UN Report Confirms Troop Increases Fail to Reduce Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan

The Washington Post today reports that Gen. McChrystal is likely about to request more troops for the stated rationale of protecting the civilian population in Afghanistan. President Obama should deny this request because no past increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan prevented a subsequent yearly increase in a) civilian casualties generally or b) civilian casualties specifically caused by pro-Afghan-government forces (that’s us, folks).

From a new report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA):

Operations carried out by PGF [pro-government forces] have resulted in a growing number of civilian casualties since 2007. Whereas the overall proportion of civilian deaths attributed to the PGF has declined in recent years, mainly due to concerted mitigation efforts, the actual number of civilian deaths continues to increase.

UNAMA’s report shows that troop increases in Afghanistan for the purpose of reducing civilian deaths are all repeats of a failed tactic. Note this chart from BBC.

U.S. troop levels have been increasing steadily since 2001. Now consider this: “Systematic collection of civilian fatality data only began in 2007.” However:

  • In that year alone (2007), the Afghan NGO Safety Office estimated that “1,980 civilians were killed…”
  • In 2008, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded “2,118 civilian casualties.”
  • "In the first six months of 2009, UNAMA recorded 1013 civilian deaths, compared with 818 for the same period in 2008, and 684 in 2007…This represents an increase of 24% of civilian casualties in the first six months of 2009 as compared to the same period in 2008" (from the UNAMA report).

The data clearly show that escalation as a tactic to reduce civilian casualties does not work:

  • U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan have increased every year since 2001.
  • In every year since systematic civilian casualty data collection started, civilian casualties caused by pro-government forces have increased.
  • No escalation has been followed by a subsequent overall decrease in civilian casualties in the following year. To the contrary: each year following an increase in U.S. troops since we started systematic collection of civilian casualty data has seen an increase in civilian casualties over the previous year.

All of these facts, taken together, show that troop increases do not prevent increases in a) civilian deaths generally or b) civilian deaths caused specifically by pro-government forces (that’s us).

McChrystal is expected to couch a request for troop increases in the context of a larger new strategy. At least one piece of the new strategy is worth applauding:

"…McChrystal has indicated that he is considering moving troops out of remote mountain valleys where Taliban fighters have traditionally sought sanctuary and concentrating more forces around key population centers."

This move tracks with recommendations by Giles Dorronsoro at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as part of a strategy to sharply reduce military conflict in Afghanistan, which he suggests should become the overriding goal of near-term U.S. policy in Afghanistan. But, Dorronsoro suggests moving troops out of the remote contested areas in Afghanistan to population centers as the first step in a strategy that withdraws U.S. troops from Afghanistan. So, despite this apparent area of agreement, McChrystal’s reported overall strategy is headed in exactly the wrong direction, digging us deeper into Afghanistan.

When you add to that McChrystal’s planned escalation of drone strikes inside Afghanistan against the Taliban, it’s hard to see how his "new" strategy will reduce civilian casualties. After all, experience in Pakistan shows that drones strikes kill 10-15 times as many civilians as they do suspected militants. And if we withdraw troops on the ground from remote areas and replace them with drones, doesn’t that contradict the last rationale we were given for putting boots on the ground–to reduce reliance on airstrikes that kill so many civilians?

McChrystal’s new strategy is headed in the wrong direction. We should decrease, not increase, the number of troops in Afghanistan. Troop increases do not reduce civilian deaths.

For more on civilian casualties in Afghanistan, check out Brave New Foundation’s Rethink Afghanistan, and in particular their segment on civilian casualties.

Comments are closed.