Yes, it’s that time of year again—time for the annual UN report on Afghan civilian casualties. Since the compilations were first released in 2007, they’ve been the occasion for ridiculous mea culpas from peaceniks horrified that any civilians actually get killed by accident in a war, for jeremiads from hard lefties charging that our troops go around whacking Afghans civilians willy nilly, and for ridiculous bombast from conservatives arguing that if we just increased the number of troops in Afghanistan we would be better able to “protect” civilians.
Well, this year’s numbers pretty much make mincemeat of any such idiocies from either the left or the right. For the first year since 2008, civilian casualties are down. Twelve percent down over 2011. At 2,754, civilian deaths in 2012—the equivalent in our population of 300 million would be 27,540—are still horrifyingly high. But contrary to lefty doctrine, 81 percent of the casualties were caused by the insurgents and just 8 percent by foreign and Afghan security forces. Air attacks by our forces caused just 126 deaths in 2012, as opposed to 235 in 2011 and 171 in 2010.
But the surge supporters have egg on their faces too. If they were right, why would violence be falling just when American troops are pulling out of the country? Even IED attacks are down in most regions in Afghanistan, with 2011 figures lower than 2010 and 2012 lower than 2011—in Afghanistan’s south, casualties (which include injuries as well as deaths) fell from 1,316 to 906 to 876. Those who like their explanations logical will agree that the American withdrawal is probably much of the reason.
As I began to think a few years ago, after a certain point, more American troops were an irritant, not a calmant. Our mere presence brought more insurgent violence—violence that often took the lives of civilians rather than the better-protected American troops it was designed to kill. That’s one of the reasons I opposed the surge. There were simply too many of us. I noticed that in Helmand Province in 2010 as well: if you drove north from the capital of Lashkar Gah, you ran into American convoys or Afghan National Army bases or Afghan National Police checkpoints literally every couple of miles. It may have been “controlled” but it wasn’t an environment most people would want to live in. And more to the point of the numbers released last week, it was an environment that was a magnet for insurgents.
Now, the numbers for 2012 are still five times higher than they were in 2007. And as they are concentrated in the conflict areas of the east and south, those 2,754 deaths touch a significant percentage of families in that part of the country. But my bet is that next year the numbers will be much lower, perhaps as low as 2007’s 1,523 deaths.
And the chart I’d love to see would cover the years 2002 forward and show the number of foreign troops on the horizontal axis and the number of civilian deaths on the vertical access. I bet there’s a nearly straight-line correlation. So much for counterinsurgency theory, alas.