Almost six years ago, U.S. and allied forces toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, paving the way for a pro-Western, interim government and the country’s first post-Taliban presidential elections. Throughout the war, however, there has been little focus — whether from government or watchdog groups — on its toll on the civilian population of Afghanistan.
Very few attempts at compiling annual estimates of insurgency-related civilian deaths have been made. The nature of the conflict makes data collection difficult and verification even more so. Figures are often at least partially based on secondary information — such as reports issued by government officials, the media, or other organizations working in Afghanistan — which can be difficult to corroborate. Consequently, the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan is uncertain, despite the recent proliferation of estimates.
According to what little information is available, U.S. and NATO-led forces appear to be responsible for a growing number of civilian deaths. Despite its reluctance to quantify the situation, the UN publicly reported on June 2, 2007, that its data indicates "the number of [civilian] deaths attributed to pro-government forcesmarginally exceeds that caused by anti-government forces."10
U.S. and NATO officials stress that insurgent fighters hide among the civilian population and use them as human shields, but the fact remains that, whatever the causes, this rising civilian death rate undermines the strategic goals of the United States and its allies. The growing perception that Western forces are unconcerned with and a direct threat to the safety of civilians makes the Afghan population less inclined to side with the West against the Taliban. Also, Afghans will be less likely to support a government seen as aiding or cooperating with Western forces. Hence, the recent statements by President Hamid Karzai reprimanding U.S. and NATO forces for their apparent disregard for Afghan civilian life. Tensions over the issue not only threaten the relationship between the Afghan and coalition governments, but among coalition members themselves as they debate an appropriate response to the mounting toll.
At the moment, U.S. and NATO forces seem unable or unwilling to adopt tactics less lethal to the civilian population. Expressions of regret and reiterations of respect by the military sound increasingly empty as U.S and NATO airstrikes continue to attack residential buildings believed to contain Taliban insurgents, but that time after time are found to also house civilians. An International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) spokeswoman was recently quoted as saying, "We are looking closely at our air operations, but it would not be something we would be looking to change at this point." She cited the limited number of troops available as a primary reason for maintaining the current role of air power in the conflict.21
The issue has spurred a number of groups and organizations to begin tallying Afghan civilians killed this year. The British Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG) estimated somewhere between 400 and 500 civilians were killed between January and the end of May 2007.22 The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) reports 452 civilian deaths during the same time period, 189 of which were caused by U.S. and NATO forces.23 As of June 23, the Associated Press counted 381 civilian deaths in 2007, 203 of which resulted from U.S. and NATO operations.24 The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief reported that pro-government forces were responsible for 230 civilian deaths in 2007.25 On July 3, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission figures for 2007: over 270 civilian deaths caused by international military operations out of a total of at least 540.26 A July 1 AP report cited a UN count of 593 total civilian deaths in 2007, 314 of which were caused by international or Afghan military action.27 The highest number of civilians killed in U.S. and NATO operations this year was reported by Dr. Marc Herold of New Hampshire University, who estimated somewhere between 388 and 523 deaths between Jan. 1 and June 22, 2007.28
Research revealed only two estimates of civilian deaths in the first three months of the war. Herold’s online database counts Afghan civilian casualties reported by the media. He estimates 2,567-2,947 civilians were killed in U.S. aerial bombings between Oct. 7 and Dec. 10, 2001.29 Carl Conetta, co-director of the Project for Defense Alternatives, a project that researches security policy and its challenges, estimates anywhere from 1,000 to 1,300 Afghan civilian deaths due to U.S. aerial bombardment between Oct. 7, 2001 and Jan. 10, 2002.30 Conetta attributes what appears to be a minimum of 3,000 additional civilian deaths to the impact of the conflict on the nation’s refugee and famine crises.31 The Herold and Conetta studies were based exclusively on media reports and are evidently the only attempts that have been made to quantify Afghan civilian deaths during the outbreak of war in 2001.
No annual estimates are currently available for the subsequent years 2002 through 2005, although Human Rights Watch and ANSO are reportedly in the process of back-cataloging information collected prior to 2006. In the organization’s January World Report 2007, Human Rights Watch asserts that the number of Afghans killed in insurgency-related violence in 2006, estimated in the report as at least 1,000, was "twice as many as in 2005 and more than any other year since the 2001 fall of the Taliban."32 A more detailed report released in April estimated at least 899 total insurgency-related civilian deaths, but described the figure as conservative.33 The estimate drew from a wide range of sources — the group’s own research and interviews, ANSO reports, media reports, statements by government officials, NGOs, and spokesmen of insurgent groups — and is arguably the most substantiated figure currently available for 2006.34
Amnesty International’s 2006 estimate of 1,000 insurgency-related civilian deaths was based on information provided in government documents and media reports.35 A BAAG employee gave an offhand estimate of about 1,000 as well.36 The International Committee of the Red Cross reported 670 civilian deaths in 2006.37 The figure is based on information provided by Afghan government officials.38
A number of other organizations started keeping track of insurgency-related civilian deaths in 2007. The Associated Press began compiling information collected and reported by staff writers to calculate its own tallies. Also, in a May 28, 2007, press briefing, Chief of Human Rights at the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan Richard Bennett announced the development of a civilian casualties database. He warned, however, that much of the information available is "second- or third-hand" and, thus, unverified.39 UN officials have recently avoided issuing public estimates, emphasizing the difficulties involved in collecting and corroborating information. A UNAMA official explained that UN numbers recently reported by AP were never intended for public release, as they represent only a rough estimate. The real count, he speculated, is likely to be higher.40
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is also tracking civilian deaths, apparently through its medical facilities, but a press officer warned that their numbers "might not be entirely accurate." ISAF does not release estimates to the public.41 NATO accounts of civilians killed in individual incidents are often inconsistent with estimates from Afghan officials. For example, a NATO spokesman was quoted in a July 2, 2007, New York Times article regarding recent airstrikes in Helmand Province as saying, "we want to make it clear that we at this point believe the numbers [of civilians killed in the incident] are a dozen or less." Afghan officials, however, reported that the strikes resulted in 45 civilian deaths. Elsewhere in the province, barely three days earlier, Afghan officials reported up to 60 civilians killed in fighting and U.S.-led airstrikes. A NATO spokesman said that the military could not confirm "numbers that large" and issued an often-used statement about enemy fighters willingly endangering civilian lives. A U.S. government news release acknowledged that some civilians were killed in the attacks but did not include an estimated number. 42
When questioned about whether or not the Department of Defense (DOD) maintains any records of Afghan civilian deaths, a DOD official stated that they maintain documentation on U.S. military personnel only.43 The British Ministry of Defence replied similarly to an inquiry under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2000, stating that it "does not maintain records that would enable a definitive number of civilian fatalities to be recorded."44 Though figures issued by local Afghan officials are often cited in the media, it is unclear whether the Afghan government keeps centralized records of civilian casualties, which would enable it to issue annual estimates.
The difficulties in collecting accurate information on civilian casualties in Afghanistan have been compounded by the fact that only recently has the issue been given the attention it deserves. The first annual estimates that attempt to include all insurgency-related civilian deaths came out in 2007 for the previous year, leaving five years during which the U.S. and Afghan governments, human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations, and the media did not provide the information to the public. This year’s increased efforts to monitor the situation and to review conditions in the past may reflect on the fact that more civilians are becoming casualties of the war; hopefully, this also shows an increased awareness of the issue’s serious implications for the war’s ultimate outcome. The failure of those supporting the Karzai government — particularly the U.S. government and NATO — to collect or make information on the issue public suggests a refusal to acknowledge the negative impacts this war is having on Afghanistan, and perhaps, the grave direction it’s headed.
ELIZA SZABO is a research associate at the Center for Defense Information.
1. Based on estimates of civilian casualties caused by PRG and AGF, "Afghanistan: Civilians complain about impact of fighting on their lives," Integrated Regional Information Networks, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, July 3, 2007.
2. Based on estimates of civilian casualties caused by PGF and AGF between December 22, 2006 and May 30, 2007, Nic Lee, ANSO Project Director. (2007) Email correspondence with Elise Szabo, June 14, 2007.
3. Amnesty International Report 2007, Afghanistan.
4. January 2007-June 23, 2007, Fisnik Abrashi, AP reporter. (2007) Telephone conversation with Elise Szabo, June 25, 2007.
5. Rough estimate, Abdul Basir, BAAG Project Manager. (2007) Telephone conversation with Elise Szabo, June 14, 2007.
6. Rough estimate, Abdul Basir, BAAG Project Manager. (2007) Telephone conversation with Elise Szabo, June 14, 2007.
7. Based on estimates of civilian casualties caused by PGF and AGF, "The Human Cost: The Consequences of Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan," 19, no. 6 (April 2007), Human Rights Watch.
8. "Afghanistan: three decades of war and no end in sight," International Committee of the Red Cross press briefing, June 12, 2007.
9. Associated Press, "Afghan Violence Numbers," Guardian Unlimited, July 1, 2007..
10. Press briefing by Nilab Mabarez, UNAMA National Press Officer and Adrian Edwards, Spokesperson for the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and UN agencies in Afghanistan, July 2, 2007.
11. Table 2 includes only those groups found reporting a breakdown of civilian casualties in 2007.
12. "Afghanistan: Civilians complain about impact of fighting on their lives," Integrated Regional Information Networks, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, July 3, 2007.
14. December 22, 2006 and May 30, 2007, Nic Lee, ANSO Project Director. (2007) Email correspondence with Elise Szabo, June 14, 2007.
16. "Protecting Afghan Civilians: Statement on the Conduct of Military Operations." Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, June 19, 2007.
17. January 2007-June 23, 2007, Fisnik Abrashi, AP reporter. (2007) Telephone conversation with Elise Szabo, June 25, 2007.
19. Associated Press, "Afghan Violence Numbers," Guardian Unlimited, July 1, 2007.
21. "Use of air power in Afghanistan unlikely to change: NATO," Daily Times, June 28, 2007.
22. Abdul Basir, BAAG Project Manager. (2007) Telephone conversation with Elise Szabo, June 14, 2007
23. Nic Lee, ANSO Project Director. (2007) Email correspondence with Elise Szabo, June 14, 2007.
24. Fisnik Abrashi, AP reporter. (2007) Telephone conversation with Elise Szabo, June 25, 2007.
25. "Protecting Afghan Civilians: Statement on the Conduct of Military Operations." Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, June 19, 2007.
26. "Afghanistan: Civilians complain about impact of fighting on their lives," Integrated Regional Information Networks, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, July 3, 2007.
27. "Afghan Violence Numbers," Guardian Unlimited, July 1, 2007.
28. Marc Herold, e-mail correspondence with Elise Szabo, June 24, 2007.
29. Marc Herold, "Appendix 4. Daily Casualty Count of Afghan Civilians Killed by U.S. Bombing and Special Forces Attacks, October 7 until present day."
30. Carl Conetta, "Strange Victory: A critical appraisal of Operation Enduring Freedom and the Afghanistan War," Project on Defense Alternatives Research Monograph #6, January 30, 2002.
32. World Report 2007.
33. "The Human Cost: The Consequences of Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan," 19, no. 6 (April 2007), Human Rights Watch (26 June 2007).
35. Afghanistan Researcher at Amnesty International, telephone conversation with Elise Szabo, June 26, 2007.
36. Abdul Basir, Project Manager of BAAG. (2007) Telephone conversation with Elise Szabo, June 14, 2007.
37. "Afghanistan: three decades of war and no end in sight," International Committee of the Red Cross press briefing, June 12, 2007.
38. Carla Haddad, Media Relations Officer at International Committee of the Red Cross. (2007) Telephone conversation with Elise Szabo, 20 June
39. "Afghanistan: Press briefing by Aleem Siddique, UNAMA Spokesperson’s Office along with Richard Bennet, Chief UNAMA Human Rights 28 May 2007," Relief Web, June 26, 2007.
40. Aleem Siddique, Senior Public information Officer at UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Telephone conversation with Elise Szabo, July 10, 2007.
41. Lt. Col. Billings, Press Officer at International Security Assistance Force headquarters, e-mail correspondence with Elise Szabo, June 14, 2007.
42. "Afghan Civilians Said Killed in Clash," Washington Post, June 30, 2007.
43. Janice Ramseur, Public Affairs Officer at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense American Forces Information Services, e-mail correspondence with Elise Szabo, July 7, 2007.
44. Claire Greenaway, responding on behalf of information holders at the British Ministry of Defense (2007), e-mail response to request for information by Elise Szabo under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, June 27, 2007.