America’s Afghan Victims
When The Nation requested an embed with ISAF forces in order to witness the military’s tracking system in action, we were repeatedly rebuffed. Despite the fact that Bohannon had been given access months earlier, The Nation was told that since the Civilian Casualty Mitigation Team and Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell work inside a “secure facility,” members of the public were barred. The Joint Incident Assessment Team commander gave a similar response to an embed request. An ISAF spokesman told The Nation that he “declined to have anyone embed with him on investigations since some of the information is classified.”
Official data indicate that ISAF’s much-vaunted efforts to avoid civilian casualties have had, at best, limited results. Internal reports mistakenly released to The Nation by ISAF indicate that for the first three- quarters of 2011, ISAF forces were responsible for 434 civilians killed or wounded, up from 414 during the first three-quarters of 2010, while deaths attributed to coalition forces ticked only slightly lower, from 175 to 166. Whether this is an artifact of better surveillance and tracking procedures or a failure of ISAF policies is unknown, and it remains unknowable because of ISAF’s veil of secrecy.
Various investigations, including Bohannon’s report in Science and Neta Crawford’s “Costs of War” project, have noted that the US military’s database misses even mass-casualty incidents, such as the September 2009 massacre in the Ali Abad district of Kunduz Province that left nearly 100 people dead, mostly civilians who’d gathered around stalled tanker trucks to collect fuel. In her report, Crawford says: “NATO forces eventually acknowledged that most of those killed were civilians, and Germany made condolence payments to the families of 91 civilians killed and to the families of 11 wounded. Yet, the ISAF CIVCAS database does not record any civilian deaths due to close air support for September 2009 in northern Afghanistan.”
How could the military miss scores of dead and not include them in its own database, even in a widely publicized case such as Kunduz? Clearly, someone in the military bureaucracy is unwilling to admit that the people slaughtered were civilians. Which raises the question: How useful is the Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell database?
IV. Lessons Learned?
The best way to prevent civilian casualties in war is, of course, to avoid war. Short of that, perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that the Defense Department and the military command learn the right lessons from the war in Afghanistan. However, there’s little evidence that these lessons are being institutionalized. And some may have learned the wrong lessons, such as the illusion that the widespread use of “precision” drone missile attacks can reduce civilian casualties. This ignores the untold number of innocents killed in such strikes (the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates up to 1,000 in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia alone), which has created a new generation of anti-American fighters seeking revenge for loved ones and comrades killed.
Sarah Holewinski, executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, has spent years training US military officers on how to avoid civilian deaths, and she’s worked with US and ISAF commanders in shaping directives for the troops. While she says that many of those with experience in Afghanistan did learn the right lessons, it’s far from clear that the Pentagon is preparing to apply them broadly. “What’s needed is an Office of Civilian Protection,” Holewinski says. “You really should have at least a focal person, if not a team, saying, ‘What have we learned? Where in our policies and protocols, and new procedures, and new counterterrorism strategy, can we put these understandings on preventing civilian harm?’ And we’ve been pushing that for about five years, and it really hasn’t gone anywhere. A lot of people I’ve talked to say it’s a bridge too far; they don’t have the resources. Everyone knows civilian casualties are important, but that’s not enough. It doesn’t mean things will actually change.”
The Joint Civilian Casualty Study acknowledges that, as of 2010, there was no Pentagon office that directly focused on civilian casualties. Further, “there is no cadre of ‘experts’ on civilian casualties and U.S. military operations, nor is there an existing body of knowledge on the topic.” Partly this is because of sheer neglect, and partly it’s because personnel—including senior officers—retire or change jobs and take what they’ve learned with them.
When The Nation asked the study’s authors if there was now, finally, an office in the Defense Department concerned with civilian casualties, the response was a suggestion that it existed in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. But nothing turned up. One officer said, ”I called around to all the offices I could think of in OSD, and they all responded, ‘Not me! Not me! Not here.’” Inquiries elsewhere got similar results.
As the war in Afghanistan winds down, the American people, the media, academia and think tanks all have a role to play in demanding that in any future wars, the United States place the highest priority on avoiding civilian casualties and, if they occur, on being accountable and making amends. If the Pentagon moves slowly, the quickest route is for Congress to hold hearings and then write legislation creating and generously funding such an office, and insisting that its procedures be codified. That, at the very least, would begin to give meaning to the deaths of tens of thousands of Afghans who perished in a needless, misguided and horribly run war.
ALSO IN THIS ISSUE
“Afghanistan’s Casualty Data Black Market,” by Nick Turse
“How the US War in Afghanistan Fueled the Taliban Insurgency,” by Bob Dreyfuss
“America’s Lethal Profiling of Afghan Men,” by Nick Turse
“Marla Ruzicka’s Heroism,” by Sarah Holewinski
and also online:
“Blood Money: Afghanistan’s Reparations Files,” by Nick Turse
“Mass-Casualty Attacks in the Afghan War,” by Bob Dreyfuss