Keeping Score: The War of Numbers in Afghanistan

There is a school of thought, let’s call it the “War of Numbers School”, which holds that the killing and oppression that takes place in war, even the killing of innocent non-combatants, is morally palatable if it ultimately prevents killing and oppression. Proponents of this school argue that it is worth invading foreign lands (and in the process inevitably killing and wounding civilians) if the goal is to wipe out the murderous enemy and bring peace  and hopefully democracy to the invaded nation. In other words, if our motives are pure, if we do not intentionally target civilians, our “collateral damage” should be forgiven, especially if we kill fewer civilians than the enemy.

So if we accidentally kill 10 people in trying to save 50, 000 or 500,000, the loss of life is deemed worth it and chalked up to the “reality” of war. Often the preferred justification for mistakes is “the fog of war”; you know, it’s not our fault, it’s just this damned cloudiness and confusion. And if our enemies kill 100 people to every 10 we kill, after the fog has lifted we can claim we won the moral ratio contest.

So argues Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in a piece called “The Tragedy in Kunduz, the Real Threat for Afghan Civilians, and Need for Changes in U.S. Strategy”. Here Cordesman addresses the mistaken bombing of the hospital in Kunduz by U.S. forces with a call to carry on with the war:

“Tragic as one event in Kunduz may be, it is important to note that the overall pattern of events is building to what could be a far greater tragedy. Afghanistan is a country of over 32 million people. As sad as any given incident where civilians are hurt or killed may be, airpower and grounds troops are the only way of limiting the damage being done by the Taliban and other insurgents. War inevitably involves mistakes by the military forces that do respect civilian life, but it also involves deliberate actions by forces that do not show that respect and kill and maim far more innocent lives.

One key questions that is never asked when tragedies like the hospital attack in Kunduz occur is what would happen if the United States does not provide air and training-and-assist support to the Afghan forces? How many more Afghans will suffer and die? What is the price tag of putting too many restraints on the use of military force and not providing the level of outside support the Afghan forces need?”

“What is the price tag . . .” Cordesman asks. Aside from the great monetary expense of launching foreign wars, the language here suggests that we can put a price or mathematical value on a human life, that inevitable killing by forces that “respect civilian life” is of a different moral order than more reckless killing of innocent life. Tragedy is measured by volume; one life is not worth as much as 32 million. Either way, to commence war is an intentional decision. What Cordesman does not ask is this: does war increase the likelihood that there will also be deliberate killing of human life, even by U.S. forces, as well as the accidental taking of human life? The clear answer, based on historical experience, is yes.

But Cordesman, and pretty much all professional military thinkers, goes on to show us all the numbers that prove that our military involvement is not the problem, that, in fact after fact after fact, only our military can provide the solution it has not yet, after all these years, managed to provide. If only we are patient and militarily persevere, we will ultimately stop killing the wrong people and kill all the right people until all the bad people are eliminated or the Afghan army can effectively keep the Taliban from killing more people than the Afghan army kills.

Is there no limit on how long we should give war a chance, Mr. Cordesman?

“Finally, continued U.S. military and civil aid will be needed each year in the future, through at least 2020, and the amount should be based on some kind of annual plan worked out with the Afghans and not simply assigned on the basis of past plans and commitments or arbitrary budget caps.”

I see. That is sobering news. But is there any alternative to another five years, at least, of inevitable civilian deaths? Cordesman does not provide an answer. But he does say this about the need for better communication:

“There also is a clear need for far more honesty and transparency in U.S. reporting on the war.”

On this we agree, Mr. Cordesman. The more the American people know, the more we want war to end.

Advertisements