Protecting People By Not Taking Actions That Lead to Their Deaths

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My latest TAP column expands on the themes from yesterday’s blog post, noting that for all the talk of “counterinsurgency”-oriented warfare putting more emphasis on avoiding civilian casualties, there are still an awful lot of civilians getting killed under COIN doctrine.

Spencer Ackerman responds by asking me to take note (in turn I would like him to take note of the indications that adopting a COIN approach in Iraq led a big increase in civilian casualties) of the civilian casualty data from the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan which he summarizes thusly:

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. […]

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.

Well so we agree. War—even war conducted by counterinsurgency warrior intellectuals with friends at all the hottest think tanks—is bad and should be avoided. To press this further, if civilian deaths are bad and if increases in civilian deaths are being driven by increases in our operational tempo, then maybe we should reconsider the wisdom of a situation in which it “will increase again this year, owing from Marja and soon Kandahar.” If war is so bad, and inevitably leads to the deaths of innocents, and we want to avoid the deaths of innocents, then shouldn’t we maybe consider not doing this instead of just feeling really sad when it ends up leading to the deaths of innocent people? That’s all I’m saying.