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America’s Afghan Victims | The Nation

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America’s Afghan Victims

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II. The UN’s Flawed Count

The UN’s human rights and civilian protection team in Afghanistan has done critically important work. Against near-impossible odds, it established a nationwide network of offices and trained personnel to track civilian casualties, investigate incidents, prepare reports, and put pressure on the US/ISAF coalition, the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban to minimize civilian deaths. Since 2001, it has published voluminous reports on the war’s toll, and since 2008 UNAMA has put out annual and semi-annual data on civilian casualties. 

This special issue was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Alleen Brown contributed research.

About the Author

Nick Turse
Nick Turse is the managing editor of Tomdispatch.com and an Investigative Fund Fellow at The Nation Institute. He is...
Robert Dreyfuss
Bob Dreyfuss
Robert Dreyfuss, a Nation contributing editor, is an investigative journalist specializing in politics and national...

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However, in a series of wide-ranging interviews, current and former UNAMA officials told The Nation that the UN’s human rights work has been hamstrung by political pressure from top officials to minimize or downplay issues that might undermine the US/ISAF mission; by open clashes with military commanders over whether Afghan deaths should be counted as civilians or combatants; and by severe conditions in which investigations were hampered by security concerns. One former UNAMA official, who spoke to The Nation on background, says that despite enormous problems in collecting data and evidence, the UN’s totals are fairly complete. “I would guesstimate that we’re missing 10 percent of what’s happening out there,” he says. But another former official, who spent years working with UNAMA’s human rights group, says flatly, “What we’ve reported is the tip of the iceberg.” 

Especially in the early years of the war, the UN’s effort was very limited. Nazia Hussain of the Open Society Foundations spent much of the 2002–07 period in Afghanistan, including a 2005–07 stint with UNAMA in Kandahar, Jalalabad and Kabul. During that time, she says, security conditions deteriorated sharply, making it harder to go into the field. “There was a lot of confusion and chaos reigning at that time, and civilian casualties were increasing.” She adds, “A lot of the deaths have been attributed to NATO strikes or warlords, but if you double that or triple it, you’ve probably got a realistic number, and it’s probably way more than that.” 

UNAMA’s human rights team expanded along with the war. “We have seventy people located throughout the country in the nine regional offices and then the sub-regional offices, which is something like sixteen other offices in addition to the nine,” said one former UN official in 2012. Still, UNAMA was often overwhelmed. The official estimated that in some provinces, there were more than 200 violent incidents per month. 

And UN officials are the first to acknowledge that they don’t hear about everything. Often it’s difficult or impossible to visit the site of an incident. Frequently, UNAMA had to interview victims and survivors by telephone, or people from a remote village would have to journey to a provincial capital to visit its office. Often victims of violence weren’t willing or able to share what happened. And sometimes they’d exaggerate the numbers for pecuniary reasons—especially if they thought compensation payments might be offered [for more on such payments, see Turse, “Blood Money: Afghanistan’s Reparations Files,” at TheNation.com]. 

A former UN official who spent many years in Afghanistan beginning in the 1990s explains how the organization’s approach changed. “After 9/11 and the Bonn Agreement [of December 2001], the US and the UN started re-establishing itself, and a totally different line was taken on human rights and the impact of war on civilians,” she told The Nation. “Basically, the UN went silent. During the Taliban regime, the UN was all the time talking about things of a human rights nature. And very quickly, in 2001–02, there was a very strong message that the UN was no longer going to do that.” Asked where the pressure was coming from, she says, “I think the UN was seen as being very sensitive to the Washington agenda.” Making matters worse, many traditional allies of the human rights groups and the UN’s civilian protection unit, such as the Canadians, the Norwegians and the Dutch, were part of the US-led military coalition. For members of the coalition, the UN’s job was to build the new Afghan government, not to meddle with human rights issues. “We were told that peace was at hand, and so we had to consolidate the peace,” the former UN official says. 

As the fighting grew more intense and the UN ramped up its system for counting civilian deaths, ISAF’s politicization of the count intensified too. Kai Eide, who served as the UN’s special representative for Afghanistan from March 2008 to March 2010, recalled that US officials accused the UN of assisting the insurgency by drawing attention to the coalition’s mistakes. “The UN had a strong human rights mandate,” he told The Nation, “and civilian casualties had increasingly become an issue.” A former UN official who spent years in Afghanistan echoed this, noting, “They’ve become a lot more politicized, so that increasingly there are more and more pressures on UNAMA to check and double-check incidents in which it was alleged that people were killed by pro-government forces, which includes both international forces and Afghan forces. And again, that would have an impact on the tallies.” 

Eide recounted an early 2008 meeting with Victoria Nuland, then the US ambassador to NATO, in which he was directly warned about disclosures of civilian casualties. In front of Eide’s staff as well as other US military and civilian officials, Nuland laid down the law: “‘No surprises,’ she said sternly,” is how Eide remembers it. “I heard about many of these meetings between our human rights people and those at local offices and lower-level officials at ISAF. I think it was a rather constant effort for quite some time,” he told The Nation. In his 2011 memoir, Power Struggle Over Afghanistan, Eide notes that the “UN could not keep quiet when serious mistakes were committed and caused civilian casualties. Our human rights mandate was clear, and we had no intention of sweeping our concerns under the carpet.” 

Further down the chain of command, however, the pressure was intense, and in interviews with The Nation, UN staffers talked about accommodations they’d made to suit US and allied military interests. Often ISAF would claim that any casualties that occurred in a particular incident were combatants, not civilians. Or it would dispute the numbers. Or it would insist that an event UN workers had documented hadn’t happened at all. “So you reach a situation where you have a plausible allegation that something happened in Province X. You go to NATO, and they’d say something like, ‘Well, actually, that’s not what happened,’” says a former UN official, adding that the UN would then reluctantly decide to leave the incident out of its database. Casualty tracking, in effect, became a political negotiation to be resolved by backroom horse-trading. “You’d make a judgment call: ‘OK, well, maybe we’ll throw this one out.’” The former official, who recalls “endless meetings with the military” to decide whether or not to include data, adds, “And with each new report, there was a rival version coming out from NATO saying, ‘Actually, you know, we dispute this, we dispute that, we have other numbers.’ ”

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