McChrystal Really Gets It... Now Has to Deliver

Jul 19, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

The incoming US and Allied Forces Commander in Afghanistan has rightly put the "Afghan people" front and center. 

Let's set aside for the moment that the Afghan people should have always been the strategic imperative and roundly applaud the new leadership.

Afghan anger over civilian casualties peaked after last month's deadly US airstrikes and an inept official response in Farah province. The new military leader, General Stanley A. McChrystal, says he will revamp US investigations into civilian harm, take responsibility for mistakes, be more culturally sensitive and do a better job of understanding what compensation is appropriate so "we don't make things worse."

The strategy, verbatim:

The Afghan people are at the center of our mission. In reality, they are the mission. We must protect them from violence -- whatever its nature. We must respect their religion and traditions.

The only thing better than his words will be matching them with actions. If promises aren't fulfilled on the ground, the US will lose the Afghan people and lose the war with them.

In the meantime, there's a confluence of events here that looks remarkably like an opportunity. We have consensus at the highest levels that harming civilians is strategically damaging. We have leadership that says it believes in being forthright about its mission and its mistakes. We will very soon have more American boots on the ground, and they've been told that real victory means winning the local population.

That's a lot to manage. So here is a suggestion:

Create a high level position at the Pentagon to track, monitor and analyze the human costs of war.

 Do it quickly and give the appointee more than a title and a desk -- give him or her some real power.

When it comes to the "civilian" in war, the US response has been ad hoc since the beginning. Lives -- and popular support -- could have been saved if McChrystal's people-first strategy had come eight years ago in Afghanistan or for that matter six years ago in Iraq. 

Now there's an opportunity to institutionalize it for the future.

It's time to learn from the past. For example:

In Iraq
there was no strategy in place to address skyrocketing civilian casualties in 2005. When the casualty rate spiked in Afghanistan, the US response was again disorganized. More civilians died as a result. The US needs a central hub to translate lessons about mitigating civilian harm immediately. 

In Afghanistan,
the failure to conduct proper investigations into cases of civilian harm and knee-jerk denials have caused intense local anger. Case in point: In Farah, the Afghan Government published a death toll four times that of the US estimate and the official US report has yet to be released. The US needs a central hub to work with local partners to assess harm and keep data.

Four years into the Iraq War, many troops didn't have updated gear to safely administer checkpoints. The same was true in Afghanistan. "Low collateral damage" bombs were available to the Air Force in Iraq but not in Afghanistan. The US needs a central hub to make sure all troops have what they need to protect and avoid civilians.

Unintended deaths and injuries occur despite careful targeting. The military compensates civilians for harm, but began that effort too late and military lawyers are still not properly trained to settle claims. In fact, many soldiers and Marines don't even know such compensation for civilian survivors exists. The US needs a central hub to figure out appropriate responses to civilian harm that are specific to each war zone.

It's time to better assess the potential human cost before any shots are fired, to procure the best weapons to win the war while reducing civilian harm, to conduct proper investigations, to collect and assess civilian casualty data, to train our soldiers in the importance of civilian support, and to compensate civilians swiftly, every time.

We need one person to oversee that all of this is done with "the people" in mind, so the cycle of mistakes -- from Vietnam to Afghanistan and despite the military's best intentions -- does not continue. This position in the Pentagon would institutionalize some of the most important strategies the US needs to win wars with strategic certainty and humanity.

Military leaders insist their men be suited and equipped for the mission at hand. 

General McChrystal has put forward the right framework for Afghanistan. Washington should appoint this position to give him a fighting chance.