Afghan Tragedy

Published : Jul 03, 2009 00:00 IST

A TACIT agreement operates between the Obama administration, the United States corporate media, most progressive U.S. liberals, and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA). All dream to a lesser or greater degree of a future social democratic paradise in Afghanistan where schools for girls would be flourishing and small farmers would be exporting pomegranates.{+1} Some debate exists over the means to achieve this end. Much ado has been made during the past five months as to whether or not President Barack Obamas approach to Afghanistan differs from that of his predecessor George W. Bush.

What is certain is that Afghanistan has become Obamas war.{+2} Words matter: this is Obamas war and it is a military surge. Obama has put in motion a surge of U.S. occupation troops, raising them by 50 per cent to a level of 55,000 by mid-summer 2009 (including a 1,000-strong contingent of Special Forces). He is continuing and expanding Bushs use of mercenaries. Pentagon data indicate that private security contractors working for the Pentagon have risen by 29 per cent during the first quarter of 2009.{+3}

A debate centres upon to what degree the Obama approach is one of counter-terrorism (CT) or counter-insurgency (COIN). Central to the latter is the metric of civilian casualties and this is where the U.S. media by commission and UNAMA by omission enter the evolving Afghan tragedy. Much of the U.S. Left, by having earlier proclaimed that the Afghanistan war was the good war and being inebriated by the nation-building of humanitarian imperialism, is now suffering from a bipolar disorder, rendering it irrelevant.

With the sacking of General David McKiernan and the entry of General Stanley A. McChrystal (along with the continuing prominence of counter-insurgency aficionado David Kilcullen), Obama appears to tilt towards the COIN approach in Afghanistan. Put in other terms, the approach is population-centric rather than military-centric. Gen. McChrystal stated in congressional testimony that the measure of American and allied effectiveness would be the number of Afghans shielded from violence, not the number of enemies killed.{+4} He also said, This is a critical point. It may be the critical point. This is a struggle for the support of the Afghan people. Our willingness to operate in ways that minimise casualties or damage, even when doing so makes our task more difficult, is essential to our credibility. I cannot overstate my commitment to the importance of this concept. Sir, I believe the perception caused by civilian casualties is one of the most dangerous things we face in Afghanistan, particularly with the Afghan people, the Pashtun most likely.{+5}

His approach hence is classic COIN, rather than focussing forcefully on taking the fight to the Taliban and its associates (military-centric). Naturally, the COIN strategy, if successful by providing better actionable intelligence, enables better carrying out of the military fight against insurgents. This strategy finds favour both in Hamid Karzais Kabul (to which yet more monies will flow) and in European capitals where the military-centric approach is unacceptable. The new U.S. strategy, which, it turns out, is not new at all, involves building up the Afghan military-police apparatus, pressuring the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to take a greater role, employing precision strikes to avoid civilian casualties, and so on. All this was tried under Bush and failed. Why should we expect anything different under Obama? But what is new is the metric of Afghan civilian casualties. This was well expressed in an editorial of The Boston Globe:

McChrystal and the new number two commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, must make one tenet in their guerilla warfare playbook an absolute priority: protection of the civilian population. The Taliban are reaping benefits from a dynamic that should be familiar from other guerilla wars. When Taliban fighters stage an ambush, U.S. forces frequently feel compelled to call in air strikes or artillery fire. And all too often, as happened last week, innocent Afghan villagers are hurt or killed. The inevitable outcome is widespread anger against the foreign army. This is what Afghan President Hamid Karzai lamented again and again last week during a visit to Washington. He begged Americans to stop killing Afghan civilians. What Karzai knows, and what McChrystal must take to heart, is that nearly all Afghans despise and fear the Taliban. Yet no U.S. strategy can defeat the Taliban unless the foreigners become protectors not destroyers of Afghan families.{+6}

An editorial in The New York Times of June 8 added:

Protecting Afghan civilians and expanding the secure space in which they can go about their lives and livelihoods must now become the central purpose of American military operations in Afghanistan.{+7}

As pointed out by Jeff Huber, the McChrystal metric of winning the number of Afghans shielded from violence is nonsense. How many shielded Afghans will equate to victory? Who is going to shield them?{+8} McChrystal, who was head of secretive Joint Special Operations Command, involved in widespread murder and carnage across Afghanistan? In other words, under the McChrystal metric, it will be impossible to know when we have won. This is an invitation to war without end.

While it is not my purpose here to critique the feasibility of protecting civilians and whether such ever was U.S. policy indeed I argued exactly the contrary in December 2001{+9} a few words are imperative. Protecting the civilian population requires a massive and prolonged U.S./NATO presence in the countryside, but as I have argued elsewhere, this would require around 400,000 foreign troops.{+1}{+0} The Obama surge is obvious: to give Afghans enough space to rebuild their lives{+1}{+1}; but it is far too little, too late.{+1}{+2} Establishing such a presence necessitates clearing areas of the Taliban and its associates, but if many of the Taliban cadre are residents of these regions, then such clearing must take the form of population removal to fortified strategic villages (as in Vietnam).{+1}{+3} Moreover, such clearing, carried out with admittedly very poor on-the-ground actionable intelligence, will perforce kill many innocents (which, as I demonstrate below, has precisely occurred under the Obama clock). In other words, the U.S. and NATO are caught in a catch-22 situation.

The metric of civilian casualties has two dimensions: the one on the ground in Afghanistan and the other on how Obamas war gets reported outside Afghanistan. In Afghanistan today, word spreads very quickly about civilians killed by U.S. and/or NATO actions. The foreign forces constantly lament the effectiveness of so-called Taliban propaganda. The presence of cellphone technology has greatly facilitated such diffusion. No way exists to contain the spread of such information within Afghanistan.{+1}{+4}

Things look very different as regards how Obamas Afghan war gets reported outside Afghanistan. Given the new metric of civilian casualties, the U.S. government is going to greater lengths to manage the news coming out of Afghanistan. As is widely acknowledged, the U.S. corporate (non-right-wing) media are having a love affair with the Obama administration.{+1}{+5} This is obvious as regards matters of foreign policy, of the Pentagon and all the more so of Central Asia.

It is no secret that Obama has taken over the U.S. peace movement.{+1}{+6} For example, John Podestas liberal think tank, the Centre for American Progress (CAP), strongly supports Obamas escalation or surge in Afghanistan and Pakistan. today serves as a full-time cheerleader for Obamas policy agenda and is at best silent on Obamas Afghan surge. More importantly, the established corporate media are largely silent about the continuing devastation perpetrated upon Afghan civilians by the Obama Afghan war. Only when a thoroughly egregious attack takes place as in Farah in early May 2009, when 97-147 civilians perished under U.S. precision bombs, is a mention made. A British newspaper (not The Washington Post or its equivalents) published a photo of what happened on the ground when a 2,000-pound bomb exploded.{+1}{+7} A B-1B bomber dropped two such bombs on a string of villages in Farah province on May 5 with devastating results.{+1}{+8} This is precision? The effective casualty radius for such a bomb (meaning 50 per cent of exposed persons within this range will die) is at least 400 metres from impact point.

Facts on the ground reveal that under Obama since January, more bombs are being dropped contra the administrations public relations. Bruce Rolfsen reports in The Navy Times:

Air Force, Navy and other coalition warplanes dropped a record number of bombs in Afghanistan during April, Air Force Centrals figures show. In the past month, warplanes released 438 bombs, the most ever. April also marked the fourth consecutive month that the number of bombs dropped rose, after a decline starting last July. The munitions were released during 2,110 close-air support sorties. The actual number of air strikes was higher because the AFCent numbers dont include attacks by helicopters and special operations gunships. The numbers also dont include strafing runs or launches of small missiles.{+1}{+9}

One searches in vain in the U.S. mainstream press for reporting on all those bombs being dropped on Afghanistan. Vietnam-era enemy body counts are now officially back as part of the U.S. propaganda war.{+2}{+0} Even less is written on the concrete results other than the prolific references to eliminated militants of such bombing. Such is to be expected from a corporate media largely in tow by the Pentagon and the Obama regime. Naturally, exceptions exist, as for example the independent reporting by Chris Sands, the freelance journalist of Britain who has been working independently in Afghanistan since 2005.{+2}{+1} Sadly, for every Chris Sands there are dozens like Jason Straziuoso (Associated Press), Lara Logan (CBS 60 Minutes) or Laura King (Los Angeles Times) who serve as megaphones for the Pentagons version of events.

The U.S. militarys Jan. 31, 2009 Airpower Summary stated: In the Musa Qala area, a coalition aircraft bombed an anti-Afghan force compound with precision-guided munitions. A coalition ground commander had ordered the strike after enemy forces began shooting at his unit with small-arms fire and RPGs. How did this look from the ground? Four months after the U.S. air strike, Sands reported what had happened on that fateful day. He interviewed a 13-year-old girl, Ghrana, in a Kabul rehabilitation centre. Walking on crutches, Ghrana told Sands what had really taken place in Musa Qala when U.S. warplanes bombed an anti-Afghan compound killing and wounding many. Sands wrote:

She sounded neither angry nor particularly sad describing what happened during a journey to her sisters house in the south-western province of Helmand, one morning. I didnt hear any shooting or anything. Then I saw red-coloured bombs falling from the aeroplane, she said. Nine of her relatives were killed, including her mother. Ghrana lost her right leg and much of her left arm. In military parlance, she and her family were all collateral damage, an unfortunate, but inevitable, consequence of war. Each day that goes by they are joined by other men, women and children caught in a struggle that many Afghans say is more brutal than anything in their countrys history. Exactly why Ghrana and her family were bombed in Musa Qala district three and a half months ago may never become clear. She insists there were no Taliban fighters in the area at the time and there is no obvious reason why her family was confused for insurgents.

Whatever the events were that led to the bombing, the results have been devastating. In a remote and violent part of one of the worlds poorest countries, she must now try to find decent medical treatment and piece her life back together. Meanwhile, her remaining relatives pray for the day when the foreign troops finally withdraw from their country. It will be like Eid for us, said her uncle, Ahmed Abed, a polite 32-year-old who brought his niece to Kabul. The Americans know who is a Talib and who is innocent, but they dont care. If it is a Talib or a girl, they dont care. They are crazy. Its like they are blinded by love. If anyone comes in front of their face, they shoot them. They never care who it is. I can accept that airplanes make mistakes, but I have seen with my own eyes them fire from a vehicle at a woman in the street. Mr. Abeds anger is common among Pashtuns, Afghanistans largest ethnic group. Predominant in the south and the east, many of them were naturally suspicious of the occupation. Now, with their homes in ruins and their futures more uncertain than ever, they are downright hostile.{+2}{+2}

This atrocity went unreported until Sands wrote his article in The National, an English language daily published from the United Arab Emirates, providing evidence that the figures cited in the Afghan Victim Memorial Project are a significant underestimate of the true toll taken upon innocent Afghan civilians by the U.S. and NATO foreign forces.

Another exception is Dexter Filkins of The New York Times, who in February penned an article titled Afghan Civilian Casualties Rose 40 Percent in 2008.{+2}{+3} Filkins relied upon overall figures provided by UNAMA in a report released in February but complemented those with valuable case detail. The UNAMA report was certainly a healthy antidote to the NATO propaganda, which blithely asserted in January 2009 that only 973 civilians were killed and only 97 by international forces during 2008.

But can we confidently rely upon such UNAMA figures? UNAMA will apparently be releasing new figures for 2009 this month.{+2}{+4} UNAMA itself concedes that it is not engaged in body counting in Afghanistan. The reasons cited include inaccessibility to many areas of conflict and a lack of adequate human resource to carry out such work.{+2}{+5} Further scepticism is warranted as UNAMA refuses to publish disaggregated data, which would allow fact-checking. In effect, we are asked to believe in UNAMA figures. But, such amounts to faith-based counting.

Table 1 and the chart present the evolving matrix of death for Afghan civilians, 2005-09. The rows represent different counts: Herold; UNAMA; Human Rights Watch (HRW); the Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM); and the Afghan Ambassador to Australia (only 2008 figures){+2}{+6}{+.}

The U.N. data are for deaths caused by all pro-government forces. In order to make it comparable, I have assumed that 15 per cent of the civilian deaths were caused by Afghan forces, giving the revised figures. The chart converts the annual totals into monthly averages for each year. In order to better discern the evolution over time, the chart presents annualised monthly averages of Afghans who perished at the hands of the U.S. and its NATO allies. What emerges clearly is that for Afghan civilians, 2009 has been as deadly as the high point of 2007. The average monthly figure for 2009 is 90 innocent civilians killed; if we take just the Obama weeks (January 21-May 31), the figure rises to 96 (identical to the worst monthly average for 2007). In other words, by historical standards, the Obama regime fails on the metric of protecting innocent civilians from death at the hands of U.S. and NATO occupation forces.

Figures for the year 2008 are now available from UNAMA, NATO and Herold. Whereas UNAMA provides overall civilian casualty figures, my own work focusses only upon innocent Afghans killed by U.S./NATO actions. The NATO figure is sheer propaganda. Table 2 contrasts the compilations for civilians killed by U.S./NATO.

The compilations are not strictly comparable. UNAMA also includes civilians who perished at the hands of Afghan forces. In other words, one can safely assume that UNAMA captures only about 70 per cent of those counted by Herold.{+2}{+7} This serves to lessen U.S./NATO culpability and improve U.S./NATO performance on the metric of Afghans protected from violence.

How should one assess Obamas Afghan war on the basis of the metric of civilian casualties? The U.S. media and the U.S. Left are largely silent (the latter choosing to ignore data I have provided{+2}{+8}, choosing instead to rely upon questionable accounts by Human Rights Watch and UNAMA). The previously mentioned rise in U.S. air strikes augurs poorly. Table 3 presents data on civilians killed by U.S./NATO actions compiled from the Afghan Victim Memorial Project for 2009. It should be noted that the figures for the six months January-June 2008 (inclusive) were 278-343. Comparing this with the data for five months in the last row in Table 3 clearly demonstrates that even by the standards of the Bush administration, the Obama regime cares less about the well-being of Afghan civilians at least insofar as waging a clean war, that is, on the metric of civilian casualties, Obama fails.

What about the demographics of the Afghan dead? As I have long argued, well over one half of Afghan civilians killed by the U.S. and NATO forces were women and children (see Table 4). Of the civilians killed about whom demographics are known (70 per cent of the universe deaths), some 70 per cent were women and children under the Obama clock (January 21-May 31).{+2}{+9}

By disproportionately killing civilian women and children, the Obama regime has clearly failed on the metric of civilian casualties.

Frequently one reads commentary (no evidence provided) that air strikes are more deadly for civilians than ground raids. My database allows testing this hypothesis. Table 5 summarises the evidence for U.S. and NATO actions during 2009 that led to the killing of Afghan civilians.

The data clearly reveal that U.S./NATO air strikes in Afghanistan today are four to five times more deadly than ground raids.

Having inherited a war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration nonetheless had choices. Some, for instance persons such as Gilles Dorronsoro, argued that the very presence of foreign forces was inflaming the conflict and that what was called for was a scaling down of military action, focussing and exiting.{+3}{+0} Instead, the Obama team, which includes many members of the former Bush regime, decided to fight the good war in Afghanistan. In the past five months, the conflict has further escalated and promises to do more of the same.

By the announced metric of protecting Afghan civilians, the Obama team has failed miserably even more so than its predecessor. What is different is the public relations, which began with, in the words of Michael Stewart, Operation Redefinition.

One can redefine as much as one wants, but the reality for Afghans pursuing their daily lives has deteriorated as documented herein. Since taking office and assuming the position of Commander-in-Chief, Obama and his NATO allies have killed at the very least some 338-418 Afghan civilians (compared with 278-343 under the Bush clock in the first six months of 2008). In addition, deadly Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) drone attacks within Pakistan have continued since Obama took command. Of the 60 cross-border U.S. drone attacks upon Pakistan between January 14, 2006, and April 8, 2009,

Only 10 were able to hit their actual targets, killing 14 wanted Al Qaeda leaders, besides perishing 687 innocent Pakistani civilians. The success percentage of the U.S. predator strikes thus comes to not more than 6 per cent.{+3}{+1}

Simple arithmetic shows that in some 80 days in office, Obama has managed to raise the monthly average kill rate in drone attacks achieved by Bush from 32 during 2008 to 45 per month (for February-March 2009).

The Obama team might well heed the words of the Pakistani intelligence agent Colonel Iman, who after training at Fort Braggs Special Forces base oversaw the training camps for jehadis (including Mullah Omar) in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Iman told Christina Lamb (another fine independent British journalist) that he left Afghanistan in late 2001 and claimed he has not returned, but,

I can go any time on my old routes, even the Americans cannot stop me, but there is no need. He said, I have friends roaming all over there. At times they give me a call, they like to hear my voice. Im quite happy with the current situation because the Americans are trapped there. The Taliban will not win, but in the end the enemy will tire, like the Russians.{+3}{+2}

The former CIA station chief in Kabul, Graham Fuller, is emphatic that Obamas policies are aggravating the situation in Afghanistan (and Pakistan):

Only the withdrawal of American and NATO boots on the ground will begin to allow the process of near-frantic emotions to subside within Pakistan, and for the region to start to cool down. Pakistan is experienced in governance and is well able to deal with its own Islamists and tribalists under normal circumstances; until recently, Pakistani Islamists had one of the lowest rates of electoral success in the Muslim world.

But U.S. policies have now driven local nationalism, xenophobia and Islamism to combined fever pitch. As Washington demands that Pakistan redeem failed American policies in Afghanistan, Islamabad can no longer manage its domestic crisis.{+3}{+3}

3. Discussed in Michael Winship, The Privatization of Obamas War, Online Journal (June 8, 2009) at

6. New Strategy, New Commander, The Boston Globe (May 13, 2009) at com/bostonglobe/editorial_ opinion/editorials/articles/2009/05/13/ new_strategy_ new_commander/

8. Jeff Huber, Our McMan in Bananastan, (June 8, 2009) at

9. Where I wrote, I believe the argument goes deeper and that race enters the calculation. The sacrificed Afghan civilians are not white, whereas the overwhelming number of U.S. pilots and elite ground troops are white. This reality serves to amplify the positive benefit-cost ratio of certainly sacrificing darker Afghans today [and Indochinese, Iraqis yesterday] for the benefit of probably saving American soldier-citizens tomorrow. What I am saying is that when the other is non-white, the scale of violence used by the U.S. government to achieve its state objectives at minimum cost knows no limits. See my A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Accounting [revised], (March 2002) at

10. See my What do Obamas First 100 Days Mean to Common Afghans? op. cit.

14. See Jason Motlagh, After Gunfire, U.S., Taliban Swing PR Cudgel, ABC News (May 16, 2009) at

16. Well-analysed in Justin Raimundo, Progressive Warmongers, (April 7, 2009) at

18. See my account on the Afghan Victim Memorial Project database at,%202009.pdf

20. Michael M. Phillips, Army Deploys Old Tactic in PR War, Wall Street Journal (June 1, 2009) at

24. Mentioned in Adam B. Ellick, Uncertainty Clouds British Report of Taliban Leaders Death, The New York Times (June 3, 2009)

26. From Brendan Nicholson, Australian Troops Kill 5 Afghan Children, The Age (February 14, 2009)

27. The 2008 mid-point figures for Herold is 939. I assume that 20 per cent of the deaths caused by pro-government forces were caused by Afghan forces, then the adjusted UNAMA figure is 662 (which is about 70 per cent of 939).

30. Gilles Dorronsoro, Focus and Exit: An Alternative Strategy for the Afghan War, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report (January 2009) at

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