A new United Nations report found that civilian deaths increased in Afghanistan by 40 percent in 2008. That’s a death toll of over 2100 civilians in a year to war-related activities. Something like 55 percent of those casualties are attributable to the Taliban-led insurgency, meaning a massive proportion is the responsibility of U.S. and NATO forces. Almost 65 percent of U.S.-caused civilian casualties come from air strikes, which bolsters the argument for an impending troop increase, as U.S. commanders rely on airstrikes when they don’t have sufficient numbers of boots on the ground. That’s why Gen. David McKiernan told reporters in October that Afghanistan was for too long an "economy of force" mission that compelled him to use airpower when he would have proferred an infantryman’s rifle.

Noah Shachtman has a good overview and analysis at Danger Room.  All I’d add is this. When I visited eastern Afghanistan in September, people told me they wanted security. They were agnostic about who provided it. If the Taliban made them safer, great; if the U.S. and its allies did, fine. But what planners often overlook is that this desire certainly includes protection from U.S. forces, or at least U.S. ordnance. It’s a delicate issue, but one that that needs to be sorted out before the Afghan people turn decisively against the U.S. presence.

Defense Secretary Bob Gates appears to get it. Recall what he told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month:

Gates worried that the U.S. was losing support from the Afghan people, saying that the U.S. has “lost the strategic communications war” to the Afghan insurgency about U.S.-caused civilian casualties. Proposing a policy of “first apologiz[ing]” when U.S. troops kill civilians in error, Gates said, “We have to get the balance right with the Afghan people or we will lose this war.”

Crossposted to The Streak.