The Numbers Behind General McChrystal’s Tactical Success

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by Joshua Foust on 8/28/2009

“Afghan civilian deaths decline under new U.S. tactics,” wheezes an LA Times article detailing the changes General McChrystal’s “new” tactical directives have supposedly wrought. After a disingenuous bit that higher U.S. casualties are not a result of placing themselves in more danger (something I have advocated, full disclosure)—we’re going after the Taliban, see, and those areas don’t have any civilians, so it makes sense!—we get to the meat of the story.

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.

Indeed, the comparison seems striking. But General McChrystal has also only been in charge since June 15, and as Laura King said, the data only cover the period since the start of his command. What of the civilian casualty numbers before that? According to UNAMA (pdf), civilian casualties in Afghanistan are actually significantly higher this year than in 2008.

In the first six months of 2009, UNAMA recorded 1013 civilian deaths, compared with 818 for the same period in 2008, and 684 in 2007 (see graph #1 below). This represents an increase of 24% of civilian casualties in the first six months of 2009 as compared to the same period in 2008. Both Anti-Government Elements and pro-government forces are responsible for the increase in civilian casualties. UNAMA Human Right figures indicate that more civilians are being killed by AGEs than by PGF. In the first six months of 2009, 59% of civilians were killed by AGEs and 30.5% by PGF. This represents a significant shift from 2007 when PGF were responsible for 41% and AGEs for 46% of civilian deaths.

Protecting the population, indeed. The only positive trend line here is fewer civilians dying at the hands of ISAF. It is an important milestone, to be sure, but it’s coming at the cost of more ISAF casualties and a significant increase in overall civilian casualties at the hands of the Taliban. Who are we protecting, again?

But look at those numbers: even during the hated General McKiernan’s reign of terror over the country, ISAF-caused civilian casualties had already begun dropping. Indeed, UNAMA estimates that ISAF killed 310 civilians from January to June of 2009, a substantial drop from the approximately 415 civilians killed during the first six months of 2008.

So, we have a bit of a correlation and causation issue here: General McChrystal’s “new tactical directive” was not issued until July 2, 2009, which means that 25% of the time period covered by the ISAF numbers actually happened under General McKiernan’s “old” tactical directives—which are, recall, very similar to McChrystal’s directives, and issued in September and December of 2008. This raises several substantive questions that should be answered before heaping all praise upon McChrystal:

  • What is the time lag between the issuance of a new set of directives and their translation into measurable ground effects?
  • Given the “pause” in “offensive operations” during the period surrounding the election, how representative are these new numbers?
  • Can we actually draw a direct line of causation between the July 2 directives and changed tactics on the ground? Since even under previous General’s command there were months of relatively few civilian casualties, is the relative quiet period the last two month due solely to these tactical directives, or due to other factors?

I’m sure there are more people can discuss. The fundamental point I want to drive home here is, a) General McChrystal’s tactical directives are not substantively different from the McKiernan directives instituted 8-11 months ago; b) it’s way too early to draw a direct line of causation between the two; and c) we don’t know if the given time period is representative of all time periods under McChrystal’s command tenure.

So… why all the fawning press coverage, then? I’m stumped. There is more to this story than what’s getting reported.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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