Collateral damage —Rafia Zakaria

Despite the fact that they are causing more deaths, the increased hatred reserved for the US occupation ensures that the Taliban can kill at will without ever being shamed or humiliated for their cruelty

On September 8, 2008, international media reported that the casualties in a recent US/NATO airstrike in Afghanistan were far greater than previously thought. According to the New York Times, as many as 90 people were killed in the air raid including women and children. This contradicted earlier statements by US military spokespeople that alleged far fewer casualties. A report released by Human Rights Watch this same week further highlights the problem of civilian casualties in US/NATO-led airstrikes.

The tragedy of civilian lives, of innocent men, women and children caught in the crossfire, is one familiar to those who have watched the Afghan mission unfold over the years. The HRW report, however, provides specific figures not simply on deaths caused by the airstrikes but also by those caused by the Taliban and their practice of using Afghan villagers as human shields to protect themselves from being targeted.

According to the report, in 2006 a minimum of 929 Afghan civilians were killed in fighting related to armed conflict. Of these, at least 699 died during Taliban attacks including suicide bombings and other bombings targeting civilians, and at least 230 died during US/NATO led air raids and ground fire.

In 2007, a minimum of 1633 Afghan civilians were killed in fighting related to the armed conflict. Of these, 950 died during attacks by various insurgent forces including the Taliban and Al Qaeda and 434 civilians died during US and NATO attacks in 2007.

Finally in this year, 543 Afghan civilians were killed of which 367 died by attacks from various insurgent forces while 173 died from US/NATO airstrikes. Cumulatively, over the past two years, about 3105 Afghan civilians have died as a result of the war. Of the casualties, 2016 or approximately 65 percent resulted from insurgent operations while 1089 were caused by US/NATO airstrikes.

The numbers pose several questions. The first of them, duly highlighted by the HRW report, is the difficult task of getting both US/NATO forces and the Taliban and Al Qaeda to adhere to the laws of international warfare as stated in the Geneva Convention Protocol 1. Perhaps recognising the lack of success of instruments of international law in obtaining compliance in the rules of warfare, the report focuses even more prominently on alerting its targets, the US and NATO, to the political cost of failing to reduce civilian casualties in their airstrikes.

In publishing interviews with scores of Afghans who have suffered enormously from the unplanned airstrikes, the report tries to highlight the political cost of many civilian deaths. In one published interview, a 25-year-old named Agah Lai is quoted as saying: “Why does NATO lie to us? They say they can differentiate between the Taliban and civilians, but they destroyed my family, my home, my life. I have nothing left. NATO cannot rule us like this. So long as there is just one 40-day-old boy remaining alive Afghans will fight against the people who did this to us.” Lalai’s father, grandfather, mother, wife, three brothers and four sisters had all died in the bombing and only his mother and two sons aged five and three had survived.

Highlighting the political cost of coalition airstrikes is perhaps an effective strategy to garner support among the international human rights community against the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom. The intended result is to mount effective moral pressure on the US to work harder to reduce civilian casualties during operations. It also aims at drawing US attention to the fact that every civilian casualty incurs more costs in terms of losing support of the local Afghan population than it would accomplish in terms of strategic goals of killing this or that Al Qaeda or Taliban commander.

But the report also poses another question. If the casualty statistics compiled by HRW (which utilised an on-ground team in Afghanistan and used independent Afghan agencies and Afghan hospitals for compiling number of dead) are to be believed, then it is impossible to ignore the fact that over sixty percent of civilian casualties are caused by the acts of Taliban and Al Qaeda. As the statistics show, 2106 of the total number 3105 were caused by Taliban/Al Qaeda insurgents either killing civilians through suicide bombings or forcibly occupying their houses and using innocent Afghans as human shields to protect themselves and their commanders.

Given these numbers, one must ask: If the US can be shamed by highlighting its moral decrepitude in failing to uphold the conventions of international law to which it has committed, and its strategic calculations questioned by exposing the political cost of killing Afghan civilians, how indeed can human rights organisations corner groups like the Taliban into halting their bloody practices that take more Afghan lives than even the foreign occupiers?

Moreover, does the fact that the Taliban are responsible for killing over 2100 Afghans in the past two years inflict any political cost on them at all? With local populations unwilling to condemn the Taliban with the same conviction reserved for NATO/US troops regardless of the fact that they cause more Afghan deaths, there seems little hope of even trying to use public shaming as a method of pressuring the Taliban into abandoning their bloodthirsty tactics.

The statistics cited by HRW in its report highlight the tragic position of Afghan civilians caught in the crossfire between US/NATO troops and the Taliban and Al Qaeda. It is questionable whether the tactic of exerting moral pressure on the US through international human rights will actually work; if civilian casualties are reduced it would more likely be because the US finally realises that it creates more enemies with every misdirected bomb.

Where Al Qaeda and the Taliban is concerned, the task of exerting moral pressure is nearly impossible: despite the fact that they are causing more deaths, the increased hatred reserved for the US occupation ensures that the Taliban can kill at will without ever being shamed or humiliated for their cruelty.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at

Source: Daily Times, 13/9/2008


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