In some of the most advanced countries in the world citizens are continuing to fight – with just cause – for rights such as freedom of speech, freedom from discrimination and freedom from all sorts of state oppression. Yet in certain countries there are virtually no de facto rights. In fact, one could argue that many in Afghanistan have lost the right to live. Innocent civilians killed in the war in Afghanistan have been reduced to faceless, nameless statistics – disputed by those responsible and shrugged off by the international community.
On February 24, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported that civilian deaths have reached all-time highs as a result of the war. Last year the country saw 10,993 civilian war casualties including 7,189 injured and a record-setting 3,804 deaths. The year also set a record for highest number of children killed since the UNAMA began systematically recording civilian casualties in 2009.
The shocking figures were met with deafening silence around the globe while the parties to the conflict spent more time disputing the data and blaming one another as opposed to taking any measures that might minimize the horror.
The document revealed that there were no “good guys” in this story. Although anti-government forces were responsible for the majority of casualties at 63 percent, the Afghan government and its international backers displayed similar levels of gross negligence for human life.
According to the data, the Taliban were responsible for 37% of civilian casualties in 2018, the Islamic State 20%, Afghan security forces 14% and international forces 6 percent. In terms of incident type, 42 percent of civilians were killed by IEDs and suicide attacks, 31% in ground engagements, 9 percent in aerial operations and 8% in targeted killings.
The US-led coalition and the Afghan government made conscious policy decisions that, predictably, led to the death of more non-combatants. In 2018, UNAMA said it documented 1,015 civilian casualties (536 deaths and 479 injured) from 173 aerial operations – the highest number of civilian casualties from airstrikes in a single year. These were attributed to “pro-government forces” which of course makes sense since the Taliban movement does not have an air force.
“Following a relaxation in the rules of engagement for United States forces in Afghanistan, which removed certain ‘proximity’ requirements for airstrikes, and additional deployments to the country near the end of 2017, airstrikes continued to increase throughout 2018, with United States forces releasing almost 70 percent more weapons than the previous year,” the UNAMA report said.
The report recommends that international forces review and strengthen tactical protocols to prevent civilian casualties, particularly when supporting Afghan ground forces and strikes carried out on structures.
The US military, for its part, in reaction to these shocking statistics took their traditional route and disputed the numbers. Resolute Support coalition officials in a letter to the UN mission said for 2018 they confirmed 117 casualties (62 deaths and 55 injured) and noted another 134 “disputed” casualties.
The Afghan government, reacting to reports of killing its own people, did not bother providing numbers but simply slammed the UN for inflating figures. The Office of the National Security Council submitted a letter that said the data they collected is “significantly lower” than the UN report says. The letter explained the discrepancy by blaming the Taliban for using deceptive tactics to wrongfully attribute casualties to Afghan government forces.
The Taliban took a similar approach and even blamed the UN mission for “covering up” the war crimes committed by pro-government forces.
“In contrast, despite the tangible efforts by the Islamic Emirate, they have been blamed for the bulk of civilian casualties and the UN is hiding the casualties attributed to the invaders’ and puppets’ forces underneath the shadow,” the letter from the Taliban’s Political Office said.
It might seem as if the Taliban have managed to create a suspiciously impressive professional bureaucracy. But this is largely because the letter sent to UNAMA was likely drafted by someone in Pakistan’s foreign ministry.
Again, the Taliban are certainly the biggest culprits who seem to employ the most deplorable and terroristic tactics. But we should put this in perspective considering the United States and its client state represent “enlightened” societies that uphold modern legalistic values versus the antediluvian moral code of the Taliban.
Anthropologist Talal Asad has observed something disturbing about this entire paradigm when nation-states make excuses for so-called “collateral damage,” just as they have in Afghanistan where the life of an Afghan has been significantly devalued through the normalization of civilian deaths.
“In the long perspective of human history, massacres are not new. But there is something special about the fact that the West, having set up international law, then finds reasons why it cannot be followed in particular circumstances,” Asal said in his book On Suicide Bombing. “I find this more disturbing than the sordid violence of individual terrorists.”