America’s Afghan Victims
A boy, injured during a NATO air strike, lies on a hospital bed in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province, February 20, 2011. Reuters/Stringer
When an American soldier dies in Afghanistan, his death is not anonymous. The tragedy of that loss is mourned, and his life is remembered and celebrated. In many cases, the death is covered prominently in local and state media, often for several days. The Pentagon dutifully records the loss, medals are delivered, a ceremonial flag is presented to survivors, and the Defense Department pays the soldier’s family $100,000 in compensation, plus back pay, insurance, housing allowances and more.
But when an Afghan dies in the war—especially an Afghan civilian—her death is rarely noticed by the outside world. Often, it’s not even recorded by Afghan hospitals or morgues. Asked whether his country keeps records of civilian casualties, Said Jawad, the former Afghan ambassador to the United States, sighs. “In Afghanistan, you know, we don’t even have birth certificates,” he says. “Do you know we don’t even have a list of Afghan soldiers and police, members of the security forces, who are killed?”
Most Americans strongly supported the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, but they have long since turned sharply against a conflict that, in September, entered its thirteenth year—by some measures the longest war in American history. A big reason for the shift in public opinion is the steadily growing list of dead and maimed soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. For politicians, it’s by now rote to declare that the war has cost the United States more than 2,200 dead, thousands more wounded and at least $640 billion. But even among staunchly antiwar politicians and pundits, few bother to mention the cost to Afghans. “It’s just not part of American discourse,” says John Tirman, author of The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars. “You don’t have politicians standing up for civilians.”
It is to correct this unconscionable oversight that The Nation has prepared this report. In this special issue, we focus primarily on those who have died at the hands of the United States and its allies. That’s because Americans, collectively, should be accountable for the violence committed in their name. We should demand that our military act humanely and with a determination to avoid civilian casualties.
A large number of these civilian deaths—perhaps most—have come at the hands of the Taliban and its allies. Since gathering momentum in 2006, the insurgents have shown a reckless disregard for civilians, planting tens of thousands of improvised explosive devices along roadways, setting off suicide bombs in crowded marketplaces, and assassinating countless local officials, tribal leaders and other civilians. As the war evolved, civilian casualties attributable to the insurgents rose from a relatively small number in the years before the insurgency really got under way in the mid-2000s, to 55 percent of civilian deaths, according to the 2008 report of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), to what the UN now says is approximately 80 percent of all civilians killed.
As we shall see, even coming up with rough estimates of civilian casualties is difficult. But it’s an unassailable fact that many of those killed by anti-government forces would almost certainly be alive had the United States never invaded. And the victims of US forces and other foreign troops number in the many thousands. The United States has been singularly uninterested in tracking and accounting for the Afghan dead, whether civilians or combatants. In an echo of the discredited metrics of the Vietnam War era, Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the US invasion in 2001 and served as commander of Central Command (CENTCOM) from 2000 to 2003, was even more blunt. “You know we don’t do body counts,” he said.
In 2008, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, reluctantly began to track civilian casualties, setting up the Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell and other mechanisms to do so. But as we report below, this work was woefully incomplete. At the same time, advocates of the vaunted counterinsurgency doctrine promoted by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and then, less stringently, by Gen. David Petraeus, along with academics such as Sarah Sewall of Harvard, instituted a new policy that emphasized the protection of civilians. But despite the policy changes, Afghan civilians continued to die in large numbers—a situation acknowledged by Tim Rieser, a top aide to Senator Patrick Leahy. “No matter how much the Pentagon says that they’re going to revise their tactics or their procedures or whatever, [the deaths] keep happening!” says Rieser, whose boss has been a leading voice for decades on human rights.
I. Counting the Dead
Iraq, which endured an eight-year war with Iran, followed by the Gulf War, a dozen years of lethal US-engineered sanctions, the 2003 US invasion and a civil war, still maintains a functioning system of hospitals, clinics and morgues, and researchers are able to make use of roughly accurate demographic data based on household surveys. One such study, published in The Lancet in 2006, estimated, not without controversy, more than 600,000 “excess deaths” resulting from the US war and occupation. There is no parallel study for Afghanistan, according to Neta Crawford, a political scientist at Boston University who has written extensively on civilian deaths in Afghanistan and who has tried to raise funds to conduct a household survey there.
The Asia Foundation, which conducts an annual Survey of the Afghan People, has perhaps come closest to gauging the war’s toll. Based on more than 6,300 interviews with adult Afghans in all thirty-four provinces, the survey reports that over one-fifth (22 percent) of the population—more than 6 million people—personally experienced some kind of crime or violence in their household in 2011. Of those, 8 percent (about 500,000 people) report having suffered violence at the hands of “foreign forces”—i.e., ISAF. And those figures are just a one-year snapshot. Multiply that by twelve years of war, and it becomes evident that millions of Afghans have suffered death, injury, and damage to their homes or livelihoods by US and ISAF forces.