A recent NATO airstrike in the province of Uruzgan—against what was thought to be a convoy of Taliban insurgents on their way to attack Afghan and foreign military forces—killed at least 27 Afghan civilians, including four women and a child. In February, more than 50 Afghan civilians are believed to have been killed in more than half a dozen U.S. and NATO military operations.

The good news is that “collateral” civilian casualties have dropped since Gen. Stanley McChrystal took over as the commanding general in Afghanistan, and he has apologized publicly for the casualties on Afghan national television. The bad news, however, is that—although they are fewer than before—civilian casualties are counterproductive to counterinsurgency.

Although there is a military component to successful counterinsurgency, it is largely about winning hearts and minds. Killing innocent civilians—even unintentionally—is a prescription for defeat.

Consider the aftermath of a U.S. airstrike (targeting an alleged local Taliban leader) in March 2007 in the Kapisa province. Four generations of a single family were killed, including an 85-year-old man, four women, and four children ranging in age from five years to seven months. According to one villager, “We used to hate the Russians much more than Americans. But now when we see all this happening, I am telling you Russians behave much better than the Americans.” The 7-year-old boy who survived the bombing said plainly enough about Americans: “I hate them.”

Such hatred harbored by a family member can become the impulse for turning someone into a terrorist. For example, the suicide bomber responsible for killing 19 Israelis in Haifa at the beginning of October 2003 was a 29-year-old apprentice lawyer, Hanadi Jaradat—an educated woman with a good job who would not ordinarily fit a terrorist profile. But she had motivation: an Israeli crackdown that resulted in the shooting death of her brother and cousin.

Reportedly, Jaradat vowed revenge standing over her brother’s grave: “Your blood will not have been shed in vain. . . . The murderer will yet pay the price, and we will not be the only ones who are crying.” After the Haifa bombing, family members said, “She carried out the attack in revenge for the killing of her brother and her cousin by the Israeli security forces.”

The Israelis justify their actions because they feel they must confront a direct and imminent mortal threat to the survival of their country. U.S. actions in Afghanistan are more connected to the survival of U.S.-created government, not the United States itself. The Taliban per se is not a direct threat to America, and local al Qaeda threats within Afghanistan are not necessarily the same as the pre-9/11 al Qaeda threat to the United States. Indeed, even Osama bin Laden and the remnants of al Qaeda leadership thought to be in Pakistan may no longer be an operational threat.

What the United States needs to recognize is that continued military operations in Afghanistan are not in our larger strategic interests. We must understand that foreign military occupation—however well intended and however successful at the tactical, operational level—is not the solution, but rather part of the problem because of the resentment it creates (both in Afghanistan and also the larger Muslim world).

We must be true to our own principle of self-determination and allow the Afghan government to be fully sovereign and make decisions for itself—even if they are not the same decisions we would make. Our only real criterion should be that the government in Kabul—even if it includes elements of the Taliban—not provide support or safe haven for al Qaeda to attack America.