The relationship between boots on the ground and civilian casualties in Afghanistan doesn’t get much clearer than in this Washington Post article:
On July 2, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, issued a directive restricting the military’s use of airstrikes and artillery bombardments. In July and August, the number of Afghan civilians killed by coalition forces was 19, compared with 151 for the same two months last year
The rest of the article gets into the trade-off between force exposure and civilian casualties, a fairly intuitive point that often gets lost in these discussions. Every advocate of withdrawal seems to be in favor of some ill-defined “residual force” to prevent Al-Qaeda from reestablishing itself and the Taliban from overrunning Northern Afghanistan. But the contours of this approach are already being discussed by the Administration:
Among the alternatives being presented to Mr. Obama is Mr. Biden’s suggestion to revamp the strategy altogether. Instead of increasing troops, officials said, Mr. Biden proposed scaling back the overall American military presence. Rather than trying to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, American forces would concentrate on strikes against Qaeda cells, primarily in Pakistan, using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics.
In short, not only will this leave the population more vulnerable to Taliban incursions, the Administration intends to rely on “surgical” methods that dramatically increase the likelihood of civilian casualties. The outcome of this strategy is hardly theoretical: there is a strong empirical correlation between air strikes and an increase in civilian casualties. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the political logic of aerial escalation is also inescapable: if Obama wants to shore up his national security credibility post-withdrawal, indiscriminately bombing Afghanistan is the obvious political solution. Nixon couldn’t leave Vietnam until he bombed Cambodia; Obama won’t leave Central Asia until he levels Afghanistan.
UPDATE: Third link fixed; it’s meant to send you to a Human Rights Watch report on air strikes and civilian casualties.