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Civilian Casualties Soar; Key Afghan Metric Headed In Wrong Direction

by Ryan Grim

Civilian deaths in Afghanistan climbed in 2009 to their highest number since the fall of the Taliban, the United Nations says in a recent report.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal gives congressional testimony in 2009. The rising number of innocent Afghan casualties constitutes a major failure for the American forces if judged by the standards set out by General Stanley McChrystal in the summer of 2009, when he gave this testimony. The rising number of innocent Afghan casualties constitutes a major failure for the American forces if judged by the standards set out by General Stanley McChrystal in the summer of 2009, when he testified before Congress.

American success in Afghanistan should be measured by "the number of Afghans shielded from violence," not the number of enemy fighters killed, he said at the time.

That's a reasonable measure, since no matter who's actually causing the violence, the people hold the coalition forces and central government responsible -- as veteran combat reporter David Wood wrote on Friday for Politics Daily.

According to the UN report, it is the Taliban that is killing more and more civilians. Civilian deaths at the hands of American-led forces actually declined dramatically last year. But as Wood wrote, "the perception among most Afghans is that the United States is responsible when Afghans are killed."

The United Nations report also expressed dismay about the conscious American strategy to bring the battle to populated areas. The reported stated that the UN "has highlighted concerns in numerous reports, briefings, and dialogue with ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] on the issue of the location of military facilities within or near areas where civilians are concentrated. The presence of IM [international military] bases in residential areas continues to be a major concern. This runs counter to international humanitarian law principles designed to protect the civilian population against the dangers arising from military operations," reads the report.

"When military bases are established in or near residential areas -- in either urban or rural areas -- this is an additional security threat given the high likelihood of attacks by armed groups or from retaliatory activities by IM forces. The presence of IM bases can generate hostility amongst the civilian population, particularly if civilian casualties arise as a result of their presence."

So why did the military move into populated areas, which would most likely increase civilian deaths?

"In order to protect the population you have to be with the population, not just rolling out on patrols from heavily fortified bases outside of town," Geoff Morrell, deputy assistant secretary of Defense, told HuffPost.

But that is a misreading of the reality on the ground in Afghanistan, said Matthew Hoh, a former foreign service officer who resigned in the fall, objecting to the course of Afghan war strategy.

"I think, unfortunately, what it is is: 'This is what worked in Iraq. This is what counterinsurgency strategy kind of dictates. This is what we're going to do.' In Iraq and Afghanistan, it's not the same," he told HuffPost.

The key difference, he said, is that in Iraq, the government under Saddam Hussein, followed by the U.S. occupation forces, exerted control over much of the country. "Then we turn over the country very rapidly in June of 2004 before that government there is ready to assume responsibility," said Hoh. The U.S. surge helped to reassert that authority, to fill that vacuum.

In rural Afghanistan, however, the situation is much different. For centuries, there has been no central authority that governed the villages, so there's no vacuum to fill. The movement of the war into the villages, therefore, brings more insecurity than it does security.

"Nobody wants that in their backyard," he said. "For many of the rural Afghans, it's just a problem that they don't want. They just want to be left in peace. They don't want the Taliban to rule them, either. They don't want to be ruled by these other Pashtuns who come from other valleys. They want to rule themselves."

The U.S. military, ever since McChrystal took command in mid0-2009, has worked to reduce casualties resulting from airstrikes.

"Fundamentally, General McChrystal's objective here is to protect the population and continue to enjoy their trust and confidence," said Morrell. "Where we have inadvertently killed civilians, and although clearly that was not our intent, the mere fact it was happening was working against us."

The military is much more careful about what and whom it bombs, said Morrell, saying that they have "very much restricted the use of close air support."

Accidentally killing fewer civilians is a good thing, both morally and strategically, said Hoh, but nine years in, it's getting late. Hoh said that in the four eastern provinces where Hoh worked, coalition forces dropped a half-million pounds of bombs and fired 50,000 rounds of mortar and artillery fire, while spending more than $150 million on reconstruction. Yet the population, he said, was still in rebellion.

"So after eight years at war, if in a population of four, four-and-a-half million that's desperately poor, you're spending that kind of money, you're dropping that many bombs, and no one's coming around to your side, that shows that people's minds are pretty much made up already," he said.

WATCH McChrystal lay out his definition of success:

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