Civilians Killed During Offensive in Afghanistan: Human Shields or Unfortunate Targets?


Flickr Photo by isafmedia

The narrative was set up from the beginning: the U.S.-NATO offensive in Marjah, Afghanistan would be one where not killing civilians would be at the forefront of conversation as major players in the conflict in Afghanistan, news organizations, and the people of Afghanistan and the world paid attention to the offensive. It was only a matter of time before military leaders and politicians began to trumpet a charge commonly heard from occupiers, that the enemy is using civilians as "human shields."


BBC News recently reported:

Gen Ghori, the senior commander for Afghan troops in the area, accused the Taliban of taking civilians hostage in Marjah and putting them in the line of fire.

 "Especially in the south of Marjah, the enemy is fighting from compounds where soldiers can very clearly see women or children on the roof or in a second-floor or third-floor window," he is quoted by Associated Press as saying.

"They are trying to get us to fire on them and kill the civilians."


As a result, his forces were having to make the choice either not to return fire, he said, or to advance much more slowly in order to distinguish militants from civilians.


Forces that were going in to attack Marjah to root out Taliban they believed to be in the region warned civilians ahead of the invasion. NATO told civilians to keep their heads down. Fleeing the area was encouraged so forces could go in and wage a campaign that produced very few civilian casualties. This was all part of plans to ease public outcries against an occupation that many believe has been perpetrating indiscriminate attacks on civilians.


Despite calls encouraging civilians to leave, the Christian Science Monitor reported that not too many took "the hint."


The US-led force said Tuesday that fewer than 200 families — around 1,200 people — had left the town of Marjah and the surrounding area, which have a population of about 80,000. By Wednesday, the Associated Press reported another 100 families had left.

"Commanders in the area are reporting no significant increase in persons moving out of Nad-e Ali district in the last month," the US-led International Security Assistance Force said in a statement.

"Despite reports of large numbers of civilians fleeing the area, the facts on the ground do not support these assertions"…

…"The presence of a large number of civilians could make the operation much trickier and provide a test of the new coalition military doctrine of protecting the population. A large media contingent from around the world will accompany the troops, recording their progress.

An estimated 2,000 Taliban fighters are dug in and are believed to have planted roadside bombs and booby-trapped buildings. Residents said the insurgents had dug trenches in a traffic circle and mined the roads out of town. It may be too late for those who haven’t escaped by now.

"If (NATO forces) don’t avoid large scale civilian casualties, given the rhetoric about protecting the population, then no matter how many Taliban are routed, the Marjah mission should be considered a failure," said Candace Rondeaux, an Afghanistan-based analyst at the International Crisis Group, an independent research and campaigning organization.


Those leading the invasion probably knew embedded journalists and others in the media would note the attempt to be sensitive to the people of Afghanistan.


Having tried to clear the region and failed, forces knew there would be a good amount of civilians in Marjah when troops began to fire and attack. After the first shots were fired, reports of civilian casualties would circulate. The next best way to prevent civilian casualties from being a problem would be to discredit these reports and help those monitoring the invasion create a narrative that Taliban were explicitly putting the military in a situation where forces didn’t want to attack by using civilians as "human shields."

This would not only further demonize the enemy and possibly help international public opinion. It also would further narrow the range of discourse on the Afghanistan War and ensure that little discussion on the addition of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan occurred.


The term "human shields" is a common term used by those who invade an area and wish to craft a perception that they have entered a region controlled by an "enemy" and, therefore, no civilians should be in this area because it is not safe. The notion leads one to think the enemy is holding innocents against their will, and not only is the enemy evil but the enemy is so evil that the enemy will take an innocent life as he or she is being killed.


"Human shield" is part of the language of occupation. The term can easily mask what is going on during occupations.


Using local residents as "shields" is a war crime. The Fourth Geneva Convention forbids the use of "protected persons" (inhabitants of an occupied territory) as "shields."


In this situation, US and NATO forces would say the Taliban is the occupier. The Taliban is not allowed to use "protected persons."


Really, this is a war between two occupiers—the Taliban and all foreign troops (of course, whether the Taliban is or not is negotiable but they are no longer widely accepted by the public, or so we’re told).


One might think that civilians would be in just as much danger if Taliban were firing and blowing up explosives, as they are when U.S. and NATO fire and carry out targeted killings of Taliban. Just as many could be "caught in the crossfire" or deliberately killed.


We are led to believe that, if foreign forces of occupation wish to conduct a mission, civilians are to clear the way for their occupiers. And, in this scenario, we are to suspect that the Taliban may have prevented them from fleeing to make it more difficult for forces to achieve their objective.


Stop and think. Where are these civilians to go? If war is all around, there is no escape.


Stop and think. Why would these civilians go? Surely, they have heard the stories of what has been happening to internally displaced persons (IDP), those looking to escape the impacts of occupation.


The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) reported that, as of winter in 2009, more than 250,000 IDP had been displaced. People in settlements faced lack of food, shelter, healthcare, safe drinking water, and sanitation and children were at risk of cold-related illnesses. Is this really any better than staying put?


All wars being waged by occupiers result in reports of enemies using innocents as "human shields." In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers were accused of using "shields" and also shooting innocents fleeing the area. The Palestinians constantly are accused of using "human shields" as they defend themselves against the brutality of Israeli apartheid.


Now, military commanders claim civilian deaths are happening because the Taliban are using civilians as "human shields." They are framed as purveyors of evil despite evidence and reports from organizations like Amnesty International which indicate that U.S. and NATO forces engage and have engaged in indiscriminate attacks (which are just as bad as using civilians as "shields").


It is uncertain how long this "surge" will last. The U.S. and NATO seem to be taking action to create the illusion that there is, in fact, justification for waging war and occupation in Afghanistan.

No matter how long this lasts, civilians will pay the highest price.


They will continue to become what policymakers and military leaders call "collateral damage." Whether these civilians in the way die because of Taliban or not the reality that forces had a choice to not wage war will not be contemplated.


Continuation and expansion of war and occupation was inevitable; the illusion that evil was being rooted out of the country had to be further created in order to preserve a future of U.S. dominance in the region.

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