Sunday, July 25, 2010

Civilian deaths, rules of engagement and the war in Afghanistan

It's become something of a meme among portions of the right (and in the military) in recent months that American troops in Afghanistan aren't really allowed to defend themselves, and that those troops are thus more exposed to danger than they should have to. It's an argument that ignores, completely, one of the central points of counterinsurgency doctrine: The people of a country are the "battlefield" that is to be won -- and if you kill innocent civilians, you're probably losing that battlefield.

Via BBC, proof of the concept:

The authors of the report by the Massachusetts-based National Bureau of Economic Research say they analysed 15 months of data on military clashes and incidents totalling more than 4,000 civilian deaths in a number of Afghan regions in the period ending on 1 April.

They say that in areas where two civilians were killed or injured by Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), there were on average an extra six violent incidents between insurgents and US-led troops in the following six weeks.

The report concludes that civilian deaths frequently motivate villagers to join the ranks of insurgents.

"In Afghanistan, when Isaf units kill civilians, this increases the number of willing combatants, leading to an increase in insurgent attacks."

Now you could argue that counterinsurgency doctrine is predicated on American adventurism abroad, that it involves us remaking nations that we shouldn't be spending blood and treasure trying to remake. I might not give you much of an argument back.

But: If you're going to fight a "long war" like Iraq or Afghanistan, counterinsurgency warfware probably gives you your best chance to succeed in some fashion. But that requires doing just about everything to minimize civilian casualties. Short-term, that definitely means your troops will expose themselves to more danger in order to save the civilians. Long-term, though, your chances of winning succeed -- and your odds of survival also increase. It's counterintuitive, sure, but it's not rocket science.

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