When NATO forces accidently killed nine Afghan boys gathering firewood to heat their family homes last Wednesday, it marked a low point in a war that has already had its share of horrific mistakes. From wedding parties to religious school compounds, civilian casualties have been as much a part of the war as IEDs and donkey-borne explosives set to detonate in village bazaars. So when Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai refused to accept an apology from U.S. General David Petraeus for the attack, saying in a statement that “Civilian casualties are the main cause of a worsening relationship between Afghanistan and the U.S.,” it’s easy to see where he’s coming from, even if it’s not entirely accurate.
Karzai also called for an end to civilian casualties, an admirable goal, if not easily attainable. Civcas, as they are referred to in military jargon, are an inevitable part of modern war. And while they can, and should be, reduced, it is unlikely to see them down to zero unless we return to Revolutionary War era set battle pieces that take place far from human habitation. That said, a remarkable new study released today by (of all publications) Science Magazine, shows that while civilian casualties are on the rise in Afghanistan over all, concerted efforts by the International Security Assistance Force have actually reduced the number inflicted by coalition troops, attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government forces more than made up the total increase. And this in the middle of a military surge that has brought some 50,000 troops to theatre.
Trying to get accurate numbers of civilian casualties from NATO officials has always been an exercise in diversionary tactics. But Science managed to cut through the obfuscation and the red tape to not only get numbers, but also methodology. “For the first time,” crows writer John Bohannon. “Those data are now publicly available… the military’s internal record of the death and injury of Afghan civilians, broken down by month, region, weaponry, and perpetrator.” Over the past two years, 2537 civilians were killed and another 5594 were wounded, according to the ISAF numbers. Twelve percent of the dead and wounded were attributable to ISAF forces, and the rest insurgents. “Sure,” you might want to respond – “what about the dead and wounded they don’t want to tell you about?” Well, because Science was able to get the military guys to squeal, both the UN and the Kabul-based organization Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM) decided to release their findings as well. Those numbers, as expected, show nearly twice as many civilians killed in the same two years. “The civilian casualties reported by the UN have always been higher than those reported by ISAF,” NATO Spokesman U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, told Science, as he explained that the UN in particular was better resourced to gather the data. “But the trends have been very consistent.” The trends being that both ARM and the UN agree, almost to the percentage point, that the Taliban and other anti-government forces are responsible for about 80% of the losses.
In the UN press conference discussing their findings yesterday Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Afghanistan Staffan de Mistura acknowledged, somewhat wearily, that the Taliban might have some issues with their findings: “We know very well that you will be complaining bitterly about this report like you did last time,” he said in a direct address to the Taliban. “We know that you will be saying that the cases we look at are inaccurate. The facts are facts.” He then issued a challenge. “Contribute to the next report. And have a chance to contribute both with facts and reducing, minimizing, controlling the huge amount of civilian victims.”
Almost as an afterthought, Science tacks on a historical note well worth keeping in mind, especially since accounts of civilian casualties are invariably countered with promises to “Afghanize” the security efforts over the next three years. Science quotes Michael Sutherland, a statistics PHD during the Vietnam War, who first started tracking the ratio of soldiers to insurgents killed. Not surprisingly, given the era, he discovered that the military was routinely fabricating the number of enemy soldiers killed. But he also found something even more relevant to Afghanistan today: By comparing the trends in deaths, he also found that U.S. soldiers were clearly the ones fighting the battles rather than the South Vietnamese allies. “We were told that we were over there only as advisers,” he says. Today the military no longer tracks enemy dead, at least not in a quantifiable way—“We don’t do body counts,” General Tommy Franks told reporters in Afghanistan in 2002. But it does regularly release numbers of Afghan recruits joining the police and military. Equipping and training Afghan forces is certainly a good way to lessen the load on international and US forces for the future. But the current timeline – 2014 is the goal Karzai and the Pentagon have set for a transition to Afghan forces—is far too ambitious. As C.J. Chivers remarks in his gloomy piece in the NYT yesterday, these troops are far from ready to take the load from international forces. It’s going to take more than three years for an entire cohort of soldiers and police officers to gain the skills necessary to work efficiently and courageously in a daunting battle, especially when they are fighting to protect a government that has little support from the population at large. True security in Afghanistan will take decades. That reality shouldn’t be offset by numbers of troops in training, nor should it be countered by the fact that we are now, officially, killing less civilians than the Taliban.