Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Reality off the records: Afghan civilian casualties and NATO’s narrative

Thomas Ruttig 3 min

Facts from the latest UN and AIHRC report: 2,777 Afghan civilians have been killed in 2010 – these are more than ever before since the US-led intervention started in 2001 and 15 per cent more than in 2009. Insurgents were held responsible for 75 per cent of these casualties, Afghan government and Western forces for 16 per cent. The number of killed children rose above average, by 21 per cent – that of women still by 6 per cent. More than 102,000 Afghans were displaced by the conflict.

The government of those NATO countries that provide troops for ISAF are currently developing a narrative of success: After another much-touted change of strategy, the Afghan army and police are growing, both in quantity and quality, both increasingly capable of protecting their country against the insurgents. Taleban and al-Qaida – both not much different from each other – are taking mighty hits. (For an example, see the following headline from USA Today, 15 February 2011: ‘General: Taliban “beaten” by surge’, the article is here.) Scores of their ‘leaders’ are killed, by the Special Forces in Afghanistan (1800 night raids in the last three months, 18 per night, according to Gen. Petraeus) and drones in Pakistan.

This narrative, which is generated by programmes worth billions for „public information“ and „public diplomacy“, is designed to provide the rhetoric ground for a drawdown of troops (in the case of the US) or their complete withdrawal (Europe) from Afghanistan while being able to communicate that this – admittedly complicated -mission had been accomplished successfully given Afghanistan’s complexity and intricacies.

Only reality, from time to time, puts its oar in. Like the latest annual report on ‘protecting civilians in armed conflict’ jointly published by UNAMA and the AIHRC (find the full report here) that says that 2010 has been – again – the most bloody year for Afghan civilians since the US-led military intervention against the Taleban regime commenced almost ten years ago. This report speaks another language, one that makes the NATO narrative sound hollow, even dishonest. After all, it can be assumed that at least some of the Western success stories are produced against better judgment.

The consistently escalation of violence that is reflected in the UN/AIHRC figures alone is proof that the NATO narrative is wrong. The massively increased military pressure on the insurgents has not weakened them or forced them to the negotiating table. They just adopt their asymmetrical warfare – all this talk about their ‘cowardly assaults’ is propaganda, as long as soldiers and policemen are concerned which are in Afghanistan to fight and kill. Meanwhile, almost all security analysts in the insurgency‘s core areas in Southern and South-Eastern Afghanistan – domestic ones as well as internationals – confirm that all indicators about a really successful counter-insurgency are pointing into the wrong direction, like the number, geographical scope and casualty rates of insurgent operations as well as their potential to recruit. But because NATO HQ in Brussels or Washington don’t want to hear that (and their jobs depend on capitals, directly or indirectly) they tell you ‘off the records’ only. But I am sure that you have heard it, too.

It becomes more and more plain that Afghanistan, first of all, stands for a political intervention gone wrong on the part of NATO which was particular ambitious to be successful in this sphere, after it had lost its original Cold War raison d’être. As a result, it has helped Afghanistan to a regime that – in the eyes of many Afghans – men and women! – does not even match the Taleban’s performance when it comes to core issues like day-to-day security and ‘justice’. On top of this, capitals maintain that they cannot even influence it any more.

Indeed, President Karzai has disentangled himself out of the patronizing embrace of his Western mentors the mistakes (to put it mildly) of which he so cleverly uses against them – like this absolutely unbelievable Petraeus remark about Afghans burning their own children in order to be able to blame the US for an exaggerated number of civilian casualties (read a background about this here in the Washington Post).

The Afghans, by the way, are the last to buy NATO’s narrative of success. (They are also not the main addressees.) Amongst them, there is pure terror about the perspective to be left alone again – with the Taleban andKarzai, his warlord allies, corrupt officials and Kandahari militias which shadow the Taleban’s behaviour only all too well (see the UN/AIHRC report’s chapter about the Kandahar killings – and don’t think that’s all done by Mulla Omar’s people).