Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan: Beyond the Body Count

Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan: Beyond the Body Count

The United Nations announced on Tuesday that the rate of civilian casualties in Afghanistan is reaching an all-time high as the US-led occupiers escalate a war that has ravaged the country since 2001.

The report proves that the situation is getting worse for the people of Afghanistan amid allegations that coalition governments have attempted to cover up recent civilian massacres. The report tracks 2010 civilian casualties up to June 30, and does not include the consequences of escalated fighting during July.

The number of innocent people injured or killed during the past six months increased by 31 percent compared to the first half of 2009, according to the UN report. The rate of children killed in war is up 55 percent, with more than 565 killed or injured this year. The UN previously reported that 2009 was the deadliest year for civilians since the 2001 invasion, but 2010 has been bloodier, with more than 3,268 killed or injured so far.

“So, first consideration … and I have been carefully thinking about saying so, but it is the fact: the human cost of this conflict is unfortunately rising,” said Staffan de Mistura, a special UN representative to Afghanistan. “Civilian casualties are increasing substantially.”

The numbers are startling, but they are just numbers after all, simple digits pasted on the web and printed on the page. They do not compare to the stories told by Afghans who have survived the atrocities of war.

Mohamed Ahmadzai lives in a remote area of the Sangin district in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. He recently told independent reporters how he was forced to bury two daughters, his sister and wife among extended family members after a rocket fired by coalition forces hit a soft target: a house full of woman and children who had fled to a nearby village to avoid a firefight between the Taliban and coalition troops. His story describes a struggle for dignity that cannot be found in a UN report.

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“We gather all of the body parts, some were missing legs or heads, we placed them in a bag and buried them,” Ahmadzai said. “We were able to identify them through the clothes they were wearing and by their shoes. The body parts we couldn’t identify we put into a piece of cloth and then buried them. Those chunks of flesh, blood and bone were from so many people not just one, but we couldn’t identify them so we put those body parts into an individual grave and buried them as though they belonged to one person …”

Interviews with Ahmadzai and other survivors from the attack have been published as part of Brave News FilmsRethink Afghanistan project. The Rethink Afghanistan reports confirm what the US-led coalition has repeatedly denied: coalition forces in Sangin killed 52 innocent civilians with a rocket on July 23.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai initially condemned the attacks and reported that Afghan officials confirmed that the rocket attack killed 52 civilians. Coalition sources originally denied that any civilians had been killed in the attack and promised an investigation.

Karzai reasserted his government’s position that “success over terrorism does no come with fighting in Afghan villages, but by targeting its sanctuaries and financial and ideological sources across the borders.”

Karzai’s investigators claimed later that 39 people had died in the house, and Taliban fighters were present, according to The New York Times.

Amhadzai and his fellow villagers, who insist that at least 52 civilians were killed, tell a much different story.

“But our wives and children are not Taliban! The Taliban was far away,” a man named Kasman told Rethink Afghanistan. “We thought that this place would give us safety for our children but the [NATO] bombing got them torn to pieces. They say the Taliban were here but they are away from us. We don’t send our children into combat zone; we want to send them someplace safer.”

For many civilians, finding safe places in Afghanistan is difficult because the war zone can be anywhere. US and coalition forces are essentially fighting a guerrilla war as they hunt insurgents hiding in remote villages and among local populations.

The UN reports that, in 2010, a majority of the civilian casualties caused by coalition forces were the result of air strikes, with 69 deaths and 45 injuries caused by bombings before July. Up to 32 civilians died in a single coalition air strike last week.

The percentage of civilian casualties caused by coalition troops has decreased overall, a trend the UN attributes to former US commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s commitment to reducing civilian casualties, but the effort has not necessarily made Afghanistan a safer place.

Taliban and insurgent groups were responsible for 76 percent of the civilians killed this year, most of them victims of roadside and suicide bombs known as improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. The WikiLeaks War Dairy of thousands of classified military documents reveal that IED attacks against coalition forces and civilians increased from 308 in 2004 in to 7,155 in 2009. These crude attacks intimidate an already scarred populace.

The number of US troops in Afghanistan, insurgent IED attacks and the number of civilian casualties caused by both sides all share a common theme of steadily increasing over the past five years. It’s a lethal reminder that war is war, and war will always claim innocent life. Sending more troops to Afghanistan and escalating a conflict the US committed to nine years ago has not made it any easier on the battered people of Afghanistan, and now more innocent people are dying than ever before.

“There was death inside and injured people outside,” Abdul Zahar said, describing the aftermath of the July 23 rocket attack that killed his friends and family to the Rethink Afghanistan reporters. “The foreign countries please listen to me, listen to the others, what should we do?”