War & Peace

Civilian Casualties 1: Progress in the war or a ‘perpetually escalating stalemate’?


General Petraeus has handed over command of ISAF and US forces in Afghanistan, with talk of progress – albeit fragile and with ‘tough times’ ahead. His confidence was belied by reports or statements on the human cost of the war from three respected international institutions working in Afghanistan over the past week: ICRC said, ‘insecurity is at a critical level for civilians’; UNAMA described the intensified conflict bringing ‘increasingly grim impacts’ to civilians and ANSO, which since the start of the ‘surge’ two years ago has monitored a 119 per cent rise in attacks by armed opposition groups, describes the conflict as a ‘perpetually-escalating stalemate’ (links to all three reports are below). In the first of two blogs, AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark looks at these reports in relation to the US/ISAF war effort. The second will look at how they lay bare Taleban claims to care about Afghan civilians.

In his last interview before handing over command, General Patreaus told the New York Times (here)  that he was leaving in the belief that his plan to turn the war around and hand over security to the Afghans could be achieved. He saw signs of progress in the battle against the Taleban beginning to appear:

‘This just means that they have less capacity; they have been degraded somewhat… This is the first real indicator — for the first time since 2006 — compared to the previous year, insurgent attack numbers are lower.’

It is a statistic he repeated in his farewell remarks (read full text here) : in a ceremony where the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen said, ‘I have never seen our progress more real and our prospects more encouraging’ (quoted from AP here).

Seeking clarification about Petraeus’ extraordinary claim that insurgent attacks were lower, NATO spokesman, Brigadier General Josef Blotz, said the general was referring to the  number of ‘enemy initiated attacks’ and the time period was ‘recent weeks’ compared to the same period last year. He could not give figures or dates. Further questions revealed that  ‘not every IED is an attack on the international or Afghan forces.’ In other words, only attacks against the international or Afghan military forces – and not civilians – had been counted.

Petraeus was referring to a carefully chosen data set which may even be a blip – since when were a few weeks’ data used as evidence of anything in Afghanistan? The cherry picked figures – only attacks which could be proved to be targeting military forces were counted – were presented in such a way that the listener/reader was led to believe Petraeus was speaking about insurgent attacks in general.

No wonder, the reaction of Nic Lee, the Director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) was unequivocal, ‘Neither we nor anyone we know has any data which would support this conclusion – indeed, the available data supports the opposite conclusion.’ His office is monitoring around 40 attacks daily initiated by armed opposition groups (against targets generally), a rise in 42 per cent in the first six months of this year compared with 2010 and a doubling since the beginning of the surge in June 2009.* (The ANSO report will be posted here)

Looking at the violence being endured by Afghan civilians, Petraeus’ spin looks all the more divorced from reality. The rising number of civilians getting killed and injured, says UNAMA, represents ‘a deepening entrenchment of violence in the everyday lives of Afghans.’ The sources of that violence are also multiplying – not just Taleban and other opposition armed groups and the international and Afghan state forces, but also the Afghan Local Police and criminals (where insecurity rises, violent crime comes hot on its heels). As the visiting Director of Operations for ICRC, Pierre Krähenbühl said, ‘Afghans today are living in an environment where increasing numbers of people openly carry weapons and armed groups proliferate… Besides uniformed forces, a multitude of opposition and pro-government armed groups are actively engaged in fighting’ (read statement here)

UNAMA gives the number of civilian deaths by all parties in the first six months of 2011 as 1,462,** an increase in 15 per cent compared to the same period for 2010: this is due mainly to the increased use of IEDs (30%), greater numbers of complex suicide operations (19%), an intensified campaign of targeted killings (13%)  – all by armed opposition groups – and a rise in deaths from air strikes, especially by Apache helicopters (5%) – by international forces.*** (for full report see here)

The proportion of civilians killed by Taleban and other anti-government armed groups has risen again, to 80 per cent of the total, while the numbers of civilians killed by international and Afghan government forces are down to 14 per cent of the total  (also down in absolute numbers; 207 in the first six months of 2011, compared with to 227 in 2010). The one rising statistic on the international military side is deaths from air strikes from helicopters – up 14 per cent. These are due largely to strikes by Apache helicopters (this was already a rising trend noted in March 2011 by Dion Nissenbaum in theWall Street Journal here).

The reasons are not clear, whether they match the increase in the number of helicopter strikes or are due to problems with tactics, training, lack of precautions or poor cultural understanding (for example, two children killed in Kunar in March had been using the coolness of night to irrigate fields, rather than, as crews assumed, laying an IED under cover of darkness). However, UNAMA says, the trend needs urgent investigation and also calls for figures for civilians killed in Close Combat Attack to be published as ISAF does for those killed in Close Air Support, making analysis of the data easier.

In the league of who is killing most civilians, the Taleban are clearly winning, something which ISAF is always keen to publicise as it feels unfairly criticised (see a recent blog here). It is important to recognise that changing tactics by ISAF and the special forces not covered by the ISAF command chain have reduced the numbers of civilians they kill. Yet at the same time, the war is not leading to any greater protection of civilians; in fact quite the opposite. We are seeing worsening security and more casualties. ‘By all measures,’ says ANSO, ‘Afghanistan is a more violent country today than it was in 2009.’ The military surge,’ it says ‘is not working.’

Part of the reason for this, says ANSO, is that the surge has been met by an ‘effective counter-adaption’, a dynamic which it calls a ‘perpetually escalating stalemate’. In other words, increased violence by the international military has been met by increased violence from the Taleban and other groups. Moreover, even aspects of the war which Petraeus hails as positive may have bad consequences for civilians. It has been detailed how the US kill/capture policy which picks off Taleban field commanderscan lead to younger Taleban filling their shoes, with weaker chains of command and often more abuses against the civilian population and greater insecurity (for discussion, see two recent AAN papers: pages 17 and 18 here and pages 3 and 4 here). ANSO also notes a relationship between command and control deteriorating and local commanders taking independent positions which do not reflect Taleban policy – which is to not to attack NGOs. This is one reason, they think for the rising number of attacks on NGOs.****

One of the most egregious theories coming from some within the international military is that a degraded Taleban with poorer command and control which is more abusive to the civilian population could be a good thing because it would encourage the Afghan population to stand up against the militants. Mainly, this is voiced in private and usually with reference to events in Iraq (where the population did turn against al-Qaida in Iraq). However, one public reference came from the retired British lieutenant general, Sir Graeme Lamb, who was a key figure in developing strategy in Iraq and then Afghanistan and refers to it in the streamed discussion here.

Yet as the UNAMA report says: ‘civilians will only “win” in Afghanistan when civilian casualties across the board decrease.’ Civilians, the report points out, have increasingly had their civilian status threatened as they are ‘caught between two sides,’ often subject to conflicting and competing demands from the warring parties that frequently include intimidation and violence. Often, the report says, the idea of choice between the two parties is simply illusory:

As one civilian from Marja district in Helmand province told UNAMA, ’The Taliban come to any house they please, by force. Then they fire from the house and then ISAF and ANA fire at the house. But if I tell the Taliban not to enter, the Taliban will kill me. So, what is the answer? Either ISAF kills me or the Taliban kills me. The people cannot live like this.


*This count includes ‘genuine combat operations’ only (IEDs, ambushes, indirect fire, suicide attacks) and does not include non-kinetic activity (threats, abductions,) or criminal incidents.

** ANSO counts 1,865 civilians killed in the first six months of 2011. The reports of both ANSO and UNAMA detail their methodology.

*** Other causes are: deaths during ground combat (21%), during night raids (2%), escalation of direct force (2%), other (5%) and unknown (3%).

**** ANSO charts an increasing number attacks on aid workers by Taleban and other armed opposition groups, by criminals and because they were caught in the crossfire. Security for aid workers has ‘inevitably deteriorated’ its report says, ‘against the back-drop of intense conflict, a proliferation of irregular forces, political uncertainty and rising armed crime.’ For an examination of the changing Taleban policy on NGOs and how it is implemented, see an AAN report here.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace