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May 14, 2010
Empathy in Afghanistan: Correct, Though Hazardous

It's one thing for Procter & Gambel to use the word empathy -- walking in another's shoes -- in attempting to reassure mothers about the latest wrinkle in Pampers diapers. It's another thing altogether when U.S. commanders in Afghanistan counsel their troops to use "courageous restraint" to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties there. We pray the new counterinsurgency, or COIN, doctrine will bring a supportive response from the majority of Afghans sooner than later.

It's indeed correct to argue that you gain psychological ground by avoiding civilian casualties. How much and how fast, however, can become crucial variables. Parents of U.S. troops and politicians back home lack the context in which the new emphasis is being applied. All they're apt to envision is heightened danger for the troops. This is an ultimate public relations crunch, we'd venture.

It leaves President Obama himself in a possibly hazardous position to say, however correctly, while the new strategy sometimes may place troops at greater risk, "that's a burden we're willing to bear." He'll likely be asked who is bearing it.

Indeed, North Carolina Republican Congressman Walter Jones says he's unconvinced.

"You see these kids with their legs blown off and you just hope they were given a chance," he's quoted by AP. "They are too restricted. ... If you're going to send the U.S. military to fight, then let them fight."

In a guerilla context, such as the one created by the Taliban, that's much too simplistic. But tell that to an anxious mother or father back home.

Now we're learning there won't be a "D-Day"-style assault on Kandahar this summer, an all-out push into the heart of the city.

"Kandahar is not, in fact, controlled by the Taliban," says the U.S. commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, "So it's not a case of having to recapture an area under enemy control."  

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton adds that the Kandahar effort will not be "a massive military action," with "tanks rolling into the city. We are not fighting the Afghan people."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates attempted to reassure soldiers' spouses at Fort Riley, Kan., last weekend.

"The first thing I'll tell you is that it is clear to every soldier in Afghanistan that he has every right to do whatever is necessary to protect himself," he said. "So if a soldier is under threat, he can do the appropriate thing," while keeping in mind the consequences of killing or hurting bystanders. It's this addendum that's placing an extra burden on understanding back home. Empathy for whom, really, military families are likely to ask.  

You have to appreciate the U.S. military and civilian leaders adopting nuanced thinking on a potential battlefield like Kandahar. They're correct about that, but may the people of Afghanistan, most of them, anyway, understand and appreciate the ultimate sense in which U.S. troops are seeking to protect their interests.

One hopes that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was at President Obama's side when he made his empathetic statement with Afghan's people in mind, takes  a vivid recollection of it home with him, and helps apply it there in every way possible. As soon as possible. 

Photo by Adam Ferguson for Time


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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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