Each time U.S. or NATO forces accidentally kill Afghan civilians, insurgents and their sympathizers typically retaliate with six additional assaults on foreign forces over the next six weeks, researchers using newly declassified NATO data conclude.
A new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research supports the prevailing view of counterinsurgency strategists who believe civilian casualties help Taliban recruiting drives. The study found that attacks on foreign forces increase slightly even when the insurgents are to blame for the deaths of non-combatants.
"Our results show that if counterinsurgent forces in Afghanistan wish to minimize insurgent recruitment, they must minimize harm to civilians despite the greater risk this entails," says the study, to be released Tuesday through the Washington-based New America Foundation.
The principle that protecting civilians is the key to sidelining and ultimately defeating an insurgency is the heart of the strategy outlined by Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq and adapted for Afghanistan. As applied by the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the strategy includes strict limits on U.S. air strikes and firepower.
Petraeus, who took over from McChrystal last month, is tweaking those rules but has said he will not lift them outright. Petraeus told Congress last month that he remains convinced that heavy-handed tactics do more long-term harm than good.
Petraeus published a new manifesto on counterinsurgency Sunday that drives home that point.
"The people are the center of gravity," Petraeus wrote in a memo to his troops. "Only by providing them security and earning their trust and confidence can the Afghan government and ISAF prevail."
The new independent study uses freshly declassified data about civilian deaths and injuries and "significant actions" by insurgents in Afghanistan. It analyzes attacks and deaths by district across the country.
The study is titled "The effect of Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq" but focuses mainly on Afghanistan, where the Taliban-led insurgency has surged back from near extinction and now controls key territory.
The report examines data from the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, from January 2009 through March 2010. These data cover 4,077 civilian casualties from 2,118 incidents.
The study found that the link between civilian casualties and insurgent attacks also works in reverse.
If ISAF forces can avoid two incidents in which they kill or injure civilians, they can expect one fewer violent incident over the next six weeks, the report found.
The report found no such link in Iraq.