NATO is fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban attack and then hide among civilians. NATO counter-strikes, killing the Taliban but also killing civilians. And, predictably (since this is the objective of the Taliban tactic), politicians call on NATO to rein in its strikes.
The rising toll on civilians is putting pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- who like the NATO chief was in Rome for a conference on the rule of law in his country -- in the bloodiest period since the Taliban government fell in 2001.
In a major incident this weekend, Afghan officials said 45 civilians had been killed by an air strike, though the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force put the toll lower.
"Our opponent mixes and mingles with innocent civilians. They are in a different moral category," De Hoop Scheffer said.
"We do not intentionally kill; they behead people, they burn schools, they kill women and children. Let us not forget."
Civilian deaths have sparked demands for the expulsion of foreign troops and Karzai's resignation. An Afghan rights group said this week that foreign air strikes had recently killed more civilians than the Taliban.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, also at the Rome talks, said he had told De Hoop Scheffer privately that "civilian casualties (are) not acceptable".
In a speech, he said both Afghan and international forces had to "act strictly in accordance with international humanitarian law" to avoid discrediting their campaign.
"However difficult this may prove against a shadowy and unscrupulous adversary, we simply cannot hide from the reality that civilian casualties, no matter how accidental, strengthen our enemies and undermine our efforts," Ban said.
Reminds me of the classic Western High Noon. Marshall Kane knows that the bad men coming after him must be confronted -- but the politicians in the town all have reasons to avoid fighting. The ones who hate Kane and want to see him dead are at least honest -- but the mayor, who claims to be Kane's staunchest supporter, simply doesn't want to see bloodshed in his town because it might give Eastern investors an impression of the town as a lawless, uncivilized place. Kane knows, and his Quaker wife comes to know, that the only thing worse than the collateral damage from confronting evil is the terrible destruction of letting evil go unchecked.
The situation in Afghanistan is war. The Afghan people have to be given a stark choice: stop letting the Taliban mingle in your communities, or die alongside them. Only when they understand this fact will they have the motivation to stand against the Taliban, if only to give themselves a slightly better chance of self-preservation.