Civilian casualties during NATO military operations in Afghanistan have been the biggest bone of contention between the United States and the Afghan government over the past two years. As Hamid Karzai has grown increasingly independent of American influence — even as his government has grown increasingly dependent on American, European and Japanese assistance for development projects and government ministries — he has found it much easier to speak openly about how unhappy he has been over the deaths of Afghan innocents. Of course, avoiding civilian casualties is extremely difficult for the United States and its partners, especially as coalition forces increase their operations on Taliban hideouts and pour more resources into highly populated areas. Indeed, the recent accidental killing of nine Afghan boys by a NATO airstrike is a testament to brutal and confusing warfare can be.
But while civilian deaths are difficult to avoid, American and British troops have done a much better job over the past year eluding civilians during their operations, according to a United Nations report on Afghan civilian casualties. The study (PDF), conducted by the Human Rights Unit of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, is a long collection of assessments, charts, maps and graphs supporting its fact finding mission, yet the Associated Press ran a short story summarizing its main findings.
Civilian casualties did in fact increase by a disappointing 28 percent from the previous year (2009), but the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) found a way to decrease their share of the deaths by 26 percent.
Numbers can at times be consuming, but in this particular circumstance, the 26 percent decrease supports many of the conclusions that General David H. Petraeus and his operational command have been making over the past several months; that coalition troops are not only taking great care to stay away from local residents during attacks but are limiting their missions against very specific targets.
As expected, foremost among those targets are suspected Taliban hideouts, which have been severely degraded by frequent night raids by US Special Forces. The raids are controversial and unpopular in Afghanistan but they have not disappointed on results. Thousands of anti-government insurgents have been captured and thousands more (mainly low to midlevel Taliban field commanders) have been killed.
The statistics from the UN report also reveal an intelligence component that is especially important to the coalition going forward. The acquisition of accurate and actionable intelligence from those on the ground is undeniably one of the variables that have led the coalition to a more sustained campaign of precision targeting. As more accurate information makes its way up the chain of command, it is more likely that troops in the field will succeed in their operations with a substantially lower amount of collateral damage. It’s an obvious interpretation, but one that could convince more Afghan civilians to step forward with information.
This is good news tactically, since troops are finding it easier to locate Taliban fighters and weapons caches around areas that were “no go” zones only a year ago. But far more significant to the mission in Afghanistan is whether the decrease in civilian deaths is boosting Washington’s strategic advantage in relation to the enemy. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is still murky given the difficulties of measuring Afghan public opinion at a time of war.
The UN study also has implications for how the United States and its partners are actually conducting the war. Counterinsurgency (COIN) has become a common mantra in American military doctrine today, with the conventional use of force taking a secondary position in relation to the protection of the local population and the provision of enough security to win their support.
Counterinsurgency is reliant both on military and nonmilitary (or civilian) measures of success. Yet on the nonmilitary aspect of the strategy, there is cause for concern. General Petraeus himself acknowledged that a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan remains way off into the distance. The Taliban leadership, unmolested in Quetta, remains steadfast in its refusal to engage in negotiations with the coalition as long as foreign troops are on Afghan soil. Members of the Taliban that have actually stopped fighting the government and have switched allegiances are not being integrated into Afghan society as quickly as Petraeus would hope.
In this context, should COIN still be the overarching war strategy for the Obama Administration? The high level of enemy combatants killed and the tedious pace of reconciliation suggests that the ISAF may be focusing more on what the military regards as kinetic operations, or classic war fighting capabilities. In Afghanistan at least, COIN may be a dead concept.