My friend Matthew Yglesias makes good points about the realities of impunity in war in his “COIN Kills” piece for TAP, but it’s a shame he didn’t deal with the relevant body of data on civilian casualties in the counterinsurgency era in Afghanistan. That comes from the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan and it’s available here in various PDFs. What the U.N. has found since 2005 is that civilian casualties have been on the rise as a feckless and underresourced mission came into conflict with a resurgent and adaptive Taliban. The period of January to June 2007 recorded 684 civilian casualties; the figure during that time period rose to 818 in 2008; and 1013 from January to June 2009.

But UNAMA, beginning in its mid-2009 report, noticed that the proportion of responsibility for the civilian casualties was changing:

In the first six months of 2009, 59% of civilians were killed by AGEs [Anti-Government Elements; that is, insurgents] and 30.5% by PGF [Pro-Government Forces; that is the U.S., NATO, Afghan-government forces]. This represents a significant shift from 2007 when PGF were responsible for 41% and AGEs for 46% of civilian deaths.

That’s before Gen. McChrystal came to Afghanistan, but during the height of the period in which his predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, focused on greater population-protection measures (Marine Col. Dale Alford can tell you about that), although as everyone knows, Obama and Gates cashiered McKiernan for not moving sufficiently in that direction. So what happened to civilian casualties when McChrystal arrived in June 2009? According to UNAMA’s January 2010 report, its most recent:

Pro-Government forces – Afghan National Security Forces and International Military (IM) forces – were responsible for 596 recorded deaths; this is 25% of the total civilian casualties recorded in 2009. This is a reduction of 28% from the total number of deaths attributed to pro-Government forces in 2008. This decrease reflects measures taken by international military forces to conduct operations in a manner that reduces the risk posed to civilians.

During this time, civilian deaths caused by insurgent attacks increased, according to the U.N., by 41 percent, from 1,160 to 1,630. So did the operational tempo of NATO-ISAF forces — think the Helmand River Valley last year — and I can only guess it will increase again this year, owing from Marja and soon Kandahar. What’s significant is that the proportion of civilian casualties caused by U.S. and allied forces are dropping. And that’s because, according to the United Nations, of greater population-protection measures taken first by McKiernan and now by McChrystal.

You can fairly say that 596 recorded deaths is still too many civilian deaths. Gen. McChrystal will agree with you. You can go further and say that during the last half of 2009, his command’s shift to a greater counterinsurgency focus — before the Afghan surge that’s underway — continued about the same rate of civilian deaths as his predecessor’s during the first half of 2009. (If my math is right, it would be about 308 for McKiernan from January to June 2009 and 288 for McChrystal from July to December 2009.) And perhaps the better metric overall is how many civilians died in the areas that ISAF troops reclaim from insurgents. If that number increases, then you really can say that McChrystal’s strategy has failed. There’s also an argument to be made that as long as any civilian casualties occur in a war in which the objective is to cleave the population from a host government, the strategic impact of any counterinsurgent-caused civilian casualties is magnified in an incalculable-but-real way in the population’s eyes; and that any increase in civilian casualties, regardless of who causes them, is strategically detrimental. I’ll even find that argument compelling.

But I don’t know how you can wage a war that does not involve civilian casualties, which is one of the reasons war is a wretched thing that should be avoided when the national interest is not implicated, and I don’t know how you can neglect the reduced proportion of U.S.-caused deaths when evaluating the success of a strategy that seeks to get that civilian-casualty-causation figure down. No one I have ever encountered who has waged, studied or advocated for counterinsurgency has made the case that counterinsurgency is a kinder or gentler method of warfare, or that it’s no more than development work with an M4. They tend instead to use phrases like the “brotherhood of the close fight” to underscore just how nasty and brutal it actually is.

But notice that as we’re discussing the intolerability of civilian casualties we reach a basic alignment in assessment about the strategic unacceptability of them — from the Center for American Progress to this blog to COMISAF. This is not a situation, as it most certainly was before the rise of the counterinsurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan,  in which the military command viewed civilian casualties as an unfortunate thing but without strategic implication. Everything McChrystal has said in command has indicated that he embrace the perspective that U.S.-caused civilian casualties needs to drop if his mission is to succeed on his own terms, and his actions and that of his predecessor– so far at least, and clearly not sufficiently — have gotten results in that regard.

Update, 5:44 p.m.: Yglz has a thoughtful response, although his Iraq 2007 casualty figures show the opposite of what he says they show. (“With two exceptions [May and July], the 2007 civilian death toll in Baghdad has fallen steadily month on month.  By December 2007 this had fallen to around 246, about one-seventh of the starting January total of 1,683.”) His broader point is one that I endorse: we should do this as little-to-never as the national interest permits. The only I reason I consider McChrystal’s counterinsurgency approach to be supportable is because I see it as the most realistic path to ultimately ending the Afghanistan war in a manner that satisfies the U.S.’s national interest in not facing a security threat emanating from Afghanistan.

Update, 8:12 a.m., April 16: Derrick Crowe points out in comments below a new USA Today story documenting ISAF backsliding on civilian casualties. ISAF troops “accidentally killed 72 civilians in the first three months of 2010, up from 29 in the same period in 2009, according to figures the International Security Assistance Force gave USA TODAY.” By McChrystal’s own reckoning, then, the system is blinking red and new measures have to be put in place — tighter control of JSOC? An air-strike moratorium? Night-raid moratorium? Different and tighter ROE? — to reverse an alarming increase in civilian casualties, especially if ISAF is going to take the more-densely populated area in and around Kandahar this spring. (I presume the uptick in civilian casualties is largely attributable of the increased op-tempo from Marja, but that’s just a presumption; the night raids surely contributed as well.)