28 August 2009

Give War a Chance

In the last week, we've seen the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullins, as well as the Commander of US European Command, Admiral James Stavridis, express grave concerns about the situation in Afghanistan. Many in the defense policy business are clamoring for an end to the war in Afghanistan. But even with NATO casualties on the rise during the past two months, there still might be some signs of change.

The increase in casualties among NATO forces is unfortunate, for certain. However, this is how counterinsurgency sometimes works. If Iraq is a good indicator (and there are significant doubts that it is, but bear with me), we are going to see NATO incurring an increase in casualties over the next few months. Counterinsurgency--particularly the population-centric counterinsurgency which General McChrystal is practicing--is very manpower-intensive, and assumes great tactical risk. It forces troops to get out of the defensive-minded "force protection" mentality, and leave the safety of the forward operating bases and their armoured vehicles and walk among the population. "Surging" in counterinsurgency operations is, in essence, an offensive operation.

During the first few months of the Iraq Troop Surge of 2007, US forces did exactly this. Although casualties climbed for the first few months of 2007, they soon dropped off precipitously during the late summer and fall of that year, and they've remained low ever since. The troops which partook in the "clear, hold, build" helped to rid many areas of significant insurgent activity once and for all, after years of playing "whack-a-mole"--ridding areas of insurgents only to have more return.

But the most important aspect of the campaign in Iraq wasn't the eventual decrease in American casualties--it was the decrease in casualties among the Iraqi population, not only from insurgent groups, but also from US forces as well.

If an article in today's Los Angeles Times is any indication, the same may be happening in Afghanistan. Maybe. Although the article admits that the data set has some flaws, this new statistic should at least provide some hope:

The period since the new rules took effect have also coincided with some of the heaviest losses of the war for Western forces. But military spokesmen deny any link, saying record fatalities were caused by the summer's troop buildup and an accompanying push into areas controlled by the Taliban, rather than any greater hazard to troops posed by the new rules.

According to the latest figures from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, coalition forces were responsible for 19 civilian deaths from the beginning of July until Thursday, as opposed to 249 caused by insurgents. During roughly the same period a year earlier, Western forces caused 151 civilian deaths, by their own count -- not far short of the 210 deaths caused by militants.

The new NATO data, however, cover a relatively short period in the context of an 8-year-old war.

And that's what population-centric counterinsurgency is all about. It's not over yet...

(I'd be remiss if I forgot to mention that even those of us in the COINdinista camp--the ones who emphasize that counterinsurgency is about protecting the population, not killing insurgents--certainly recognize the value in killing and capturing the enemy, when possible. That's why the killing of a senior Taliban commander by Australian Diggers and the capture of another Taliban commander by US forces is particularly welcome this week.)

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