One of the difficulties of counterinsurgencies is that sometimes its necessary *not* to do what’s most effective in a strict military sense. This is particularly true if following standard operating procedure is likely to cause civilian casualties. But it’s often difficult for military commanders, who are, after all, trained to attack the enemy. Last week, the Taliban hijacked two fuel tankers, only to be spotted as they were trying to escape:

According to the German officers, the incident began Thursday evening when insurgents hijacked the two trucks on the main highway connecting Kunduz to the Tajikistan border. [A] B-1B bomber, which was flying in the area in support of a different mission, spotted the vehicles several hours later after they had become bogged down while trying to cross the river, 13 miles south of Kunduz, the provincial capital. The German commander declared the scenario an imminent threat and requested air support.

The question then became: what to do? The images from overhead see more than 50 people gathered around the trucks, but were they civilian or insurgents?

An Afghan informant was on the phone with an intelligence officer at the center, however, insisting that everybody at the site was an insurgent, according to an account that German officers here provided to NATO officials.

Based largely on that informant’s assessment, the commander ordered a 500-pound, satellite-guided bomb to be dropped on each truck early Friday. The vehicles exploded in a fireball that lit up the night sky for miles, incinerating many of those standing nearby.

Unsurprisingly, reports of civilian casualties soon began arriving. Some seem to have gone to try and get fuel from the trucks. Some seem to have been forced by the insurgents to help free the trucks. Some seem to have gone to gawk.

In conventional conflicts the avoidance of “collateral damage” tends to be something of a secondary concern, one subsumed to achieving the military goals. But in counterinsurgency, that avoidance *is* one of the military goals, one that is deliberately made more difficult by the insurgents. Air power, even in this age of GPS and precision-guided munitions, is still a blunt instrument, one that the German commander likely should have remembered.

P.S. Having said that, things are rarely as straightforward as they seem, as McChrystal found out when he visited the bombing site:

The council chairman, Ahmadullah Wardak, cut [McChrystal] off. He wanted to talk about the deteriorating security situation in Kunduz, where Taliban activity has increased significantly in recent months. NATO forces in the area, he told the fact-finding team before McChrystal arrived, need to be acting “more strongly” in the area….”If we do three more operations like was done the other night, stability will come to Kunduz,” Wardak told McChrystal. “If people do not want to live in peace and harmony, that’s not our fault.”