Center for Strategic Communication

Taliban fighters lay down their arms during a “reintegration” ceremony in Ghor, Afghanistan, May 2012. Photo: ISAF/Flickr

It’s one of the most important measurements of the Afghanistan war’s progress: how many civilians die from the conflict. And for the first time in years, that number has dropped, a rare spot of good news in a war that’s dragged on for a decade. But even with the drop, there are now more dead civilians in Afghanistan than before President Obama’s surge, which might be one reason why even those tallying the civilian deaths warn that the decline doesn’t herald a turn in the war’s fortunes.

There were 3,099 civilians killed and wounded in the Afghanistan war between January and June 2012, the United Nations reports, a 15 percent decline from that period in 2011. Casualties caused by air strikes, the leading single cause of civilian injury at the hands of the U.S. and its allies, are down by 25 percent. (Perhaps that’s because of the recent overall decline in the air war.) And insurgents are responsible for nearly 90 percent of injured and dead Afghans.

The proportional harm to the population done by the insurgency has been rising ever since the U.S. began surging troops in 2009 and implementing a strategy that prioritized protecting civilians. But there hasn’t been a corresponding drop in violence — and highlighting Taliban viciousness. The 3,099 casualties in the first six months of 2012 is astronomical compared to the 2,118 in all of 2008 — which, at the time, was the highest in the entire war. The grim toll kept rising in 2010, as overall violence rose as the result of the troop surge.

So for the first time, at least, since Obama escalated the war, fewer Afghans have died in the conflict. But as the 2008 numbers show, the drop in violence still leaves the harm to Afghans at a higher level than it was when Obama decided the U.S. needed to make a final push in Afghanistan to salvage the war. Whatever else Obama’s surge has accomplished, it simply has not made Afghanistan a safer place for Afghans to live.

And the United Nations isn’t exactly trumpeting the decline. The U.N.’s Afghanistan monitors, who keep track of the death toll, referred to a “modest 15% drop,” and then emphasized the negative, like a shift in Taliban tactics toward assassinations, homemade bomb attacks and threats to schools. Ironically, in the war to spin the Afghan conflict, those are measurements that the U.S. has portrayed as signs of progress, as allegedly they show the Taliban’s inability to hold territory.

Instead of acknowledging that, at the least, an exception to the years-long trend of rising civilian casualties, the U.N. is downplaying its own finding. “The drop in civilian casualties is a trend that seems to be hollow,” James Rodehaver, the U.N.’s Afghanistan human rights chief intoned, “as the percentage drop in civilian casualties has dropped consistently over the last three months as the fighting season has intensified.”

What Rodehaver means is that the drop could be attributable to the annual lull in insurgent violence during the winter months. That is certainly a caution worth adopting before proclaiming that the U.S. has reversed the Taliban’s momentum, as Obama claims. But even so, the death and injury toll is lower than in recent memory — and all U.N. statistics on civilian deaths incorporate the relative calm of the winter. The drop may not herald a trend. But it’s better than the rising tide of innocent Afghan deaths that U.S. troops have not previously been able to prevent.