What the Army Can Learn from 'Black Hawk Down'

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"Black Hawk Down" ought to be compulsory for those waging the current phase of the Afghan campaign. Not the movie, but the book.

The Pentagon loves Ridley Scott's film, and with good reason: It shows the truly heroic efforts of a small band of American soldiers fighting against thousands of Mogadishu residents in a 1993 street battle that killed 1,000 Somalis and 17 Americans. But Mark Bowden's meticulously researched text also tells the Somali point of view, the other, equally important half of the story. What emerges here is that while the Americans believed they were simply embarked on a noble mission to ensure that food reached the hungry, many Somalis saw the U.S. forces as intruders meddling aggressively in their country's long-running clan wars.

A similar situation is shaping up in post-Taliban Afghanistan, where rival clans have begun to try to use the U.S. military for their own ends. The U.S. military admitted this week that it had killed and captured the wrong people when it struck what it believed to be a Taliban stronghold in the town of Uruzgan three weeks ago. U.S. commanders were forced to apologize and offer financial compensation.

The concern is that the U.S. might have received bad intelligence from a local clan leader out to eliminate a few rivals. A similar situation developed last December, when the U.S. attacked an alleged al-Qaeda convoy. It turned out then that there were no al-Qaeda members present, and Afghans believe a local warlord deliberately misled the U.S. into killing his enemies.

Although the Afghan government has accepted the U.S. explanation that the Uruzgan incident was a mistake, Western journalists who have visited the scene say the locals are deeply angry with the Americans. Back at the Pentagon, and in the U.S. media, these things are understood as the mistakes that inevitably happen in the fog of war. There's nothing new about "friendly fire" casualties, or "collateral damage." But it's important to remember that these terms are euphemisms designed to make such carnage more palatable to the American side; for the victims of such fatal errors the experience is every bit as horrifying as September 11 was for thousands of Americans. As the New York Times reported this week, the "collateral damage" in Afghanistan may have run to thousands of civilians.

The Pentagon may have no trouble convincing the American people or the Afghan leadership of the legitimacy of its continuing mission in Afghanistan. But there are plainly large numbers of Afghans who did not support the Taliban but regard the Americans with suspicion or hostility. Add to that the scores of local warlords and politicians who've lost out to rivals supported by the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, and the thousands of Taliban and al-Qaeda militants who continue to roam the countryside, and Afghanistan remains an exceedingly — and perhaps increasingly — dangerous place for the U.S. military.