Until recently, there has been a general silence about civilian casualties in Afghanistan. In 2007, some organizations began to track and report available data on those casualties, especially the apparently rising toll resulting from U.S. and NATO actions – a trend that bodes ill for the Karzai government and its foreign allies, the United States and NATO. It is also a development that the Taliban surely welcomes and hopes its enemies will do nothing to eliminate. CDI’s Research Assistant Elise Szabo has collected the data and draws unavoidable and troubling conclusions in a new article, “In-attention to Detail: Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan.”
In-attention to Detail: Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan
By CDI Research Assistant Elise Szabo
Almost six years ago, U.S. and allied forces toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, paving the way for a pro-Western, interim government and the country’s first post-Taliban presidential elections. Throughout the war, however, there has been little focus – whether from government or watchdog groups – on its toll on the civilian population of Afghanistan.
Very few attempts at compiling annual estimates of insurgency-related civilian deaths have been made. The nature of the conflict makes data collection difficult and verification even more so. Figures are often at least partially based on secondary information – such as reports issued by government officials, the media, or other organizations working in Afghanistan – which can be difficult to corroborate. Consequently, the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan is uncertain, despite the recent proliferation of estimates, displayed in Table 1 below.
Table 1: Annual Overall Civilian Casualty Estimates (2001-2007)
According to what little information is available, U.S. and NATO-led forces appear to be responsible for a growing number of civilian deaths. Despite its reluctance to quantify the situation, the UN publicly reported on June 2, 2007, that its data indicates “the number of [civilian] deaths attributed to pro-government forces…marginally exceeds that caused by anti-government forces.”10 Available breakdowns of civilian casualties in 2007 are displayed in Table 2 below.
Table 2: Civilian Casualties Caused by Pro-Government and Anti-Government Forces (2007) 11
U.S. and NATO officials stress that insurgent fighters hide among the civilian population and use them as human shields, but the fact remains that, whatever the causes, this rising civilian death rate undermines the strategic goals of the United States and its allies. The growing perception that Western forces are unconcerned with and a direct threat to the safety of civilians makes the Afghan population less inclined to side with the West against the Taliban. Also, Afghans will be less likely to support a government seen as aiding or cooperating with Western forces. Hence, the recent statements by President Hamid Karzai reprimanding U.S. and NATO forces for their apparent disregard for Afghan civilian life. Tensions over the issue not only threaten the relationship between the Afghan and coalition governments, but among coalition members themselves as they debate an appropriate response to the mounting toll.
At the moment, U.S. and NATO forces seem unable or unwilling to adopt tactics less lethal to the civilian population. Expressions of regret and reiterations of respect by the military sound increasingly empty as U.S and NATO airstrikes continue to attack residential buildings believed to contain Taliban insurgents, but that time after time are found to also house civilians. An International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) spokeswoman was recently quoted as saying, “We are looking closely at our air operations, but it would not be something we would be looking to change at this point.” She cited the limited number of troops available as a primary reason for maintaining the current role of air power in the conflict.21
The issue has spurred a number of groups and organizations to begin tallying Afghan civilians killed this year. The British Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG) estimated somewhere between 400 and 500 civilians were killed between January and the end of May 2007.22 The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) reports 452 civilian deaths during the same time period, 189 of which were caused by U.S. and NATO forces.23 As of June 23, the Associated Press counted 381 civilian deaths in 2007, 203 of which resulted from U.S. and NATO operations.24 The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief reported that pro-government forces were responsible for 230 civilian deaths in 2007.25 On July 3, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission figures for 2007: over 270 civilian deaths caused by international military operations out of a total of at least 540.26 A July 1 AP report cited a UN count of 593 total civilian deaths in 2007, 314 of which were caused by international or Afghan military action.27 The highest number of civilians killed in U.S. and NATO operations this year was reported by Dr. Marc Herold of New Hampshire University, who estimated somewhere between 388 and 523 deaths between Jan. 1 and June 22, 2007.28
Research revealed only two estimates of civilian deaths in the first three months of the war. Herold’s online database counts Afghan civilian casualties reported by the media. He estimates 2,567-2,947 civilians were killed in U.S. aerial bombings between Oct. 7 and Dec. 10, 2001.29 Carl Conetta, co-director of the Project for Defense Alternatives, a project that researches security policy and its challenges, estimates anywhere from 1,000 to 1,300 Afghan civilian deaths due to U.S. aerial bombardment between Oct. 7, 2001 and Jan. 10, 2002.30 Conetta attributes what appears to be a minimum of 3,000 additional civilian deaths to the impact of the conflict on the nation’s refugee and famine crises.31 The Herold and Conetta studies were based exclusively on media reports and are evidently the only attempts that have been made to quantify Afghan civilian deaths during the outbreak of war in 2001.
No annual estimates are currently available for the subsequent years 2002 through 2005, although Human Rights Watch and ANSO are reportedly in the process of back-cataloging information collected prior to 2006. In the organization’s January World Report 2007, Human Rights Watch asserts that the number of Afghans killed in insurgency-related violence in 2006, estimated in the report as at least 1,000, was “twice as many as in 2005 and more than any other year since the 2001 fall of the Taliban.”32 A more detailed report released in April estimated at least 899 total insurgency-related civilian deaths, but described the figure as conservative.33 The estimate drew from a wide range of sources – the group’s own research and interviews, ANSO reports, media reports, statements by government officials, NGOs, and spokesmen of insurgent groups – and is arguably the most substantiated figure currently available for 2006.34
Amnesty International’s 2006 estimate of 1,000 insurgency-related civilian deaths was based on information provided in government documents and media reports.35 A BAAG employee gave an offhand estimate of about 1,000 as well.36 The International Committee of the Red Cross reported 670 civilian deaths in 2006.37 The figure is based on information provided by Afghan government officials.38
A number of other organizations started keeping track of insurgency-related civilian deaths in 2007. The Associated Press began compiling information collected and reported by staff writers to calculate its own tallies. Also, in a May 28, 2007, press briefing, Chief of Human Rights at the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan Richard Bennett announced the development of a civilian casualties database. He warned, however, that much of the information available is “second- or third-hand” and, thus, unverified.39 UN officials have recently avoided issuing public estimates, emphasizing the difficulties involved in collecting and corroborating information. A UNAMA official explained that UN numbers recently reported by AP were never intended for public release, as they represent only a rough estimate. The real count, he speculated, is likely to be higher.40
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is also tracking civilian deaths, apparently through its medical facilities, but a press officer warned that their numbers “might not be entirely accurate.” ISAF does not release estimates to the public.41 NATO accounts of civilians killed in individual incidents are often inconsistent with estimates from Afghan officials. For example, a NATO spokesman was quoted in a July 2, 2007, New York Times article regarding recent airstrikes in Helmand Province as saying, “…we want to make it clear that we at this point believe the numbers [of civilians killed in the incident] are a dozen or less.” Afghan officials, however, reported that the strikes resulted in 45 civilian deaths. Elsewhere in the province, barely three days earlier, Afghan officials reported up to 60 civilians killed in fighting and U.S.-led airstrikes. A NATO spokesman said that the military could not confirm “numbers that large” and issued an often-used statement about enemy fighters willingly endangering civilian lives. A U.S. government news release acknowledged that some civilians were killed in the attacks but did not include an estimated number. 42
When questioned about whether or not the Department of Defense (DOD) maintains any records of Afghan civilian deaths, a DOD official stated that they maintain documentation on U.S. military personnel only.43 The British Ministry of Defence replied similarly to an inquiry under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2000, stating that it “does not maintain records that would enable a definitive number of civilian fatalities to be recorded.”44 Though figures issued by local Afghan officials are often cited in the media, it is unclear whether the Afghan government keeps centralized records of civilian casualties, which would enable it to issue annual estimates.
The difficulties in collecting accurate information on civilian casualties in Afghanistan have been compounded by the fact that only recently has the issue been given the attention it deserves. The first annual estimates that attempt to include all insurgency-related civilian deaths came out in 2007 for the previous year, leaving five years during which the U.S. and Afghan governments, human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations, and the media did not provide the information to the public. This year’s increased efforts to monitor the situation and to review conditions in the past may reflect on the fact that more civilians are becoming casualties of the war; hopefully, this also shows an increased awareness of the issue’s serious implications for the war’s ultimate outcome. The failure of those supporting the Karzai government – particularly the U.S. government and NATO – to collect or make information on the issue public suggests a refusal to acknowledge the negative impacts this war is having on Afghanistan, and perhaps, the grave direction it’s headed.
1. Based on estimates of civilian casualties caused by PRG and AGF, “Afghanistan: Civilians complain about impact of fighting on their lives,” Integrated Regional Information Networks, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, July 3, 2007, http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=73061