Civilian casualties in Afghanistan aren’t actually down

TW: occupation of Afghanistan, civilian casualties

If you read Democracy Now! today, you might have been greeted by one misleading headline: “UN: Afghan Civilian Casualties See First Decline in 6 Years“. On its face, that’s a true claim that indeed the UN’s own press release confirms. As far as they can tell, fewer non-combatant civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2012 than 2011, and no previous set of consecutive years in the occupation has had that same relationship. That being said, that state has a context.

Most obviously, this is the first year with fewer such casualties in the history of the occupation – which is one of the longest in modern politics. For a single drop now to actually translate into substantive and immediate good news, it would have to be significant. Unfortunately looking over the UN report on earlier years’ casualties (available here, on page 1), it’s quite clear that the current number of casualties in 2012 (2,754) is still significantly higher than any year prior to 2010.

(Civilian deaths in Afghanistan topped 2,000 in 2008 and 3,000 in 2011, before declining last year, from the aforementioned UN report.)

Much like the number of casualties among US troops in Afghanistan, comparing the figures before, during the implementation of, and during its more recent years the surge may provide us with some sense of the impact of that policy. Just as Rachel Maddow previously pointed out about the number of casualties among our troops, the number of deaths skyrocketed under the surge when much of the conflict in the country was willfully reignited. Virtually no one disputes that fact – but many, including the Obama administration, have presented the surge as a successful strategy, since over time the number of troop casualties diminished. The same trend can be seen in civilian casualties – as the surge continued, many conflicts were forcibly resolved, in some sense “solving” the problem.

But comparing either the casualties among troops or civilians between the most recent years and those just before the surge’s implementation suggests that this isn’t a case of bitter tasting medicine. The number of deaths is stabilizing, typically with a larger number than prior to the surge. Putting more boots on the ground doesn’t seem like it will reduce violence in either the short or the longer term.

(US troops’ casualties in Afghanistan, as reported on by Rachel Maddow, here. The red arrows indicate November 2009, before the surge, and November 2012, when it had been in place for two consecutive years, marked with the red bracket.)

Ultimately, this is indeed good news. Compared to 2011, a few hundred Afghan civilians lived last year. But compared to 2009, that number could possibly have been a few hundred more. It’s worth asking whether US policy in Afghanistan could be better.

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