Civilian Casualties: Placing the Blame

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan increased in 2009, but chiefly at the hands of the Taliban, not U.S. or NATO forces, according to a United Nations report obtained yesterday by our correspondent Nick Schifrin – a finding that comports with our new poll there, in which Afghans place greater blame on the Taliban for the country’s violence, less on Western forces.

The United Nations finds that NATO was responsible for 596 civilian fatalities in Afghanistan last year, or 25 percent of the total – down from 828, or 39 percent, in 2008. Anti-government insurgents were found responsible for 1,681 civilian deaths, up from 1,160 the year before – 70 percent, up from 55 percent in 2008. (The remaining 5 or 6 percent were of undetermined cause.)

Our poll in the country a year ago showed the corrosive effect of such casualties on support for the U.S./NATO effort, and its new commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, clearly took these kind of data to heart, placing major focus on the reduction of such casualties.

The change on the ground looks to have produced a change in attitudes. As we report in our new survey, a year ago Afghans blamed U.S. and NATO forces over the Taliban for civilian casualties by 41-28 percent. Today it’s 36-35 percent.

Thirty-six percent is still a lot, and the rest blame both equally, so there are miles to go. But it is progress, with external validity courtesy of the U.N. evaluation.

We show similar improvement, but more pronounced, in a broader measure of who’s to blame for the country’s violence overall. Forty-two percent of Afghans cite the Taliban, up from 27 percent a year ago. Seventeen percent cite the US, NATO or the Afghan government or army, down from 36 percent. (See charts 5 and 6 here.)

The progress goes only so far. Thirty-eight percent continue to rate the overall performance of the United States negatively – the first time in our polls this hasn’t declined, but still broadly negative. Avoiding civilian casualties is one piece of the puzzle, and there are other helpful elements afoot as well, all contributing to a sharp rise in Afghans' optimism for the future. That said, with continued strife, still-vast development needs and official corruption all high on the agenda, serious difficulties clearly remain.

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