The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Monday, 12 July 2010

How to interpret civilian casualties in Afghanistan?

A report out today suggests that civilian casualties in Afghanistan are rising slightly - but that the number of those killed by ISAF is dropping. The mid-year study from Afghanistan Rights Monitor confirms a trend evident for some time now, again proving that the Taliban and friends are responsible for the majority of civilian deaths and injuries in Afghanistan.

This would appear to be encouraging news for the international community's engagement in Afghanistan and, more specifically, serves to vindicate General McChrystal's tightening of the ISAF rules of engagement last year. It shows that ISAF has greater regard for civilian life than the Taliban does.

However, is that really the point?

In all probability that is the spin that will be put on this story but that attitude will not help to win the war. The statistics may show that ISAF has greater regard for civilian life than the Taliban does but that is supposed to be a given. The real question, the real hearts and minds issue, is the extent to which ISAF is able to protect civilians.

If we are to use the American surge in Iraq from 2006 onwards as an example then we see that, within the context of a population-centric COIN approach, a decrease in civilian casualties is an indicator of progress. Even as American fatalities rose in Iraq during the surge, Iraqi civilian casualties were decreasing. Essentially, US troops were putting themselves between the insurgents and the people - which is one of the objectives within the population-centric approach and a fundamental pre-condition to any kind of military success.

While it would be wrong to judge from afar, this report and others before it suggest that ISAF has not yet achieved that crucial objective.

From a public diplomacy perspective, I can understand that reports such as these could be useful to show people on the home front (assuming of course that they're still listening) that i/ ISAF tries very hard to limit civilian casualties and ii/ the Taliban are evil. However, that interpretation can be - in fact is - counter-productive because we miss the point. Not killing civilians is not enough, we're supposed to protect them.

I would add that the timing of the report is important in that it seems to vindicate General McChrystal's tightened rules of engagement, just as General Petraeus is said to be reconsidering these (in reality, that remark at his Senate confirmation hearing was really for domestic consumption and any minor changes to the RoE will be in interpretation rather than in letter and certainly not in spirit).

Worryingly, there was a demonstration this week-end in Mazar-e-Sharif (not exactly a Taliban stronghold) against civilian casualties and Petraeus' potential loosening of the rules of engagement, showing that ISAF is rightly being held responsible by the Afghans no matter what the statistics say. The facts as we know them tell us that ISAF is not the main culprit and that General Petraeus will not suddenly undo all the good work of his predecessor. The demonstration tells us that Afghan perception is more important than statistical reality.

In short, this report does not entitle the international community to a pat on the back. In actual fact, it only increases the urgency to get things right in Afghanistan as soon as possible.

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