Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Talking about Civilian Casualties in Kabul (with comment)

Thomas Ruttig 7 min

Last week, on 28 June, ISAF Kabul had invited for a half-day conference on the issue of civilian casualties. The attendance, at least during the first hour, was high-ranking, with Gen. David Petraeus, NATO SCR Simon Gass, NSC chairman Rangin Dadfar Spanta and deputy speakers of both houses of the Afghan parliament. They all left before they could hear what those they meant to consult with had to say, and missed some good points. In the end, Thomas Ruttig and Susanne Schmeidl* left somewhat confused.

Where does our confusion come from? Both of us were wondering afterwards whether this conference was an attempt to be transparent, to show the political will to reduce civilian casualties and efforts underway to do so, to really consult and take recommendations on board or to tick the box of consultation and make the point that the real culprit is ‘the other side.’ Probably, it was all of this at the same time.

Much emphasis was put on the fact that ISAF has managed to improve its performance and subsequently reduced its share in civilian casualties, down 20 per cent last year compared with the insurgents and this year approximately on the same level (Petraeus).

The UN still had to register the highest number of civilian casualties since the last peak in 2007 for May 2011 (365); 82 per cent of them were attributed to the insurgents. Gen. Petraeus had 347 caused by the insurgents, 57 by ISAF and – we believe – the ANSF . Spanta quoted 16% of all civilian casualties are by ISAF/ANSF and 84% by insurgents**.

Insurgents—‘the enemy’—in contrast were described as resilient, resourceful, and barbaric that went by different rules (Petraeus). They use civilian casualties as way to divide Afghans and internationals (Spanta) and are better on rhetoric on reducing threat to civilians than on compliance (UNAMA). They now target more directly (such as hospitals), and do more complex attacks (such as bombing of buses, more people killed at once). And they also don’t use an international acceptable definition of civilians (UNAMA; never specified what this definition is and how the insurgency’s differs).

Surprisingly enough, neither Spanta nor Khaled Pashtun (Wolesi Jirga) and Muhammad Alam Ezadyar (De Meshrano Jirga) picked up President Karzai’s recent strict line that there have been enough civilian casualties.

While the figures of casualties caused by Western troops and the Taleban are still compared to each other, ISAF/NATO see themselves in another moral category than the enemy. His forces, so Petraeus, ‘never’ deliberately target civilians while the insurgents ‘appear to have not the same regard to the sanctity of human life’ as them. Spanta added that ‘Thanks God, we are not in the same moral category as our enemy’. One Afghan human rights activist wondered why we would ever even think of negotiating with such ’barbarians’. (Spanta, at least, would not anyway.)

The only one who got the difference right was Nader Nadery from the AIHRC. He commented that expectations amongst Afghans with regard to IHL-compatible behaviour were higher when it comes to the NATO/ISAF forces than the insurgency. He also pointed to the 400 assassinations of tribal elders, ulema and others carried out by the Taleban last year. This is another difference: the insurgents consider civilian people close to the regime as legitimate targets. Per IHL definition, this is a war crime.

It has to be added here that the US in Vietnam, with programme Phoenix, and US client regimes throughout the Cold War have run death squads against civilian opponents. And the current definitions of who can be targeted, Taleban ‘facilitators’ etc., are pretty dodgy (see AAN’s report ‘The Takhar Case’). That does not excuse the Taleban along the line of ‘the others do/did it, too’. But the US simply do not have the moral high-ground here they are claiming.

Gen. Petraeus also spoke about the controversial ‘night operations’, which he reiterated (and so did others, incl. UNAMA) were key in reducing civilian casualties, as more people are killed through aerial bombardment and ground combat than during such raids (civilian casualties only occur in 1 per cent of all cases, according to General Nicholson).

There was some more pretty threadbare apologetics sprayed around:

• 80 per cent of the night ops are successful, i.e. the intended target is captured or killed’, also 80 per cent are conducted ‘without a single shot fired’***. What about the other 20 per cent? As another Afghan human rights activists commented: one bungled attack, and you have another whole village against you. And with that success rate, why are there still Taleban?

• or: ‘Night raids are good, as they happen when most people sleep, hence it reduces contact with civilians.’ Mind you people are scared at night when their door is kicked in or blown up; and all cats are black at night. Read this pretty fitting sentence c/o David Ignatius from the Washington Post, 1 July 2011: ‘With their bushy beards and faces weathered by the sun, the Special Forces operatives might be mistaken for tribesmen themselves’ (link here).

And there is its own kind of ‘transition’ going on in the hidden world of night raids. ‘All of them now have Afghan partners; they go through the door first’, and up to one fourth of all night ops are led by Afghan Special Operations Forces; as if it really makes (human) rights compliances better when one gets raided by ones own government’s troops.

The high success rates, however, were somewhat contradicted by complaints from Afghan civil society arguing that many arrests and killings happened on poor intelligence or due to bad fact checking, and lack of cooperation with the Afghan authorities (government officials present seemed to agree). Nadery, again, said that the US SOF at times do not acknowledge wrong-doing, and one Afghan participant pointed to an example in Baghlan where they blocked investigations into killings by an US-mentored Afghan Local Police (ALP) unit****.

Further deficiencies became obvious about the ability of the ANSF to address protection issues. Spanta underlined that the Geneva conventions were ‘binding’ for the Afghan government and forces. He also demanded full Afghan leadership in all night operations, the ‘Afghanisation of the provision of security’ and respect for Afghanistan’s ‘full sovereignty’. At the same time, a MoD representative repeatedly admitted a ‘lack of capacity’ in particular when it came to human rights issues. The AIHRC criticized that the Afghan government’s own investigations of civilian casualty cases were often ‘unprofessional’ and conducted by teams ‘not trained in IHL’ and that the ministry still had no separate unit for this purpose. He demanded that such a special ‘professional unit’ is established, comprising of officers and lawyers. UNAMA urged that ‘transition needs to be accompanied by better protection of civilians’ and include a ‘human security agenda’ with special focus on women and children.

Amnesty international (AI) demanded that ISAF sets up an ‘independent cell’ for the investigation of civilian casualty cases. AIHRC noted that even if ISAF/NATO does investigations the results are never shared, hence it lacks transparency and impartiality, regardless how well it may be conducted. When pressed several times what mechanisms really were in place for investigations, answers remained general (each member state has their own; we do hold accountable, at least the general could speak for the US and gave an example referring to the sentencing of the much-reported ‘Kill Team’ – find a link on this story here – etc.) and we have joint investigation teams.

What was almost worse: NATO/ISAF reps who were still present beyond the first hour, collectively dodged responsibility about all things political. ‘ISAF is made up of soldiers, so they can secure Afghans, but not fix the Afghan government, this is not our role, Afghans have to do this themselves.’ Never mind that NATO has a Senior Civilian Rep with a large office, dwarfing the once more influential EUSR office and perhaps even UNAMA’s political side.

In terms of recommendations provided to reduce civilian casualties which is what this consultation was all about, ISAF wanted a ‘reality check’ (seeing civil society as ‘a mirror’ of their action); the following came up:

• Double and triple check your information, best with local government officials and elders. But there are feuds abundant, and people like to take out their enemies. And our favourite quote: ‘A gun in the house does not make an insurgent’, – neither is ‘a farmer that comes to defend his neighbour with a gun a Taleb’ (civil society and GoA);

• All operations should be joint (GoA); ‘shoulder to shoulder’ (ISAF); in other words, it is better Afghans break down the doors of Afghans*****;

• People need to see ISAF/NATO as one force, and make SOF accountable (AIHRC);

• Create an independent investigation team (AI);

• Improved compensation mechanisms; you can’t offer USD 2,000 for the loss of a life (civil society);

• The military should generally stay away from schools, even not distribute stationary (need to disassociate civilian from military, UNICEF);

• More institutionalised and systematic practise for investigation (CIVIC);

• Train ANSF on human rights and IHL;

• Improve info sharing and transparency;

• Develop domestic legislation that takes up international military law to ensure that the ANSF fall under such obligation (internal ISAF recommendation );

• Develop laws to move from break and enter to ‘warrant based arrests’ (indirectly said by ISAF when admitting that the legal base was lacking).


The following comment on this blog was received on 9 July 2011:

‘Not only does a weapon in an Afghan’s home make him an insurgent automatically, but the Afghan Law on Fire Arms and Explosive Materials allows any Afghan household to keep one weapon as long as it is registered. This weapon, however, cannot be used without a separate permission. It further says that as long as a civilian registration of such weapons is not yet possible in some areas, also unregistered weapons are legal. Furthermore, the law does not clearly define the type of such weapons; as a result, an AK-47 would still be legal to hold. The law does not cover shotguns (pellet guns), so they are strictly legal’ (sender known to AAN).

(*) Susanne Schmeidl is the Senior Advisor, Research/Peacebuilding, atThe Liaison Office in Kabul.

(**) We’re both not sure whether we got the first figure right Gen. Petraeus gave. Therefore, here some more figures from ISAF factsheets distributed at the conference:

Killed or wounded

1st quarter 2011: 939 casualties caused by insurgents (85.6%); 158 caused by ISAF (14,4%); TOTAL: 1097
4th quarter 2010: 902 casualties caused by insurgents (86.2%); 144 caused by ISAF (13.8%); TOTAL: 1046
1st quarter 2010: 729 casualties caused by insurgents (82.3%); 157 caused by ISAF (17.7%); TOTAL: 886

Killed only

1st quarter 2011: 299 by insurgents (82.8%); 62 by ISAF (17.2%); TOTAL: 361
4th quarter 2010: 295 by insurgents (81.5%); 67 by ISAF (18.5%); TOTAL: 362
1st quarter 2010: 243 by insurgents (76%); 77 by ISAF (24%), TOTAL: 320

(***) ‘No shot fired’ still includes the use of explosives to break down doors, stun grenades and percussion. Thanks to Alex Strick van Linschoten for this hint. Read ‘Shadow Governor for Musa Qal’ah District Captured’, ISAF Joint Command – Afghanistan, 2010-09-CA-018 For Immediate Release, for an example:

‘KABUL, Afghanistan (Sept. 2, 2010) – An Afghan and coalition security force detained several insurgents including the Taliban shadow governor of Musa Qal’ah district in Helmand province Wednesday. […]

The security force approached the targeted compound northeast of the village of Sandalah in Musa Qal’ah district to search for the shadow governor. Afghan soldiers used a loudspeaker to call for all occupants to exit the buildings peacefully and then secured the area. After initial questioning on the scene, the assault force detained the shadow governor and three insurgents for further questioning.

During the search, an elderly man had a heart attack at the compound. The security force immediately administered medical care at the scene, but the man unfortunately passed away.

The security force did not fire their weapons during the operation.

(****) With respect to the ALP, the UNAMA rep noted ‘inconsistencies in recruitment, vetting and oversight’. She also made the useful distinction between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ ALP, albeit it was unclear what a fake ALP is—presumably simply a self-appointed ‘ALP’ militia.

(*****) Even here, distinctions need to me made. We have already reported that, for example in Khas Uruzgan, Pashtuns are offended if Hazara militias are first in their doors (see an earlier blog on this here).