I have been thinking about metrics of success in counter-insurgency since my trip to Afghanistan in 2007. Officers involved in the ISAF effort made it clear that they did not see body counts as a way to measure success--that is, killing lots of Taliban was not the way ahead. I do wonder sometimes if the Taliban does use body counts as a metric, given their efforts over the past few years. The enemy, however united or not, is killing more ISAF soldiers, more Afghan soldiers and police and more Afghan civilians. The latest numbers--that more Afghan civilians are dying even as the outsiders are doing a better and better job of avoiding collateral damage--are not very surprising.
The trends to show that the ISAF effort to minimize the harm it does is working. Intent is not always successfully implemented, especially by a large and unwieldy alliance. There has been controversy about "courageous restraint"--limits on the rules of engagement that do increase the risks to the ISAF soldiers. These trends indicate that these risks are paying off in terms of leading to less collateral damage. Whether that leads to more support among the populace is another thing entirely.
But is this what success looks like for an insurgency? The Taliban still seems to be largely unpopular throughout much of the country, perhaps proving one of my grad student's points in her dissertation--coercion is a limited tool for gaining support from the populace. The question remains--who is getting blamed and who is scoring political points now? Do the people of Afghanistan recognize and blame the Taliban or the outsiders for the violence? The violence does increase with a greater operational tempo by NATO and its partners, but the violence is mostly a series of explosions triggered by the Taliban. I would not be surprised if the Afghan people are confused and blame both sides. After all, it is the job of ISAF not just to do no harm but also to protect the population, and these trends indicate that ISAF is not doing that well on that score.
However, as predicted before, the surge would be accompanied by greater violence. The real question is what happens next? Will the presence of more and more troops lead to more security on the ground as the troops are dispersed from large bases and live among the people? And, of course, protecting the populace from the Taliban is only the first step. Protecting them from rapacious government types would be the next one.