Is there a right balance in Afghanistan?

Public attention to civilian deaths in Afghanistan underscores the challenging nature of the vexing ongoing guerrilla war. On May 4, according to allegations, civilians were killed during an Allied operation. Taliban insurgents entered a village in Bala Bulak in western Afghanistan and beheaded three civilians. When Afghan police responded, they were ambushed.

A much more powerful military force moved in, and at least twenty-five Taliban were killed in the ensuing combat. Others also died. Reportedly, the enemy killed civilians by throwing hand grenades into homes, then endeavored to blame Allied troops. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, also coincidentally in Afghanistan, emphasized at a news conference that determining the facts was paramount, and that the United States regretted even one "innocent civilian" casualty and would make any necessary "amends".

The resurgence of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan has been marked over the past year. On June 13, 2008, a massive prison break in Kandahar, a southern Afghanistan province previously considered secure, freed approximately one thousand people, among them an estimated four hundred hard-core insurgents. The prison gates were blown open by a suicide bomber in a large well-coordinated operation. At that time Gates expressed very serious concern over Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation.

Yet there are also promising signs. At the same time as the Kandahar prison attack, Group of Eight foreign ministers meeting in Japan decided to devote massive financial resources to combating the drug trade and poverty in Afghanistan.

A new G-8 coordinating body oversees a formal commitment of approximately four billion dollars in aid, concentrated in tribal areas bordering Pakistan where al Qaeda and the Taliban are particularly strong. Assistance includes police and military training as well as expanded anti-drug efforts. The thrust, however, is economic.

This initiative is very much needed. Three years ago, well before the recent acknowledgement of growing guerrilla strength, journalist Sarah Chase provided a bleak evaluation of developments. A daring adventurer, she runs an agricultural cooperative in southern Afghanistan and has written a book about the country.

In seeking effective policies, useful lessons are provided by that durable duo of international relations, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. During the Nixon administration, Turkey was a principal source of world heroin production. Nixon and Kissinger creatively used product licensing to encourage Turkish farmers to sell crops to pharmaceutical companies for legal medicinal purposes.

Drug lords moved some production to Afghanistan, but the trade route from Turkey to Marseilles, France, and then the U.S. – dramatized in the film "The French Connection" – was disrupted, and our important ally Turkey was strengthened. We should apply this practical approach to Afghanistan.

We must also be realistic about unconventional warfare. Here the Vietnam War is instructive. Some politicians and media martinets, especially on conservative talk radio and television, often deny U.S. forces would ever target civilians. Such simplistic, moralistic rhetoric distorts the reality that in warfare mistakes happen, and also that in guerrilla war there is no constant sharp distinction between civilians and the enemy.

Afghanistan is not Vietnam, and the Allies can prevail. However, to do so we must be absolutely clear about the brutal nature of this war. Gates underscored that civilian casualties are down 40 percent this year but also emphasized that the Taliban use civilians as shields, and integrate closely with the wider population.

The measured remarks of the Secretary set the right tone along with providing important substance.

(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. E-mail him at acyr(at)