Deadly change

Published : Feb 27, 2009 00:00 IST



THE first Afghan civilian killed by United States/North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (U.S./NATO) action in the New Year was a boy named Marjan, killed on January 2.1 He had allegedly wandered into a prohibited area in the Deh-Sabz district of Kabul. Marjan was walking home with friends when international forces gunned him down. The occupation soldiers got out of a white vehicle, shot him and sped away.

Marjan is only one of 73 to 88 civilian Afghans or tribal Pashtuns killed by the U.S/NATO occupation forces during January 2009. Three days after he was killed, eight Afghan women, two children and two men were killed by Australian forces in the Chora district of Uruzgan Province.

Much official ado has been made in Washington D.C. and in the U.S. corporate press about how the new administration will be taking far greater care to avoid civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Data analysed for January 2009 suggest that the deadliness of the Afghan war for civilians under the Obama clock significantly exceeds that registered under the outgoing Bush regime. Boys, women, girls, tribal leaders all have perished at the hands of the occupiers.

In January 2009, as many as 12 actions by U.S/NATO forces (including one road accident where an MRAP military armoured vehicle crushed an Afghan civilian car) resulted in 73 to 88 civilian deaths. Among the dead were five Pashtuns killed in a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan. Table 1 presents the details. Simple arithmetic reveals that the 11 days under the Obama clock were 18-50 per cent more deadly for Afghan civilians than the 20 days under the Bush regime.

Table 2 presents an analysis of the types of incident involved. Whereas seven or eight civilians are killed in each ground attack, air strikes kill between six and nine civilians.2 In other words, air strikes are not necessarily more deadly to civilians than ground attacks. Air strikes are proving less effective, too, as Afghan resistance fighters shift tactics to dodge the air strikes.3

Data for January 2009 conform to early civilian casualty data for 2001 if one goes by the number of deaths per attack relatively few civilian deaths in each attack.4 Of the 12 incidents in January, only four resulted in more than 10 deaths.

The centrality of the long-standing information war over what is really happening in Afghanistan takes on heightened importance with the election of Barack Obama. Each side in the conflict the Taliban and its allies and the U.S. with its NATO allies has a direct interest in spinning the news to its own advantage. Both sides do this on a daily basis. On January 27, 2009, CBS News admitted as much in a piece titled U.S. fights information war with Taliban.5

The concluding sentence read, U.S. success in this complex war depends as much on controlling the message as deploying the guns. For over three years, the U.S. has been devoting considerable resources to its information war.6

The centrepiece of this information war has become the extent of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Recognising that the U.S/NATO combine and the Taliban each has a direct interest in spinning the message with respect to the extent, gender and age of civilian casualties to its own advantage, it is necessary to adopt a healthy scepticism regarding the claims from both sides. Greater credence can be given to sources that are more independent, for instance, Pahjwok Afghan News, Agence France Presse, the Afghan Human Rights Commission, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), and the like, rather than the more partisan ones such as Associated Press, Human Rights Watch, UNAMA, Jihad Unspun, and so on. The Afghan Victim Memorial database attempts to navigate safely, or, as accurately as possible, in this sea of conflicting assertions.

The number of air strikes has been decreasing from the last third of 2008.7 On the other hand, recent deadly night-time raids by the U.S. Special Forces (President Obama has stated he will rely more upon such raids 8.) have angered Afghans. Even Associated Press admitted that three recent U.S. Special Forces operations killed 50 people the vast majority civilians.9

In December 2008, U.S. Special Forces killed at least six Afghan policemen and injured another 13.10 A report published by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission castigated foreign forces ground attacks in Kandahar Province.11 The report noted: The combination of abusive behaviour and violent breaking and entry into civilians homes in the middle of the night stokes almost as much anger and resentment toward pro-government forces as the more lethal air strikes.

Afghan villagers reactions to the U.S/NATO strikes may be viewed on a rare video put out by Al Jazeera on January 27, called U.S. raid fuels Afghan anger.

Increasingly, we find independent analysts asking whether Afghanistan is going to be Obamas Iraq.12 An even more prescient view has been recently articulated by Gwynne Dyer, author of War. The Lethal Custom, who argues that Obama is on the verge of going down in history the LBJ way.13

There is not a lot in common between President John F. Kennedy and President George W. Bush, but they were both ideological crusaders who got the U.S. mired in foreign wars it could not win and did not need to win. They then bequeathed those wars to Presidents who had ambitious reform agendas in domestic politics and little interest or experience in foreign affairs. That bequest destroyed Lyndon B. Johnson, who took the rotten advice of the military and civilian advisers he inherited from Kennedy because there was not much else on offer in Washington at the time.

Obama is drifting into the same dangerous waters, and the rotten advice he is getting from strategists who believe in the war on terror could do him in, too.

1. Dead Body of Boy Killed by Foreign Forces Laid to Rest by Mohammad Norman; Pahjwok Afghan News (January 3, 2009).

4. See Marc W. Herolds original dossier, A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Accounting [revised], (March 2002) at

7. See Strikes in Afghanistan Decline as Flights Rise by Bruce Rolfsen; Air Force Times (November 19, 2008).

9. Afghans Threaten U.S. Troops over Civilian Deaths. Angry Afghans Threaten U.S. Troops after Special Forces Raids Kill Civilians by Jason Straziuoso; AP News (January 31, 2009)

10. Afghan Police Killed Mistakenly by U.S. Special Forces by Jason Straziuoso; Associated Press (December 10, 2008).

13. Obama Risks Going Down in History (the LBJ Way) by Gwynne Dyer; The Canberra Times (January 29, 2009) at

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