Understating Afghan Civilian Deaths
Editor’s Note: As the United States and its allies prepare to intervene in Libya to “save civilian lives,” there is the troubling double standard, that the U.S. military has slaughtered countless Afghan and Iraqi civilians this past decade and that just this week Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and other U.S.-backed dictatorships have joined in violent crackdowns on dissent.
Indeed, as bloody as the Libyan conflict has become, the United States -- along with its Arab allies -- surely does not come to this latest “humanitarian” mission with clean hands, as Gareth Porter and Shah Noori reported this week for Inter Press Service:
The number of civilians killed in U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) raids in Afghanistan last year was probably several times higher than the figure of 80 people cited in the U.N. report published last week, an IPS investigation has revealed.
The report also failed to apply the same humanitarian law standard for defining a civilian to its reporting on SOF raids that it applied to its accounting for Taliban assassinations.
The March 9 report, produced by the Human Rights unit of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) jointly with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), said a total of 80 civilians were killed in "search and seizure operations" by "Pro-Government Forces" in 2010.
But AIHRC Commissioner Nader Nadery told IPS the figure represented only the number of civilian deaths in night raids in the 13 incidents involving SOF units that the Commission had been able to investigate thoroughly.
Nadery said the AIHRC had received complaints from local people alleging civilian casualties in 60 additional incidents involving raids and other activities by Special Forces. "We did not include them in the report, because we were unable to collect the exact figures for casualties, which takes time," Nadery said.
The AIHRC is continuing to investigate those 60 events, according to Nadery, and will report on the results in the future.
The March 9 report refers to "60 incidents of night raids that caused civilian casualties," but does not inform the reader that only a fraction of the total casualties alleged in those incidents were counted in the total.
At least one of the 13 incidents investigated by the AIHRC was an air strike called by an SOF unit. The 80 deaths from at most 12 incidents or less would suggest an average of at least seven civilians killed per incident.
If the sample of night raids investigated is representative of the total of 60 incidents of SOF night raids about which civilian casualty complaints were generated, the total number of civilians killed would be around 420.
The UNAMA-AIHRC report shows a total 406 killings of civilians by "Anti-Government Elements" reported for 2010.
But the UNAMA-AIHRC report uses a strict humanitarian law definition of "civilian" in regard to victims of assassination by "Anti-Government Elements" which was not applied to victims of U.S. night raids.
"If Afghan soldiers travelling from one place to another, on holiday, with no weapon and no uniform, are killed, we count them as civilians, and the same with policemen," Nadery told IPS.
Mayors and district chiefs, who participate in military planning with NATO military commanders, were also considered civilian victims of assassination, according to Nadery.
A large proportion of those killed as "Taliban" in SOF night raids, however, would also qualify as civilians under this definition.
Matthew Hoh, formerly the senior U.S. foreign service officer in Zabul province before his 2009 resignation, was familiar with the target list for SOF kill or capture raids. He told IPS the list included Afghans holding every kind of non-combat function in the Taliban network, including propagandists and workers who make Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).
UNAMA team leader Denise Lifton conceded that the report had made no effort to ascertain what positions had been occupied by those who had been killed in U.S. raids. "We have not looked at the functions, per se, of those [who are] accused of being Taliban and are killed," she said in an e-mail to IPS.
Night raids generally kill Taliban personnel in their own homes, and thus outside the context of a military operation.
If the same humanitarian law criterion used in counting victims of Taliban assassinations were applied to the alleged Taliban targeted in SOF night raids, the victims of killings during those raids would have to be considered civilian casualties.
U.S. Special Operations Forces acknowledge only 38 civilian casualties, including killed and wounded, as a result of night raids, as reported by Reuters on Feb. 24.
Sunset Belinsky, a spokesperson for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), insisted in an e-mail to IPS that such raids are "intelligence driven," and that "there is a rigorous process involved in identifying targets."
But although Belinsky acknowledged to IPS last September that the total of 1,355 insurgents "captured" in the raids from May through July 2010 included "suspected insurgents," she was unable to provide any figures on how many of those 1,355 had later been released.
Belinsky did not respond directly to a request from IPS this week for the information on what proportion of insurgents captured in 2010 had turned out not to be insurgents.
The continued refusal of ISAF, under the command of Gen. David Petraeus, to release that information suggests that it would reveal a very high proportion of the several thousand Afghans killed last year as "Taliban" were simply civilian supporters or victims of misidentification or a malicious intelligence tip.
The remarkably sharp rise in the number of night raids carried out by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, ISAF commander until June 2010 - and the even more spectacular increase in the raids under Petraeus - in 2010 raises serious questions about how the U.S. military could avoid a massive increase in the killing of individuals with non-military functions in the Taliban as well as people with only tangential or no connection to the insurgency.
According to a document from the Afghanistan war logs released by Wikileaks last July, in October 2009, the target list for SOF night raids, called the Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL), included 2,058 names. That list provided the intelligence basis for a pace of some 90 raids per month in late 2009 – a huge increase from the 20 per month just six months earlier.
Significantly, at that moment, Gen. Petraeus was warning the White House against a strategy of relying on more SOF raids and a smaller conventional force footprint. "There's just a limit to how many precise targets you have at any one time," Petraeus said, according to the account in Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars.
But from May through July 2010, according to ISAF figures, SOF units launched 3,000 night raids – a 50-fold increase over the rate of only a year earlier – in which they reported killing nearly 1,100 Taliban "leaders" and "rank and file."
A 10-fold increase in raids, which implied a similar increase in the size of the target list, could not have been carried out without a dramatic relaxation of the already very loose criteria for including someone on the JPEL, according to Matthew Hoh.
"Commanders are under pressure to find targets for these raids, because it has become a metric of success," Hoh told IPS.
He likened that broadening of the targeting criteria to the CIA's getting much greater latitude on targeting of drone strikes in Northwest Pakistan in early 2008, expanding the target list from a handful of al Qaeda leaders to virtually anyone tangentially associated with either al Qaeda or the Taliban.
Hoh said one result of the frantic effort to expand the target list is bound to be an increased use of intelligence tips from unreliable individuals or tribal enemies.
That appears to have been a factor in the killing of President Hamid Karzai's cousin, Yar Mohammad Karzai, in a night raid in the Karzai ancestral home in Kandahar province on March 9. The raiders also took his son away with a black bag over his head.
Yar Mohmmad Karzai had told relatives repeatedly over the years that he feared that another cousin of the president's, Hashmat Karzai, who had headed a large security firm for years and then ran unsuccessfully for parliament, would seek to arrange for a U.S. attack against him by planting false information with the Americans.
Shah Noori reported from Kabul. Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.
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