As Americans we would be aghast if our troops deployed in Afghanistan or elsewhere were not given the maximum protection provided by the strategic and tactical use of air power. Indeed, one can only imagine the justified hue and cry if that were not the case.
We certainly have not heard the call for a cessation of operations in Afghanistan because of the civilian casualties. Does this mean we are insensitive war criminals? Were American authorities during World War II war criminals when they ordered the carpet bombing of the German city of Dresden in order to cripple German war manufacturing – a decision that resulted in huge numbers of civilian casualties? Did anyone say Dresden was off limits because the factories were located in the middle of a bustling civilian population? Of course not, and the reason is that in warfare, the legitimacy of a mission almost always takes precedence over the likelihood of civilian casualties.
In this light, it becomes even clearer that the broad criticism directed at Israel’s use of air power in Operation Cast Lead was more about delegitimizing the mission itself than mourning the loss of non-combatants.