A memorial for Afghan journalist Ahmad Omaid Khpalwak in Kabul. (AFP/Shah Marai)
A memorial for Afghan journalist Ahmad Omaid Khpalwak in Kabul. (AFP/Shah Marai)

Time to reassess U.S. military counterinsurgency tactics

One year ago, on July 28, 2011, Ahmad Omaid Khpalwak, 25, was killed by American troops during a brutal close-quarters battle with a Taliban suicide squad backed by gunmen. Khpalwak was one of 22 people killed in the hours-long siege on government buildings that included the governor’s office and police headquarters in Tarin Kot, capital of Uruzgan province. A reporter for the BBC, Pajhwok Afghan News, and several other organizations, Khpalwak died with 11 bullet wounds in his body. He was shot in a government-run newsroom while waving his press card and declaring in English that he was a journalist. It’s fair to ask, one year after Khpalwak died, if any lessons have been learned. The odds that a journalist could be killed by U.S. forces’ fire seem, unfortunately, to be as high as ever.

Concern for civilian deaths was addressed by U.S. Marine Corps Cmdr. John Allen in the final U.S. military report on Khpalwak’s death. Allen said that while the death was understandable given the chaotic conditions, U.S. troops should be reminded of the combat rules under which they operate. Here is an excerpt from Allen’s report, which was first obtained by Tom Hyland of Australia’s The Sunday Age for a January 2012 investigative story:

I approve the recommendations of the memorandum that address the need to establish whether civilians are present at the scene of any potential engagement and the need to continue to emphasize guidance to exercise tactical patience in operations. To be clear, the tragic shooting of Ahmad Omaid Khpalwak was not a violation of the Law of Armed Conflict or Rules of Engagement in light of the circumstances as detailed by all available evidence and the findings. I direct that Rules for the Use of force, Rules of Engagement and Escalation of Force training remain a priority for all coalition units throughout their deployments in the CJOA-A [Combined/Joint Operations Area-Afghanistan].

But if closer attention should be paid to the rules, the rules themselves should be updated to address the presence of journalists in the field.

The 2007 U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (COIN-FM), has been the playbook for fighting non-traditional forces such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. It embraces what the U.S. military considers successful methods developed by the British while they policed their empire and when they eventually found themselves responding to independence movements. COIN-FM also draws from the French and American failures in post-World War II Southeast Asia, according to respected defense analyst Sarah Sewall‘s introduction to the manual. In those conflicts, as in Iraq and now Afghanistan, powerful and traditionally configured armies faced an indigenous force embedded in the population. As Sewall put it, “Securing the population, rather than destroying the enemy” is the top priority.

Now, with ISAF in a draw-down mode and the American military, the largest contingent of that international force, moving away from a full combat role to that of training and operational support, there is not much talk of a “counter-insurgency” strategy anymore. Ahmed Rashid, an expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan and a CPJ board member, noted the apparent abandonment of the strategy when he spoke at Columbia University in March this year.

Many of the manual’s chapters deal with how troops should interact with the local population, but there are no protocols of what to do when they confront a journalist in the field. Many Afghan journalists over the years who embed with U.S. units say they are well-treated. But those who are not operating under the military’s protection say their survival tactic around U.S. military forces is to stay as far away as possible, not just because of the potential for danger, but because they are often met with wariness and hostility.

Not to address the problem of interaction with local journalists is an oversight that must be addressed as the American military reviews its tactics. Just as the 2007 COIN-FM version grew out of lessons learned in earlier conflicts, when it comes time to draft the text that will replace the current COIN-FM, rules of conduct specifically concerning journalists should be included.

Omaid Khpalwak’s death, coming as it did during the heat of battle in close quarters, might be understandable. But not addressing the broader issues of the U.S. military’s engagement with local journalists is inexcusable.