Petraeus Is Focusing on the Wrong Body Count in Afghanistan

On March 1, 2011 ten Afghan boys between the ages of 9 and 15 set out to collect firewood in the eastern mountains outside of Nanglam in Kunar province, when two NATO helicopters appeared out of nowhere and shot the boys -- one after another -- killing all but one.

Shortly after the onslaught General David Petraeus told surviving family members that he was sorry, but Mohammed Bismil, the brother of two of the boys killed, didn't much care for Petraeus's apology. In fact, according to Afghans for Peace, the incident compelled Bismil to make a life-altering decision, which he explained in a phone interview: "The only option I have is to pick up a Kalashnikov, RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] or a suicide vest to fight."

It's hard to imagine Bismil's pain, but the horrendous incident does provide one with some perspective as to why an otherwise sane person might join the Taliban and/or become a suicide bomber.

War hawks will accuse lefty peaceniks of magnifying a rare tragic situation for political gain; yet, the Nanglam massacre is no aberration. Unfortunately, within the past few weeks alone NATO has killed 150 innocent civilians.

The most notorious incident occurring in mid-February -- a four day operation in Kunar in which 65 Afghan civilians were killed, including 21 boys, 19 girls, 10 women and 15 adult males -- figures confirmed by the provincial governor and a team of Afghan investigators. Not only did NATO deny the charges -- claiming that only 7 civilians were killed -- but Petraeus suggested some of the children were not harmed by U.S. airstrikes, but were burnt by their parents. To date, the General has apologized for neither his bizarre remarks nor the loss of life.

The Washington Post quoted an Afghan official as saying: "Killing 60 people, and then blaming the killing on those same people, rather than apologizing for any deaths? This is inhuman."

Which is surprising considering central to Petraeus's counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine is protecting the population, as outlined in a directive he issued during the summer. According to General Petraeus:

We can't win without fighting, but we also cannot kill or capture our way to victory. Moreover, if we kill civilians or damage their property in the course of our operations, we will create more enemies than our operations eliminate. That's exactly what the Taliban want. Don't fall into their trap. We must continue our efforts to reduce civilian casualties to an absolute minimum. Every Afghan civilian death diminishes our cause. If we use excessive force or operate contrary to our counterinsurgency principles, tactical victories may prove to be strategic setbacks.

Yet Petraeus has diverted our attention away from certain key performance indicators typically employed to quantify the success of a "population-centric" strategy -- and for good reason. Because such metrics would undermine the General's recent claims of progress, which Petraeus cannot afford right now because he is under the gun to prove the war is winnable in order to retain more troops in country for a longer period of time, and avoid an acceleration of the drawdown scheduled to begin midsummer.

A recently released UN report contains the true counterinsurgency performance benchmark that the military is now discounting. In spite of the addition of 30,000 new U.S. troops, more Afghan civilians were killed in 2010 than in any other year of the war - a total of 2,777 casualties which was 15 percent higher than 2009.

Pentagon officials are quick to point out how three-fourths of civilian deaths came at the hands of the Taliban, as if that is some major accomplishment. So, they're celebrating because the U.S.-led coalition killed less of the people they have been assigned to protect than the enemy did. Well then, bravo. It is an irrelevant point, anyway, because most Afghans believe the reason the Taliban are attacking them in the first place is due to the presence of foreign troops, which is another reason a majority of Afghans want NATO to leave their country.

Many of us like to think American troops are sacrificing the most on behalf of those ungrateful Afghans. But the truth is, the Afghans have spilt more blood in 2010 than the U.S. and its allies have, combined, in the past decade. The total number of coalition fatalities since 2011 is 2,365, with 1,500 of those being U.S. soldiers. So, let's not pontificate about blood and sacrifice, for the Afghan people are the ones bearing the brunt of insurgent attacks - not coalition troops.

Instead of focusing on metrics that matter, U.S. officials have decided to trumpet enemy body count. Apparently, the number of dead insurgents is now the barometer for determining the campaign's efficacy. Military officials have reported that 2,448 insurgents have been killed over the past eight months, a 55 percent increase versus the same period in the year prior. In addition, over 900 Taliban "leaders" over the past ten months have been killed or captured.

However, which metric is more important -- the number of insurgents taken out or the total number of insurgents? As U.S. leaders continue to insist the Taliban have been decimated, another noteworthy stat came to light at the beginning of this year when NATO officials estimated the size of the Taliban movement to be approximately 25,000. This is very interesting considering that's approximately the strength level the Taliban sat at about a year ago. ISAF officials have refused to reconcile their so-called military gains with the fact that the total number of enemy combatants has remained the same.

The answer to this mystery can be found in Mohammed Bismil's tale. There is no doubt that U.S.-led forces killed and captured thousands of Taliban fighters over the past year. The problem is, during the process of doing so, thousands more had been created.