Admiral Mike Mullin, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press that, “I believe we’ve got to start to turn this thing around from a security standpoint in the next 12 to 18 months.” To that end, American commanders want more troops. Given that Afghanistan has 40,000 villages, however, the number of troops would have to be around 480,000, as Dan Ford writes.

More troops will surely end up going, but in far fewer numbers than that. Meanwhile, one of the most important signs of progress in Afghanistan (and an element that is crucial to keeping the support of the American public, which, according to polls cited in The New York Times, has already started to turn against the war), is reducing the level of enemy fire and protecting civilians from the fallout. This has been one of the main goals of General Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, and he has his work cut out for him.

As Marc Garlasco, a Human Rights Watch senior military analyst, explains, civilian casualties are part of a “proportionality analysis” that the military does before bombing a target. He is particularly well-versed in the subject since he worked as an intelligence officer during the early phase of the Iraq War and made recommendations to people in the upper levels of the Defense Department about the areas that should be bombed. His suggestions were passed up the chain of command, and they were ultimately approved or rejected by top military officials who were based in Doha, Qatar. It was a macabre occupation, and Garlasco lasted one year in the job, starting in April of 2002 and leaving 12 months later. Despite its tragic repercussions and moral ambiguity, killing civilians during wartime is not against the law, so as long as the military has attempted to ensure the safety of innocent people and has put them in danger only when the target has been determined to be worthwhile. “If there’s a family in the house, and you have a low-level Taliban guy, it’s probably not,” Garlasco told me on Thursday. “It’s based oftentimes on the importance of the target.”

Many times, the target is a “high value” one, and the civilians who end up dead when bombs are dropped are determined by the U.S. military to be an acceptable, though painful, cost of war. It may be legal, but the repercussions from the air strikes has been enormous, particularly in Afghanistan, and overall the number of casualties in that country continues to climb: More than 1,000 civilians died in Afghanistan during the first six months in 2009, according to a recent U.N. report, which is a significantly higher number than the 800 who died during the first half of 2008. American officials hope that if they take out enough of the al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, the violence will drop. So far, that has not been the case.

--Tara McKelvey