Abu Muqawama and Michael Cohen have themselves a right old spat over the dangers and virtues of counterinsurgency. Frankly, I think the mano-a-mano is ridiculous — Cohen has already made an ass of himself by claiming the war in Afghanistan isn’t necessarily a COIN fight — , but while I generally side with Exum, I need to take issue with one of his pet assertions:
In the context of a counterinsurgency campaign — which we can all agree we’re engaged in — enemy body count is a poor metric. Civilian body counts, by contrast, are a better metric — the fewer civilians dying, the better.
Now look. Civilian body counts may be a good metric in a conflict where one side is intentionally killing non-combatants. Iraq is one such conflict, as Exum correctly points out. There, American counterinsurgents needed to secure the population before they could proceed to eliminate the enemy. Afghanistan, by contrast, is not a sectarian civil war. Yes, ordinary Afghanis have much to fear from the Taleban, but by and large it’s a Pashtun nationalist insurgency, and they have little to gain from attacking their own countrymen.
Thus, if you think looking at civilian casualties will give you an idea of how the war is going, you’re going to be looking until hell freezes over. It’s a dead metric — the numbers will not change significantly no matter what happens, since both sides have only to gain from not killing civilians.
[Yes, there are ethical issues as well, but we’ll not go there.]