Hercules slaying the Hydra, which sprouted two heads for every one cut off. Hans Sebald Beham, 1545.
In wars, and especially in counterinsurgency wars such as the American war in Afghanistan, it’s often said that killing civilians creates insurgents. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded US forces in the Afghan War, often referred to this as “insurgent math.” If it’s true, then the United States has created tens of thousands of insurgents since 2001, according to back-of-the-envelope calculations by the military itself and by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which studied the issue in 2010.
“Because of CivCas [civilian casualties], I think we have just about eroded our credibility here in Afghanistan,” said McChrystal in 2010, according to the Marine Corps Times. Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Hall, then an aide to McChrystal, estimated roughly that every civilian killed creates an additional twenty insurgents. Hall noted that before the US military “went very, very kinetic”—i.e., before it intensified its violence—there were 1,500 to 2,000 insurgents; four years later, there were 30,000 to 35,000. As the Marine Corps Times reported, “Breaking the numbers down further, Hall said that when ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force] inflicts civilian casualties, the result is a 25 percent to 65 percent increase in violence in that area during the next five months.”
In July 2010, the NBER prepared a study designed to find out exactly how this works. Called “The Effect of Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq,” it was assembled by researchers from Princeton, Stanford and the London School of Economics, and it was facilitated by Col. Joseph Felter. While serving in Afghanistan, Felter worked closely with McChrystal and his successor, Gen. David Petraeus, in developing counterinsurgency strategy, and he spent time with troops to find out how ISAF’s efforts to reduce civilian casualties were being received. “I was also out in the field trying to educate commanders in the field on [the ISAF commander’s] intent regarding CIVCAS,” Felter told The Nation.
Thanks to then–Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, McChrystal’s intelligence chief and special operations officer, who is now director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Felter and the NBER research group were able to gain access to a highly classified military database, called the Combined Information Data Network Exchange, and a related database called JOISS, a joint operations incident reporting system. Neither CIDNE nor JOISS is complete, since many incidents involving civilian casualties aren’t passed up the chain of command or don’t get reported to the military at all. But, say members of the NBER team, there existed enough data in CIDNE to draw important conclusions about how killing civilians leads to intensified violence. The CIDNE database allowed the team to track “micro-level, geocoded data” on violent incidents involving both US-caused civilian casualties and insurgent attacks, down to the level of province, district and village, on a day-to-day timetable. Not surprisingly, none of these data are publicly available.