Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Who is killing Afghan civilians? - A reality check

The UN mission in Kabul just released a report on Afghan civilian casualties during the first 6 months of 2010. Compare the last two figures in the following quotation (I've bolded them):
UN human rights workers recorded 1,271 civilians deaths over the period and 1,997 injuries. Of that total of 3,268, insurgent forces were responsible for 2,477 casualties, while Nato and Afghan government forces accounted for 386.
Overall, there has been "a 31 per cent increase in conflict-related Afghan civilian casualties in the first six months of 2010 compared with the same period in 2009," including a 55% increase in killed and injured children. But this increase is entirely due to the Taliban. In fact, "[c]asualties attributed to Pro-Government Forces (PGF) fell 30 per cent during the same period," due primarily to a new policy of limiting the use of air strikes. Casualties attributable to the Taliban, on the other hand, have escalated dramatically.
Analysis by UNAMA Human Rights Unit identified two critical developments that increased harm to civilians in the first six months of 2010 compared to 2009: AGEs [i.e., Anti-Government Elements] used a greater number of larger and more sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) throughout the country; and, the number of civilians assassinated and executed by AGEs rose by more than 95 per cent and included public executions of children.
(More detailed statistics here.)

=> Of course, some people will respond that there would be no war in Afghanistan, and thus no civilian deaths, if the US had not invaded the country in 2001 and overthrown the Taliban. Thus, even the deaths of children executed by the Taliban are ultimately the fault of the US and its NATO allies, and the solution is to "end the war" by pulling out US/NATO troops.

Such people would be wrong. Before the 2001 US invasion, Afghans had already experienced two decades of uninterrupted warfare on a catastrophic scale, including a devastating civil war during the 1990s that culminated in the takeover of most of Afghanistan by one of most viciously repressive, reactionary, and stultifying regimes on earth. During that period, over a million Afghans died and millions more fled the country as refugees. After 2001, millions of those refugees came back home. As bad as conditions have been in Afghanistan since 2001, even since the renewed upsurge in armed conflict since around 2005, it is simply undeniable that the levels of death, destruction, and general misery were much higher during the 1980s or the 1990s. (Even the rates of infant mortality have fallen dramatically since the overthrow of the Taliban regime--from horrifying to merely awful.)

Furthermore, it is worth remembering that when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, it intervened in an ongoing civil war. If US/NATO forces abandoned Afghanistan tomorrow, that would not mean an end to warfare in Afghanistan. Instead, the almost certain consequence would be a continuation of civil war along the lines of the 1990s. That's especially probable since support for the Taliban is almost exclusively limited to the Pashtuns, who constitute around 40% of the Afghan population, or about 12 million, plus another 25 million or so across the border in Pakistan. It is by no means clear that most Afghan Pashtuns would actually like to see a return of the Taliban regime, and considerable evidence suggests otherwise. But all serious analysts seem to agree that the non-Pashtun 60% of Afghans--Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and so on--overwhelmingly fear and oppose a restoration of Taliban rule and would resist it violently and tenaciously. And all sides would undoubtedly get aid and support from regional powers.

In short, people who try to pretend or insinuate that war and civilian suffering in Afghanistan began with the 2001 US invasion, and that pulling out US/NATO troops is equivalent to "ending the war" in Afghanistan, are not being intellectually or morally honest. (Andrew Exum and Spencer Ackerman are among those who have made this point especially well.)

So if the Taliban are killing large numbers of Afghan civilians (often, perhaps mostly, in ways that blatantly violate the laws of war), who should bear the blame for those deaths? Sophistry aside, the plain fact is that they are the responsibility of the Taliban (and of their foreign supporters, not least in Pakistan's security services).

=> A position like Andrew Sullivan's may or may not be correct, but at least he faces up honestly to the moral dilemmas involved, including the probable human costs if the US and its allies abandon Afghanistan:
[T]he vast majority of child murders are by the Taliban [....] I still favor withdrawal as soon as possible. I do not in any way discount the moral price. If I thought there was any way to win, my calculus might change. But I don't. And we're broke. And evil like this occurs tragically every day all over the world. The art of politics and warfare is the art of the possible within certain limits. We've reached them - and then some. It gives me no pleasure to say this, and my heart is torn. But politics is not the art of the heart in the end. It's the art of the mind.
Is it really that clear that further US/NATO involvement in Afghanistan is, realistically, a hopeless project? I'm not so sure. But that's a matter for a separate discussion. If Americans, Canadians, and Europeans decide it is in our interests to pull the plug on US/NATO involvement in Afghanistan, so be it. (I am not convinced by that position, but serious and plausible arguments can be made to support it.) However, we shouldn't pretend that we would be doing the Afghans a favor.

Meanwhile, even people who believe there are good reasons to favor a US/NATO abandonment of Afghanistan should face up honestly to the probable human costs of that policy and the moral dilemmas involved.

=> Norman Geras has usefully pulled together several recent reports, including this UN study, that highlight what is at stake for Afghans in this conflict. See below.

—Jeff Weintraub

Norman Geras (Normblog)
August 10, 2010
Taliban talk

Further to these recent posts, there's this today from behind the Times paywall:
A pregnant widow was flogged and killed in public after being convicted of adultery by the Taleban in a grim reminder of the militant group's six-year rule of Afghanistan.

The woman, named as Bibi Sanubar, was given more than 200 lashes before being shot in the head three times, police said...

Mullah Daoud, a senior Taleban commander contacted by The Times, said he sat on the panel that convicted the woman in a remote area of Badghis province which is under militant control. "There were three mullahs that passed this verdict, I was one of them," he said. "We gave this decision so that in future no one should have these illegal affairs. We whipped her in front of all the local people to show them an example. Then we shot her."

Afghan police said the body of the woman, who was said to be between 35 [and] 45, was later dumped in an area under government control. "She was shot in the head in public while she was still pregnant," Ghulam Mohammad Sayeedi, the deputy police chief in Badghis, said.
And there's this from the Guardian:
The Taliban's increasing use of homemade bombs and political assassinations has been responsible for a 31% increase in the number of civilians who have been killed or injured in fighting in Afghanistan this year, the United Nations said today.

The UN's Kabul mission released data showing that even as the number of child [casualties] has soared by 55%, strict rules on the use of airpower by Nato troops has led to a 30% drop in the number of deaths and injuries caused by foreign forces in the first six months of this year, compared to the same period in 2009.

UN human rights workers recorded 1,271 civilians deaths over the period and 1,997 injuries. Of that total of 3,268 insurgent forces were responsible for 2,477 casualities, while Nato and Afghan government forces accounted for 386.

"These figures show that the Taliban are resorting to desperate measures, increasingly executing and assassinating civilians, including teachers, doctors, civil servants and tribal elders," said Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.
See also Shuggy here.