Civilian Casualties vs. Body Counts
Posted by Michael Cohen
Over at abu muqawama, Andrew Exum makes an audacious claim about the proper metric for success in Afghanistan. In responding to a WSJ article about the military's growing use of body counts to measure succes in Afghanistan, Exum writes:
First of all, we don't all agree that we're engaged in a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. Indeed, I'm pretty sure President Obama would not agree that we are engaged in a full-fledged counter-insurgency campaign. (Perhaps COIN-lite or Skim COIN).
Beyond that point, forgive me for asking the obvious question - and at risk of being derided as an old fashioned, lost in the weeds, conventional warrior - but isn't the point of war-fighting to kill the enemy? I'm sure if you would ask the Sri Lankan government why they succeeded in defeating the Tamil counter-insurgency or the Pakistani military why they were able to turn back the Taliban forces in Swat, I'm pretty sure the answer will not be - we protected civilians. If anything quite the opposite: their success came from killing the enemy and in a brutal manner.
While I am sympathetic to the notion that enemy body counts are perhaps an imprecise way of judging military success I'm really not clear on how protecting Afghan civilians from the Taliban makes Americans any safer or fulfills our mission there. Are American troops going to spend 10, 15, 20 years in Afghanistan "protecting civilians" from the Taliban? Are we going to try to meet David Kilcullen's goal of extending “an effective, legitimate government presence into Afghanistan’s 40,020 villages.”? Is that even possible in a country as large as Afghanistan and facing an enemy with far more staying power than the United States and NATO?
As this excellent article from Sunday's NYT makes clear, any security gains we are making in Afghanistan are at best transitory and require a far more substantial commitment than this Administration has demonstrated a willingness to maintain, particularly when you have Secretary Gates indicating that US and NATO forces have about a year to turn things around in Afghanistan.
The Afghan government is so far from being able to provide these services that it's hardly even worth entertaining the notion. And even if it did, the Taliban will simply go elsewhere. Its the most elaborate game of Whack-a-Mole imaginable and it's one we are destined to lose.
So considering the immense challenges of trying to secure the Afghan population - and the practical certitude that we will fail -- shouldn't destroying the Taliban and degrading their capabilities be the military's top and only priority? Wasting time, resources and lives with public works projects and temporary security gains is just that, a waste of time. As the great TX Hammes said at a conference I went to recently, even if you do everything right in Afghanistan for the next 20 years - you get 7.5% growth and you have relatively stable security situation - you are still left with a country that looks like Chad.
Moreover, by making civilian body counts the top metric you are waging war on the enemy's terms - and you are allowing them to dictate how you judge the success of your operation. If anything, you are actually giving incentive to the Taliban to kill more civilians.
Now the COIN-danistas will tell you that civilian casualties are the best metric of success . . . because that was the case of Iraq. But of course the drop in civilian casualties had far more to do with the Sunni war on Al Qaeda and the ethnic cleansing of 2005-2006 than anything done by the US military.
In the end, not only is a full-fledged COIN campaign in Afghanistan not going to succeed, but it's very hard to argue how it is in our national interest to continue down that road. America has an enemy in Af/Pak; it is Al Qaeda and to a lesser extent Taliban. Our military's job is to wipe out that enemy, not to ensure that Afghans can life peaceful, prosperous and safe lives (a wonderful goal, but one that we are highly unlikely to achieve). When we talk about what to do in Afghanistan it might be worth remembering that basic fact . . . and what America's interests actually are.