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Civilian Casualties Soar; Key Afghan Metric Headed In Wrong Direction

Ryan Grim

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.

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.

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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