Civilian Casualties: Does This Really Need To Be Said?

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — You know what we’ve never had in Afghanistan? What ISAF has never claimed? What has never been the overriding metric here? That it’s sufficient to reduce ISAF-caused civilian casualties in the war. For one simple reason: it’s not!

If you were Afghan, and the U.N. had just found that civilian casualties had risen 31 percent over the previous reporting period, would you be satisfied with the rejoinder, “Yes, but you can see that ISAF is killing fewer civilians and the Taliban is killing way way more”? Perhaps you might simply focus on the fact that more civilians are dying while two consecutive ISAF commanders have pledged to protect civilian lives.

To be very clear and at the risk of sounding like a broken record: it’s significant that ISAF is responsible for fewer and fewer civilian casualties. That demonstrates ISAF’s commitment to discrimination in its use of force, a promise to Afghans, is real. But it’s more significant, by the expressed terms of the population-protection strategy in Afghanistan, that civilians are still dying in greater numbers. One way of understanding that comes from the brutality of the Taliban.

But if you combine all that — the falling rates of ISAF-caused civilian casualties and the rising rates of civilian casualties — what you get is a picture of a war that’s spinning out of ISAF’s control. Protecting the population can’t just mean protecting the population from you.

In any event, my homie Clayton Swisher frames it, I think, rather well.

Someone else clearly gets it, too:

“Every Afghan death diminishes our cause,” General Petraeus said. “While we have made progress in our efforts to reduce coalition-caused civilian casualties, we know the measure by which our mission will be judged is protecting the population from harm by either side.”

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman