Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The mind is a cold, calculating Polyanna

I am somewhat ashamed to have reacted instinctively to this news with a rather grim calculus:

In a semiannual report, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said the number of civilians wounded and killed in the conflict had increased by nearly a third, 31 percent, in the first six months of the year.

Seventy-six percent of the civilian casualties were attributable to “antigovernment elements,” the report said, using United Nations terminology for insurgents. That was an increase of 53 percent over the same period, Jan. 1 to June 30, in 2009, it added...

Since 2009, when the United States military made it a priority to reduce civilian casualties, the trend has been for far fewer of them to be caused by the military, and far more by the Taliban and other insurgents. 
In Vietnam, as is often recounted, the Pentagon clung to body counts -- enemy soldiers killed -- as an indicator of progress. In this war, the calculus is supposed to be reversed -- progress is measured by success in protecting the population.  By that measure, the strategy is failing. However...here's the insta-thought that seems a kind of violation, given the unspeakable suffering generated by three decades of war in Afghanistan: if the Taliban is now doing most of the killing, that might turn the population more decidedly against the Taliban and motivate more sons-of-Iraq-style homegrown initiatives, which might ultimately be the only way to quell the Taliban.  Also, or to put it another way, if the coalition forces are failing to protect the population, they are making progress in not killing the population - presumably a necessary precondition.

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