The Afghan Civilian Casualties Myth

Bagram Air Base -Afghanistan

The myth of extensive civilian casualties caused by American bombing is the second-biggest myth in press coverage of Afghanistan. (The first is the use of the word “reconstruction” to describe the pretty near wholesale invention of infrastructure and the institutions of modern civil society here.) The myth has it that U.S. forces kill massive numbers of Afghan civilians, driving them into the arms of the Taliban.

On Oct. 26, I got the 2008 to-date figures for civilian casualties caused by the U.S. military from Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, the military spokesman at Bagram. These apply to the 14 provinces of Regional Command East, which doesn’t include the battleground provinces of Kandahar, Helman, Uruzgon and Zabul, which are patrolled by NATO.

In the first 300 days of 2008, there were 22 civilians killed in a variety of separate incidents; 35 confirmed by a CentCom investigation into the attack in Herat Province that has received so much attention; and a preliminary estimate of 20 to 30 in a July 6 incident under investigation in Nuristan. (The victims’ relatives said they were innocent civilians attending a wedding, but the strike on the gathering occurred at 4 a.m., Nielson-Green observed.) This would mean 77 to 87 in the 14 eastern provinces.

This tallies with what I have been able to find out about 2007. This past April, Col. Marty Schweitzer told me that in his area of operations–the six eastern provinces of Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Ghazni, Logar and Wardak–just 11 civilians were accidentally slain by U.S. forces in 2007. I verified with the provincial maneuver commanders that one civilian each was killed in Khost and in Ghazni.

The Army numbers represent a 20% to 30% increase over last year, and Nielson-Green states that the upsurge is partly the result of greater activity by U.S. forces, trying to cut insurgent infiltration routes and destroy supply depots. The U.S. military is almost painfully unwilling to authorize strikes it thinks may cause civilian casualties. Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Said T. Jawab, told me in January of this year that “in Helmand, people will come to me and tell me that the Afghan government and U.S. military are too soft on the Taliban.”

Each of the deaths is a tragedy. Some stemmed from the “fog of war”–weapons malfunctions, faulty intelligence. Lt. Col. David Ell, Khost’s maneuver commander, told me that two women were killed accidentally by the 101st Airborne on Sept. 9 when a bomb’s GPS malfunctioned, landing three kilometers short of its target. Another two young girls were slain Aug. 19 when a rocket went in the wrong direction. (These three are included in Lt. Col. Nielson-Green’s 22 deaths from separate incidents.)

But most civilian casualties result from the insurgents’ propensity to fight from houses where civilians are living, indeed forcing civilians to remain in houses from which they are firing. And those casualties are dwarfed by the number of civilians intentionally slain by the Taliban. An Afghan human rights activist, Ahmad Nadar Nadary, is about to publish a report on insurgent killings of Afghan civilians. He says that about 700 Afghan civilians were murdered by the Taliban between June 2007 and July 2008.

The relevant comparison in Afghanistan isn’t between civilian casualties here and, say, Switzerland, but with what the country would look like without Coalition forces–probably a Taliban killing field.

The American Army has not always done itself a service in its relations with the media, allowing the insurgents to get in first with wildly inflated claims and outright lies, while patiently waiting for thorough investigations before making its case. But the U.S. military’s attitude has been marked by candor and good faith–as it should be. And this openness is just as important an example in this part of the world as anything else we do. Afghans are used to death; one hears little outrage here about the dozens of women who die in childbirth daily. They are not used to honesty from government and military figures.

Afghans never quite believe me when I describe being an embedded reporter. “You are able to watch everything they do? To go with them inside houses?” I say yes, I’m able to be a fly on the wall in most situations except mission planning and intelligence gathering. Now, a new policy is bringing familiarity with this openness to Afghans: For the first time, the 101st Airborne Division is accepting Afghan reporters, even those who don’t speak English, for embeds.

Most Afghans appreciate the U.S. military presence here and understand that mistakes happen in war as in every other human endeavor. The tiny minority of Afghans who support the Taliban–under 10% according to a variety of polls–would support them no matter what we do here, short of setting up a new Caliphate. It’s Americans who are unclear about what their military is doing–and not doing–in Afghanistan, and we badly need to get our facts straight.

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