Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Afghanistan civilian death toll has risen sharply, says United Nations

The Guardian
Peter Beaumont

In his last few weeks in charge of the Afghan war before taking the helm of the CIA, General David Petraeus and senior US officials have been talking up their progress.

The metrics of that success, perhaps unsurprisingly, have concentrated on the lethality of US and Nato operations.

From April to July this year – according to a briefing given to the Associated Press – 2,832 special forces raids have led to the deaths of 834 insurgents, while another 2,941 have been captured.
Because of this, according to Petraeus himself, violent attacks have fallen by 14% in 12 months.
"The [Taliban] have less capacity, they have been degraded somewhat," he told the New York Times. "This is the first real indicator – for the first time since 2006 – compared with the previous year, insurgent attack numbers are lower."

These would be impressive figures and claims except for one problem: the US military's figures are starkly contradicted by other sources.

For even as Petraeus was busy talking up his success earlier this month, the UN mission in Afghanistan was describing the course of the conflict in far more bleak and bloody terms.

Speaking on 14 July, Stefan de Mistura, special representative of the UN secretary general for Afghanistan, and his colleague Georgette Gagnon – director of human rights for the mission – described a 15% increase in civilian casualties in the preceding six months, with May 2011 the deadliest month of the war for civilians since 2007.

According to Gagnon (pdf): "The human cost of the Afghan conflict for Afghan civilians rose in the first six months of 2011.

"Afghan civilians experienced a 15% increase in conflict-related civilian deaths over the past six months compared with the same period in 2010."

She added: "This dramatic growth was mainly due to the use of landmine-like pressure plate improvised explosive devices or IEDs by anti-government elements.

"We at Unama [United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] documented 1,462 civilian deaths for this period, with 80% attributed to anti-government elements, an increase of 28% in civilian deaths from the same period in 2010.

"A further 14% of civilian deaths over the last six months were attributed to the pro-government forces – this is the Afghan national security forces and international military forces."
These UN figures – and their contradiction of the official US military accounting – are important for three reasons.

Firstly, they speak to the success or otherwise of a conflict more and more people believe increasingly is becoming impossible to win.

Just as significantly, they speak of the escalating human toll, especially among civilians.
Beyond that, however, they are important in that they challenge an entire US-led tactical approach and its heavy dependence on intelligence, special forces raids and drone strikes, an approach that Petraeus is expected to keep pursuing with his translation from battlefield commander to CIA head.

And what is clear is that far from reducing the number of civilian dead, those numbers are increasing as the Taliban has changed its tactics and the nature of the war has been transformed on Petraeus's watch into one increasingly resembling a paramilitarised conflict.

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