BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan– So there’s this exchange between Adm. Mullen and dudes in Kandahar:

Mullen, who appeared grim-faced at moments, noted that in the past month, the Taliban killed 45 civilians, while coalition forces killed five. But once again, the elders were unmoved.

None of them would have been killed, the third elder said, “if you weren’t here.”

I don’t know if it’s worth belaboring the point. But while there’s obvious inherent virtue and wisdom in taking care to reduce civilian casualties in war, three consecutive commanders here (and especially the last two) have contended that doing so has strategic implications. If we’re to believe the Third Elder, those strategic implications and the argument behind them — reducing U.S.-caused civilian casualties and contrasting them with the Taliban’s brutality will contribute to a “strategically decisive” embrace of the U.S.’s allies in Afghanistan — have been trumped. I don’t know how smart it is to consider the Third Elder representative of Afghan opinion, but I do know how stupid it would be to dismiss him.