America’s Afghan Victims
The United Nations, which began to track civilian casualties systematically by 2008, around the same time as the US military and ISAF, arguably did a somewhat better job than the latter—but former UN officials interviewed by The Nation say that even the UN, with trained investigators and many offices spread across the country, managed to track only a portion of those killed. A handful of underfunded local NGOs, including the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the Afghan NGO Security Office, have monitored the conflict, but they’ve failed to produce reliable counts. And the Afghan government hasn’t been able to keep track of the war’s human cost.
NGOs outside Afghanistan, including Human Rights Watch, the Center for Civilians in Conflict and the Open Society Foundations, have made valiant efforts to track and document abuses, human rights violations, war crimes and major mass-casualty incidents, but none have maintained a database of civilian or combatant deaths (the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based in Britain, has compiled extensive data on civilian casualties worldwide resulting from US drone strikes, but not overall civilian casualties in the Afghan War). For some time, Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire doggedly tracked Afghan civilian casualty incidents, but he included in his data what most analysts say are exaggerated or fabricated reports from the often pro-Taliban Pakistani media. So far, perhaps the best account of casualties was part of the “Costs of War” report prepared by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, under the direction of Catherine Lutz and Neta Crawford. Crawford’s paper “Civilian Death and Injury in Afghanistan, 2001–2011,” updated in February 2013, estimates as many as 19,000 civilians killed by all sides, and she provides a valuable compendium of estimates for combatant deaths too. Still, Crawford’s estimate of civilian casualties relies heavily on the reports of UNAMA, which understates the total number of deaths significantly.
A central part of The Nation’s project on civilian casualties in Afghanistan has been to compile a uniquely comprehensive interactive database of civilian casualty incidents from the beginning of the war in 2001 to the end of 2012. It includes information gleaned from reliable media accounts—in outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian and CNN—of 458 separate incidents, involving between 2,848 and 6,481 people, who died as a result of war-related actions by the United States, its allies and Afghan government forces. It includes high-profile atrocities, including deliberate killings of civilians by coalition forces, such as the wanton murder of at least sixteen people by US Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in March 2012; airstrikes that slaughtered dozens of Afghan civilians who were celebrating a wedding, traveling in a convoy or simply sleeping; and those killed in small groups or singly at military checkpoints, in firefights and during night raids.
When counting Afghanistan’s dead civilians, it’s useful to break the war down into three phases: the initial campaign, involving a small number of US troops, Special Operations Forces and the CIA, backed by a relentless campaign of airstrikes, in 2001 and 2002; the period from 2003 to 2007, when the Taliban-led insurgency slowly began to gain traction; and the period from 2008 to 2013, which has seen the most intense fighting between the US/ISAF coalition and a mature, resilient insurgency.
2001–2002: During the first months of the war, there was no one to count the dead. The Taliban had fled, and there was essentially no government in Kabul. The United States had almost no forces on the ground, and it wasn’t paying attention to civilian casualties anyway. The UN and NGOs were confined to the capital. Yet many died, mostly as a result of US airstrikes. The Nation’s database, which relies on media reports compiled under extraordinarily challenging conditions, records 136 incidents during the first five months of the conflict, involving between 1,200 and 3,155 war deaths.
Other researchers, adopting a more cautious methodology, came up with somewhat lower estimates. In June 2002, the Los Angeles Times published the results of an intensive investigation into civilian casualties caused by US airstrikes between October 2001 and February 2002. Its reporters visited twenty-five Afghan villages, though most of its analysis was based on media reports. After reviewing more than 2,000 such reports, the paper estimated that between 1,067 and 1,201 civilians perished during that period. Another study compiled by Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives, a liberal group based in Washington, also depended on media reports. The study concluded that at least 1,000 civilians—and possibly as many as 1,300—were killed between October 2001 and January 2002.
But perhaps the most hands-on investigation was conducted by William Arkin, a veteran military analyst and bomb-damage specialist, who visited Afghanistan in 2002 with a team from Human Rights Watch. Though Arkin had often worked closely with the US military, in Afghanistan he got little cooperation from CENTCOM or the Air Force, he told The Nation. Worse, he says, “there was no Afghan partner to work with, no humanitarian organizations, no government that gave a shit or had any records. So there were no records. Even at the local level, there were no records! It was really stunning.”
After identifying hundreds of sites that were targets of US airstrikes and visiting many of them, Arkin says it was impossible to sort out current damage from old wreckage. “It’s not precision warfare on top of a pristine landscape,” he says. “It’s chaos on top of chaos.” He estimates that no more than 1,500 civilians died in the first five months of the war—but, he adds, “absent the military looking at it seriously at the time, which they weren’t; and absent the intelligence community having any responsibility for reporting on this subject, which they didn’t; and absent local government records or tracking, which there wasn’t any of, I defy anyone to say how many people died. We couldn’t.”