Global Policy Forum

Afghan Civilian Casualties Mount: UN


By Jeff Davis

August 6, 2008

Bolstering signs that the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, UN reports indicate there have been 62 per cent more civilians killed during the first five months of this year compared to the same period last year, putting the death toll on track to top the more than 1,500 Afghan civilians killed in 2007.

And while Western officials maintain they are making efforts to reduce civilian casualties, and the UN numbers indicate that may be the case, an Afghan reporter tells Embassy that the countryside is seething with anger over deadly airstrikes based on faulty intelligence.

According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) officials in Kabul, there were 1,500 civilian casualties in 2007. Of these, 46 per cent were caused by insurgents and other anti-government forces, 41 per cent were inflicted by coalition and pro-government forces, while 13 per cent were "un-attributable" and the result of land mines or crossfire.

By comparison, between January and May 2008, some 698 civilian deaths were recorded by UNAMA, representing a 62 percent increase over the 431 non-combatant deaths recorded in the same period in 2007. However, insurgent attacks were reportedly responsible for 60 per cent of those deaths, compared to 37 per cent being caused by pro-government forces.

These numbers clash with numbers provided by a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force. According to an email from ISAF Afghanistan, 374 civilians were killed in the first six months of this year.

The ISAF spokesman could not say how many of these incidents included Canadian soldiers. Last week, Canadian soldiers killed two children when the car they travelling in approached a convoy. Early reports indicate the children's father, who was driving, did not heed warnings to avoid the convoy. An investigation has been launched.

The spokesman wrote that ISAF has "always taken the issue of civilian casualties very seriously" and makes efforts to investigate incidents, but often runs into problems. Records of death and birth are not scrupulously kept, he said, and the deceased are often buried within a day.

He added that claims of civilian casualties are "prone to exaggeration, and on occasion deliberately manipulated by insurgents for propaganda purposes." The spokesman said the vast majority of the civilian deaths are due to insurgent suicide and IED attacks, and that militants will fight in civilian areas and use civilians as human shields.

"Militants want civilians caught up in the fighting, because they think this will undermine support for NATO/ISAF in Afghanistan and in the international community," he wrote. ISAF does not have a policy for paying compensation to the families of those killed accidentally by ISAF action, with each member nation developing its own policy.

Requests to the National Defence and Foreign Affairs departments for details about Canada's compensation policy were not responded to. Afghan Ambassador Omar Samad said his government has programs in place to compensate victims of terrorist and coalition attacks.

He said the president's office, the Defence and Interior ministries and the Afghan Red Crescent are involved in these programs, in which families of victims can choose to be compensated with money or land. Mr. Samad said the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties are caused by Taliban fighters who use violence to intimidate moderate villages, often killing traditional leaders who "do not espouse extremism."

In addition, he said, the Taliban often inflate the number of civilian casualties caused by foreign forces for propaganda purposes. While the body count rises, Canadian officials remain upbeat about the progress being made toward limiting civilian casualties.

Monday, outgoing Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan Arif Lalani told the Canadian Press that over the past three to sixth months, civilian casualties "has become less of an issue." "The evidence is also pretty clear: one, we've had progress on civilian casualties; and two, by and large, people have responded very well when we have these rare incidents, particularly in the Canadian case," he said.

An Afghan Perspective

In contrast to the somewhat optimistic view of Mr. Lalani, it seems the issue of civilian deaths has left many Afghans questioning their loyalties. Jawed Hamim is a regional editor for southern and eastern Afghanistan at Pajhwok Afghan News, a recently established English language news service based in Kabul. Embassy reached Mr. Hamim on his cell phone Tuesday.

Mr. Hamim said that four devastating mistakes by ISAF forces in the last month have anger-ed people in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Among those that stick out in local minds are the aerial bombing of a wedding party in July that killed dozens, including the bride and groom, deadly air strikes in Herat and Nuristan, and the killing of the two children by Canadian soldiers in Kandahar.

"The local people, the civilians, are so angry, they are so angry, so mad at foreign forces," said Mr. Hamim. "They want the international community, coalition forces and NATO to stop killing and be very careful, and during operations to separate Taliban and civilians."

He said the mounting deaths of civilians at the hands of foreign forces is eroding President Hamid Karzai's support amongst the people. "The representatives of the people in the Afghan parliament, they are also blaming foreign forces and especially the government of Hamid Karzai, saying why the government could not stop these foreign forces from killing civilians."

Mr. Hamim says the families of innocent civilians killed by NATO forces thirst for revenge, and often join the Taliban. "We are hearing that if a family is killed, definitely a brother or another person of their family will join Taliban because they were killed by foreign forces," he said. "[They think] air strikes are killing people and they should be brought to justice, they should be punished." Mr. Hamim says he thinks the recent mistakes are rooted in poor ISAF intelligence capabilities, which mistakenly identify civilians as threats.

"The people of Canada should force their government, especially Canadian forces in Kan-dahar, to be very careful in doing operations and not to believe in every intelligence report. Most of their intelligence reports are wrong, so during an operation they should be very careful." He added that while Taliban forces kill civilians in suicide attacks, they also warn civilians to stay clear of roads and ambush sites before attacks against ISAF are launched. Mr. Samad said limiting civilian casualties is critical to maintaining Afghan support.

"Casualties inadvertently caused by ISAF forces, as we have seen in the past few weeks, have a detrimental effect on the mission because they have the potential to weaken public support, which has so far been very strong but could be undermined," he said. "The insurgents and those who bring violence to us...are looking for the cracks in public support and for a loss of morale. That is what we should deny them."



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