America’s Afghan Victims
One of the biggest problems between UNAMA and ISAF in trying to reconcile data was the involvement of the ultra-secret US Special Operations Forces in many civilian deaths. Indeed, according to Lewis and Sewall’s Joint Civilian Casualty Study: “Between 2007 and mid-2009, SOF operations (including SOF-directed airstrikes) caused about half of all US-caused civilian casualties.” Yet for the UN, getting cooperation from SOF commanders was nearly impossible. “With ISAF, it was a bit more open. But with the Special Forces, there was no way we could get any information,” says a former UNAMA official. “They insisted that they had killed insurgents. There was no way in. We’d say they were farmers, because the local population had told us, but there was no entry point.”
The situation was the same within ISAF. Lt. Col. Ewan Cameron of the British Army, who served twenty months in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2009, worked on tracking and reducing civilian casualties. But even with his top-secret clearance, he was totally in the dark about SOF activities in his area of operations. “Where civilian casualties were reported to us that resulted from suspected Special Operations Forces action, we could not corroborate that because we did not know that Special Operations Forces activities happened,” he told The Nation. “Indeed, if we were to ask about it, we would’ve been politely turned off.”
William Arkin agrees: “Once you get the CIA involved, once you get black SOF involved, then it doesn’t matter. They play by different rules.” Arkin says that he’s visited top-secret air operations centers where even the military command itself wasn’t aware of what the Special Operations Forces were doing. “They literally didn’t know,” he says. “I’m telling you, they literally didn’t know.”
III. The Military’s Body Count
When isaf finally set up its mechanism for tracking civilian casualties in 2008, it got off to an inauspicious start. “I had a rude welcome,” says one former ISAF official involved in the early days of the Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell, which was created in 2008 with the purpose of monitoring reports of civilian casualty incidents, logging them into a database, analyzing them and producing reports for the higher command. “Four days after I arrived, the person I was supposed to report to was led out of the office in handcuffs, charged with a breach of the UK Official Secrets Act for leaking information about civilian casualties to Rachel Reid of Human Rights Watch. That incident, unfortunately, set the tone for what would be my year on the job. He was led away in handcuffs for doing essentially what we were supposed to be doing!”
The arrested official, a British Army colonel named Owen McNally, didn’t actually leak any vital secrets. He was, in fact, trying to cooperate with civilian NGOs, and he apparently told Reid about some of the directives and guidelines that the US military and ISAF had issued aimed at minimizing civilian deaths. McNally would eventually be exonerated in Britain, but not before the episode turned sleazy. According to Reid and another woman who did casualty work for a different NGO, the British Defense Ministry tried to tar them both with unfounded rumors that they’d had a sexual relationship with McNally.
“The UK Ministry of Defense fabricated the story that he had given me civilian casualties information, and there was a lot of gutter press around it and wink-wink implications,” Reid says. “What he did give me was some information regarding a change in ISAF’s tactical directives concerning the use of one-source intelligence for raids and military actions. The military was very angry, because it was implicit recognition that they’d been conducting airstrikes based on one source.” The scurrilous stories appeared in several British papers, including The Sun, The Times and the Daily Mail.
That troubled start to the Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell was never completely overcome, although in time ISAF and the US command would earn grudging respect from the UN and some NGOs—including Human Rights Watch and the Center for Civilians in Conflict—on issues related to civilian casualties. Still, the Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell and its successor units didn’t always play nice with the UN, and they resisted cooperation with the media, including The Nation.
As noted, in the early years of the war civilian casualty issues were apparently all but ignored by the US military and its coalition partners. A search by ISAF personnel of their records revealed not a single study or survey of civilian casualties between 2001 and 2008. As John Bohannon, who researched the issue for the journal Science, noted in 2011, “The organization in the best position to directly record civilian casualties is the military itself, with nearly 150,000 observers on the ground witnessing the violence every day. But it seemed that the military kept no record of those observations.”
It wasn’t until 2005 that, according to the Army’s Afghanistan Civilian Casualty Prevention handbook, civilian casualties “became a key operational issue in Afghanistan.” And these efforts, it turned out, were failures. “Despite efforts to reduce civilian harm caused by coalition forces,” the 2012 manual reads, “initial initiatives in Afghanistan were not successful in mitigating the issue.” Only after a series of attacks that led to mass casualties did the US military finally start restricting the use of force.
In 2007, Gen. Dan McNeill issued the inaugural ISAF tactical directive. Focused on more effectively shielding civilians during “raids, pre-assault or preparatory fires, and air-to-ground or indirect fires,” the document called for using small arms instead of airstrikes whenever feasible, and limited attacks on compounds to situations in which coalition forces “were taking fire from the compound or there was an imminent threat from the compound, and when there were no other options available to the ground force commander to protect the force and accomplish the mission.”
Still, according to Col. John Agoglia, who headed the Counterinsurgency Training Center in Kabul from 2008 to 2010, the message didn’t resonate. Before 2008, he told The Nation, “there was an awareness, but that awareness wasn’t getting across—in the base, in the field, at the training center.” Similarly, Larry Lewis, who carried out a study of tactical directives for the Pentagon, told The Nation that while ISAF did recognize problems with its methods, the ad hoc response had a limited effect. “So you can see the command was already acknowledging this is detrimental to the mission back in 2007,” he says. “But they were trying to do it in just kind of a ‘Hey, we know this is bad, so we better put out some guidance and hopefully that will help.’ And it really didn’t help.”
In September 2008, in the wake of a US bombing that killed as many as ninety-two Afghan civilians in the village of Azizabad in Herat Province [see Dreyfuss, “Mass-Casualty Attacks in the Afghan War,” for more], Gen. David McKiernan issued a new ISAF tactical directive that superseded McNeill’s 2007 document. The new order put in place more stringent guidelines for airstrikes, emphasizing the need to reduce civilian casualties during “escalation of force” procedures. Additionally, it “called for acknowledgement of civilian casualties or property damage at all levels, from community level to national level,” and created a mechanism to document civilian casualty incidents through bomb-damage assessments. Three months later, McKiernan issued a slightly revised version that included more restrictive language on airstrikes. The Azizabad attack also prompted CENTCOM to issue a tactical directive to speed the investigation and reporting of civilian casualty incidents.