April 27, 2009: Civilian casualties in Afghanistan are down 40 percent so far this year, compared to the same time period last year. Back during the first six months of 2008, about a hundred Afghan civilians were killed by NATO and U.S. forces. Something to celebrate? Well, yes and no. Taliban propaganda, and the enthusiasm of the media for jumping on real, or imagined, civilian deaths caused by foreign troops, made people forget that far more civilians (about four times as many) had been killed by the Taliban. But because Afghans have been conditioned to expect more civilized behavior from the foreign troops, little media attention is paid to the civilians killed by the Taliban and al Qaeda. Of course, Afghan civilians are aware of who is killing most of the civilians, and that's why the Taliban and al Qaeda are moving down in the opinion polls. But the media hammering the foreign troops get every time they kill a civilian, or are simply (and falsely) accused of doing so, has led to the rules of engagement (ROE) becoming far more strict than they ever were in Iraq. Thus one Taliban victory you don't hear much about is how they turned their use of human shields into a powerful, and very successful, propaganda weapon against NATO and U.S. troops, and an excellent way to avoid many attacks by U.S. and NATO troops.
In effect, a casualty analysis must be performed, and a lawyer consulted, before a deliberate missile or smart bomb attack is made on the Taliban. To their credit, the U.S. Air Force targeting specialists (who do most of this) can carry out the analysis quickly (often within minutes). Even the lawyers have gotten quick at the decision making game. The bad news is that attacks are often called off just because there's some small risk of harming civilians.
The Taliban are aware of the ROE, and take advantage of it. The Taliban try to live among civilians as much as possible. But the Taliban and al Qaeda do have to move around, and the ability of NATO and U.S. ground forces, aircraft and UAVs to keep eyes on a Taliban leader for weeks at a time, has led to the deaths of many smug guys who thought they had beat the system.
The U.S. Air Force has managed to reduce civilian casualties, from deliberate air attack, to near zero. Most of the Afghan civilian casualties occur when airpower is called in to help NATO and U.S. troops under attack. In these conditions, the ROE is much more flexible, and even the Taliban use of civilians as human shields is not allowed to get friendly troops killed.
But the new restrictions on the use of air power, and the greater Taliban use of civilians as human shields, has enabled the Taliban to avoid a lot of situations where they would otherwise get killed. When they are out in the open, the Taliban still get toasted regularly by foreign troops (with or without the use of smart bombs).