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Civilian Casualties Harm U.S. Troops, Study Says

U.S. Marines battle Taliban militants northeast of Marjah in February.
U.S. Marines battle Taliban militants northeast of Marjah in February.
Is it true that the U.S. military's controversial rules of engagement in Afghanistan, first promulgated by General Stanley McChrystal in an effort to reduce civilian casualties and now largely affirmed by General David Petraeus, have "forced [U.S.] troops to fight with one hand tied behind their backs," as some in the military and in Washington claim?

New evidence suggests quite the opposite. The debate in Washington over the U.S. military's rules of engagement in Afghanistan -- a debate that often pits the lives of Afghan civilians against the safety of U.S. military personnel -- is a false one, according to Princeton professor Jacob Shapiro. Shapiro, himself a former Navy special forces operator, argues that avoiding civilian casualties in Afghanistan is a strategic necessity that saves American lives, and he has the numbers to prove it.

"Avoiding two [casualty-causing] events means one less attack in an average-sized Afghan district over the next six weeks," Shapiro said to a packed audience at the New America Foundation in Washington on August 3. "In Helmand Province, avoiding 10 average-sized [civilian casualty] incidents equates to six fewer attacks [on U.S. personnel] and one less American casualty."

Shapiro's report, "The Effect of Civilian Casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan," was co-authored by Colonel Joseph Felter, Luke Condra of Stanford University, and Dr. Radha Iyengar of the London School of Economics, and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study used sophisticated econometric techniques to parse recently declassified data on civilian casualties supplied by U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

In Washington, Shapiro presented his data and sought to translate that information into plain English. "The key takeaway is that you get this long, sustained effect when ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] causes civilian casualties," he said.

Shapiro emphasized that this effect is highly localized -- that is, civilian casualties in one district have no effect on rates of violence in surrounding districts -- and asymmetrical in the sense that Afghan civilians do not respond as violently to civilian casualties inflicted by insurgent forces.

"It's something about the local exposure to violence against civilians that's leading to increased violence," Shapiro said. "This is all consistent with the story you see in some press reporting that what this is really about is a cultural dynamic in Afghanistan that demands that when bad things happen to your family or those close to you, you take up arms against those who did it."

Read Abu Muqawama's summary of the event, too.

-- Charles Dameron

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