America’s Afghan Victims
2003–2007: We could find no evidence that anyone tried to count the dead during these years. According to The Nation’s compilation, between 617 and 1,012 civilians died in eighty incidents involving the US military and coalition forces during this five-year period, though the actual toll is probably far greater, given the scant attention by all parties.
Immediately after the fall of the Taliban government, the United States and the UN focused almost exclusively on “nation building,” even as the insurgency took root under their noses. This was the era of the so-called “light footprint,” when George W. Bush’s administration was obsessed with Iraq. Only 8,000 US combat troops and a contingent of international forces half that size were in the country, and US ground forces were mostly confined to Kabul and a few big military bases. (It wasn’t until October 2003 that the UN Security Council authorized the expansion of the ISAF mission beyond Kabul.)
“When the insurgency started rearing its head, the way that they fought that was with a lot of airstrikes,” says Sarah Holewinski of the Center for Civilians in Conflict [see Holewinski’s article in this issue for more on the center]. “They were dropping 2,000-pound bombs instead of 500-pound bombs. The civilian on the ground was not the priority, so quite a lot of civilians were being killed.”
In its 2008 report “‘Troops in Contact’: Airstrikes and Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch noted: “The combination of light ground forces and overwhelming airpower has become the dominant doctrine of war for the US in Afghanistan. The result has been large numbers of civilian casualties, controversy over the continued use of airpower in Afghanistan, and intense criticism of US and NATO forces by Afghan political leaders and the general public.” Human Rights Watch estimated that civilian casualties from coalition airstrikes rose from 116 people in thirteen bombings in 2006, to 321 people in twenty-two bombings in 2007.
According to Andre-Michel Essoungou, spokesman for the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, “UNAMA began monitoring civilian casualties systematically in late 2007. It began to systematize the collection and analysis of that data in 2008 when it published its first report on ‘Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict.’ No organization has good or reliable data on civilian casualties from 2001 to 2006, and we have not seen estimates that would be considered reliable.” The UN’s reports during these years were sporadic and mostly guesswork, and both the UN and the media focused on high-profile, mass-casualty incidents. In 2006, a report by the UN high commissioner for human rights noted that there were “approximately 1,500 civilian deaths in 2005, the highest number of civilian deaths in any year since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.” But the emphasis ought to be on “approximately.” In an early attempt at systematically counting civilian dead for 2007, the UN reported 1,523 killed. In her study, Neta Crawford concludes that, at most, 4,065 civilians died as a result of combat between 2002 and 2007, but she acknowledges that “from 2002 to 2005, there were very few counts or estimates made by independent sources of the number of civilians killed in the conflict.”
2008–2013: By June 2008, 48,250 US troops were in Afghanistan. A year and a half later, after two escalations of the war ordered by President Obama, the US troop level passed 100,000. The insurgency, including the Taliban, the Haqqani group and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i Islami, was full blown, and the war was at its peak.
Both the UN and ISAF created formal body-count mechanisms for civilian deaths in 2008, but they were marred by significant flaws, undoubtedly resulting in an undercount. The Nation’s database, which relies primarily on Western media reports and thus also undercounts the dead, reflects 234 incidents, involving between 972 and 2,229 people killed from 2008 to the end of 2012.
According to the annual UNAMA reports, the number of Afghan civilians who died from war-related violence inflicted by all sides rose steadily: from 2,118 in 2008, to 2,412 in 2009, 2,777 in 2010 and 3,021 in 2011, before falling to 2,754 in 2012, with another 1,319 deaths in the first six months of 2013. Of those, the proportion killed by insurgents rose too, from 55 percent in 2008 to 79 percent in 2012. In all, UNAMA concluded, 2,736 of those killed between January 2008 and June 2013 died at the hands of the US/ISAF coalition and Afghan security forces.
Does the US military have better numbers? Probably not. Both ISAF and the US command maintain records of violent incidents as part of a system called the Combined Information Data Network Exchange, which contains more than 100 different kinds of reports tracking battlefield data. CIDNE is classified, and The Nation was not given access even to a sanitized version of it. But researchers who have seen the classified data suggest that the numbers aren’t there, especially before 2008. We asked Larry Lewis, who in 2010 co-wrote a definitive—and still classified—Joint Civilian Casualty Study for the military called “Reducing and Mitigating Civilian Casualties,” if there were any reliable numbers for the war’s early years. “Not that I ever found,” he says, “and believe me, I looked.” One source, who was part of the Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell set up by the military in 2008, says there was a top-secret room containing highly classified data at ISAF command headquarters, adding: “ISAF does keep a log of civilian casualties. But it was classified, of course. In fact, they had the ‘Five Eyes room’ that very few people could go into. It was called the Five Eyes room for the five countries whose senior people were allowed in: the United States, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.”
None of the sources interviewed by The Nation confirmed that either ISAF or the US military has accurate numbers on dead civilians, even after 2008. Lewis says much of the data that the military does have are suspect, because they’ve been unevenly collected. “There are some commanders that, any time a civilian casualty is suspected, they’ll do an investigation to try to get to the bottom of it,” he says. “Others, they’d only do it if they thought there could be neglect or actual criminality. So there are a lot of different criteria.”
Sarah Sewall, who wrote the introduction to the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, prepared in 2006 under the direction of General Petraeus, was an author with Lewis on the Joint Civilian Casualty Study. Despite the lack of complete and accurate data, she says, the report “relied on a number of anecdotes that we studied in detail, so that’s the way we were able to correct” for the absence of underlying data to draw conclusions about trends and make policy recommendations to the US Army. A nearly complete version of the Joint Civilian Casualty Study was obtained by The Nation.