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Fixed Numbers

U.N. Tally Excluded Most Afghan Civilian Deaths in Night Raids

by GARETH PORTER and SHAH NOORI

Washington DC/ Kabul

A July United Nations report asserting that only 30 civilians died in targeted raids in Afghanistan  during the first six months of 2011 reflected only a very small  fraction of night raids in which civilians were killed, according to  officials of the independent Afghan commission which had co-produced  the 2010 report on civilian casualties with the U.N. Mission.

The report on civilian casualties by the United Nations Assistance  Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) attributed 80 percent of the 1,462  civilian deaths it counted during the six-month period to the Taliban  – mostly from improvised explosive devices – and only 14 percent of  them to “Pro-Government Forces”.

The report credited the U.S.-NATO military command with reducing  civilian casualties in night raids during the six-month period by 15  per cent compared with the same period last year.

But officials of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission,  which collaborated with UNAMA on its 2010 civilian casualties report,  told IPS that the number of night raids that UNAMA investigated in  some fashion could only have been a very small proportion of the total  number of targeted raids with civilian casualties.

A leading official of the independent commission has also objected  publicly to UNAMA’s exclusion from the total in last year’s report of  most of the allegations of civilian deaths in raids that had been  brought to its attention.

The AIHRC officials, who have personal experience on the issue of  civilian casualties from night raids, told IPS that most night raids  are carried out in districts that are dominated by the Taliban. In  those districts, people are not able to file complaints and usually  are not even aware of any opportunity to do so, the sources said.

The AIHRC sources requested anonymity because they are not authorized  to talk to the news media about the matter.

In Helmand province, the raids are believed to be concentrated in the  districts where the Taliban are strongest, such as Baghran, Baghni,  Sangin and Nahr-e-Saraj, the sources explained. The same is true for  Kandahar, Zabul, Uruzgan and other southern and eastern provinces  where the Taliban has a strong presence, the AIHRC sources said.

The commission received only nine complaints directly from families of  those who had been killed or injured in a night raid during the first  six months of 2011, according to the AIHRC sources.

In fact, the commission gets most of its information about civilian  casualties in night raids not from complaints from people in the area  where the raids take place but from talking with people in detention,  the sources said.

But that information is fragmentary, according to the sources, because  the commission has access to only a fraction of the detainees in the  Afghan prison system, and because the detainees themselves are only  aware of some of the cases.

UNAMA has seven regional offices, but travel and contact between those  offices and the districts in which the Taliban are strongest are  limited.

Daphne Eviatar, who has monitored human rights in Afghanistan for the  U.S.-based group Human Rights First, agreed with the assessment that  the families of victims in many districts would be unlikely to file  complaints about civilian casualties from night raids.

“I’m not sure who they would complain to,” said Eviatar.

UNAMA’s six-month report conceded that, “Given both limitations  associated with the operating environment and limited access to  information, UNAMA may be under-reporting the night raids involving  civilian casualties.”

In a February 2011 interview with researchers on a study by the Open  Society Foundations and The Liaison Office, an unnamed “international  human rights monitor” went even further. The unnamed individual  admitted to “underreporting of night raids because many of the areas  in which they took place are inaccessible and the civilians are  difficult to verify.”

UNAMA is the only international entity that has been reporting totals  of civilian casualties in night raids. The UNAMA report for the first six months indicates that the NATO-led  International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had refused repeatedly  to provide information on the number of night raids it had carried  out.

Nevertheless, figures provided by ISAF to the Washington Post and to  blogger Bill Roggio show a total of 2,020 targeted raids in the six-  month period from early May through early November 2010, killing  roughly 2,000 “insurgents”.

U.S. military officers also told the researchers for the Open  Societies Foundation study that shots had been fired in only 20  per cent of night raids. That would mean that 2,000 people were killed  in just over 400 raids in which shots were fired during the six months  — an average of five people per shooting incident.

The vast majority of night raids target a single individual. So the  available statistics on night raids suggest that the vast majority of  those killed in the raids had not been targeted.

UNAMA acknowledged in the report that ISAF does not apply the same  definition of “civilian” based on international humanitarian law that  UNAMA applies in counting civilian casualties.

U.S. Special Forces officers belonging to a unit that had killed nine  election workers along with a former Taliban insurgent they had  mistakenly believed was the Taliban shadow governor of Takhar province  in September 2010 told former BBC reporter Kate Clark last December  that anyone found in the company of a person who is targeted is  regarded as an insurgent as well.

The very broad definition of “insurgent” used by ISAF in releasing  figures on the number killed in night raids, along with statistics on  raids coming from ISAF itself, suggests that most of those killed in  night raids would be considered civilians under international  humanitarian law criteria.

UNAMA would not allow IPS to interview the head of its human rights  office, Georgette Gagnon, about the 2011 report, even though she had  told IPS she could do an interview during the week of Aug. 22.

In responses to questions e-mailed by IPS, however, Gagnon said that  UNAMA had investigated a total of 89 night raids in which casualties  had been alleged, and that it had rejected the allegations of civilian  deaths in 58 of those cases.

AIHRC and UNAMA, which co-produced the 2010 report, had clashed over  UNAMA’s decision to put the number of civilian deaths in night raids  at 82 in that report.

Nader Nadery, a commissioner of the AIHRC, revealed in an interview  with us  after the report was published that UNAMA had based the  figure of 82 deaths on only 13 night raids in which the civilian  deaths had been verified to UNAMA’s satisfaction. Nadery said the  total had excluded alleged civilian deaths in 60 other raids.

UNAMA did not partner with AIHRC in producing the 2011 six-month report.

In a recent interview with IPS, Nadery estimated that 462 civilian  deaths had occurred in all of the night raids in 2010 about which the  commission had obtained some information.

The latest report’s methodological section confirms that alleged  civilian deaths are not included in UNAMA’s total if the civilian  status of any of the victims in an incident is uncertain.

Gagnon told IPS that said the mission’s decisions on such cases “are  based on firsthand accounts for the vast majority of the incidents  investigated”.  She would not say, however, how many of the decisions  to reject allegations were made on the basis of eyewitness accounts.

Gagnon also acknowledged that ISAF and Afghan officials had challenged  some allegations, but would not reveal how many of the allegations  that had been rejected fell into that category.

Gareth Porter  is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam“, was published in 2006.

Shah Noori reported from Afghanistan.