The Human Rights Unit of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan released a report [pdf] today detailing civilian deaths in the conflict there. The report presents data for the first six months of 2009 and compares the current situation to earlier periods in the conflict.

The information gathered in this report will provide a very important baseline against which to evaluate the performance of General Stanley McChrystal, who took over as head of US forces in Afghanistan in June. In several diaries, I have summarized the evidence that McChrystal should be in prison for war crimes rather than leading our military effort in Afghanistan (see this diary, for example).

Here are some excerpts from the report’s section titled "General Trends: January — June 2009" on page 4 [AGE = anti-government elements — mostly Taliban; PGF = pro-government forces –mostly US]:

3. Armed conflict in Afghanistan intensified significantly after 2005, with insurgent/AGE attacks and operations by PGF encroaching into more areas of the country. As the conflict has widened and deepened throughout 2007, 2008 and into 2009, almost a third of the country is now directly affected by insurgent activities with differing intensity. Armed conflict is particularly prevalent in the South, South-East, East, Central, and Western regions of the country. It is also spreading into areas formerly relatively tranquil, such as the North and North-East.

4. As the conflict intensifies and spreads, it is taking an increasingly heavy toll on civilians, as the growing civilian death toll registered by UNAMA Human Rights each year since 2007 indicates. In the first six months of 2009, UNAMA recorded 1013 civilian deaths, compared with 818 for the same period in 2008, and 684 in 2007 (see graph #1 below). This represents an increase of 24% of civilian casualties in the first six months of 2009 as compared to the same period in 2008. Both Anti-Government Elements and pro-government forces are responsible for the increase in civilian casualties. UNAMA Human Right figures indicate that more civilians are being killed by AGEs than by PGF. In the first six months of 2009, 59% of civilians were killed by AGEs and 30.5% by PGF. This represents a significant shift from 2007 when PGF were responsible for 41% and AGEs for 46% of civilian deaths.

5. Operations carried out by PGF have resulted in a growing number of civilian casualties since 2007. Whereas the overall proportion of civilian deaths attributed to the PGF has declined in recent years, mainly due to concerted mitigation efforts, the actual number of civilian deaths continues to increase.


To summarize, the overall trend in the last few years is for higher numbers of civilian deaths. Anti-government elements (principally the Taliban) are responsible for the most civilian deaths. Even though the proportion of civilian deaths attributed to pro-government forces (principally, US forces) is going down, the overall number of civilian deaths from our forces is going up.

Here is the breakdown of civilian casualties for the first six months of this year:

UN data

Moving to page 5 of the report, we find this:

8. Notwithstanding efforts by international military forces to implement policies and procedures to minimize the impact of their operations on civilians, airstrikes remain responsible for the largest percentage of civilian deaths attributed to PGF during the first six months of 2009. UNAMA Human Rights recorded 40 incidents of airstrikes since the beginning of 2009 in which 200 civilians reportedly lost their lives. Implementation of search and seizure operations (including night time raids) are also of concern, and there have been reports of a number of joint Afghan and international military forces operations in which excessive use of force has allegedly resulted in civilian deaths. There have been a declining number of “force protection incidents”, where civilians were killed after failing to follow instructions when approaching too close to military convoys, military installations, or checkpoints.

Note the concern about implementation of search and seizure raids. The report doesn’t indicate when the raids were implemented, but they are a signature of McChrystal, who imprisoned (and subsequently tortured) many innocent Iraqis during his time there. This will be a very important activity to watch in the next six months.

I’ve marked my calendar to revisit the UNAMA website in six months to see how the change in leadership for US forces in Afghanistan will affect the civilian casualty rate. See you in a Friedman unit.

Of course, the Taliban bears a huge level of responsibility for civilian deaths. Here is a passage from page 12 of the report that explains why there are so many civilian casualties in air strikes:

In several cases investigated by UNAMA, it is apparent that important traditional codes of hospitality and power imbalances inhibit the ability of villagers living in areas with a strong AGE presence to refuse shelter to an AGE commander or his men. Information indicates that AGEs take advantage of these factors to use civilian houses as cover, to deter PGF raids, or to increase the likelihood of civilian casualties if raided by PGF, potentially violating international humanitarian law.

The use of innocent civilians as human shields is an abhorrent practice that has long been banned in international rules of war.

Jim White

Jim White

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