Monday, May 09, 2011

British Casualties in Afghanistan: Updated data posted for 1st quarter of 2011

An updated analysis of casualty data for British forces in Afghanistan has now been posted. Total UK casualties for the first quarter of 2011 stand at 525, including 15 fatalities, and are at similar levels to those seen during Jan-March in 2009/10. Over the last 3 years the lowest casualties have been reported during April, rising afterwards to peak during July and August in the summer fighting season. However, media reports of Taliban attacks in Kandahar during the last few days, following on from a successful escape attempt in which nearly 500 prisoners broke out of Sarpoza prison, suggest that intensification of the insurgency may be happening earlier in 2011 [BBC, Guardian].

Friday, April 08, 2011

The Difficulties of Counting the Dead in Libya

As stalemate, uncertainty, and mounting casualties continue in the war in Libya a brief but useful overview of the difficulties in estimating the death toll can be found in 'When Numbers Lie'.

In a previous post we commented on the the bleak prospects for Western forces providing better reporting on casualties caused by their combat activities in Libya. However, with that in mind it is also worth pointing to two archived articles from the British Army Review. The first, from 2009, looks at the use of Civilian Battle Damage Assessment Ratios to monitor military activities with the aim of reducing civilian casualties [BAR, 147]. The second, from 2010, calls for recording "all the dead: not just our own"; recognising the strategic advantages of such an approach [BAR 149].

The UK and other militaries are clearly thinking about the advantages of more open disclosure and better data recording. In conjunction with NGOs and academics important steps are being taken in that direction [Oxford Research Group]. Will this result in actual improvements in casualty reporting and, more importantly, real time adjustment of tactics to minimise casualties? The war in Libya is perhaps the testing ground for this new awareness. As it continues and evolves events may reveal to what extent the thinking revealed by the articles in the British Army Review has actually been main streamed.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Evidence and Advocacy on Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan: The view from UNAMA

An article on UN efforts to monitor civilian casualties during the ongoing war in Afghanistan has been published in Humanitarian Exchange [ODI-HPN]. The article is by Norah Niland, who was on sabbatical after completing a term as the director of human rights in the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan [UNAMA]. The piece explores efforts to:
"...mobilise attention in decision-making circles to the costs of war on Afghan civilians. It focuses on the role that systematic monitoring and investigation by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Human Rights (HR) team, coupled with routine public UN reporting, has played in supporting advocacy aimed at enhancing protection for people whose lives are at imminent risk."
Unfortunately, the article is rather short on detail about the methods employed and doesn't really discuss how reliable the data can be, given the circumstances they are operating within. However, it is an interesting read and outlines, for example, how evidence was used to disprove ISAF accounts of  an air strike in Shindand, in 2008. This event subsequently led ISAF to establish a new Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell.

The article also discusses efforts from both sides of the conflict to take steps to reduce civilian casualties and to been seen to do so, and concludes on a positive note.
"A multitude of factors shape the scale and nature of warfare in Afghanistan. However, as the issue of civilian deaths has acquired strategic significance, belligerents, mindful of public perceptions, have taken efforts to protect civilian lives. Thus, while civilian deaths continue to increase, they have done so at a slower pace than the increase in conflict-related incidents."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Civilian Casualties in Libya

As the war against the Libyan Government enters its fifth day the concern about civilian casualties continues to grow.  Perhaps even more than in Iraq and Afghanistan, the issue has substantive political importance as efforts to maintain a broad based backing for the US/UK/French action continue [New York Times, CIF]. While the great majority of casualties that have been inflicted in the war so far have been caused by Libyan Government and rebels forces, the impact of western forces may well grow as the war continues.

Following the invasion of Afghanistan, it took over nine years for the US military to admit that they do collect and hold data on civilian casualties. The British military has yet to be as forthcoming. Will the western coalition perform any better in this new conflict or will we be left again we no hard information with which the human costs and benefits of the western intervention can be assessed?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Database of Afghan Civilian Casualties Released by US/NATO Military

A database of civilian casualties has just been released by US/NATO forces in Afghanistan. Probably in a response to WikiLeaks revelations, the CIVCAS database is now being put into the public domain. The  Science periodical published an article yesterday that describes and provides a graphical visualisation of the data, which covers the period from Jan 2009 to end of 2010 [Science]. The database also includes data from 2008 but this was not included in the analysis. 

We will be taking a critical look at the data and including it in the civilian casualties tracking page in future updates. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tracking Page added for Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan

Yesterday, the latest civilian fatality data from the war Afghanistan was published by the UN. While there are many questions regarding the reliability and completeness of this data we have decided to add a civilian casualty tracking page to the site. The graphical analysis can be found here and more will be added as it becomes available.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Civilian Casualties Continue to Rise Year on Year in Afghanistan

A further increase in civilian casualties has been reported by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA). In their Annual Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict they report 2,777 conflict-related civilian deaths in 2010, an increase of 15 per cent compared to 2009. Over the past four years, they have documented the deaths of 8,832 civilians in the conflict.
“In a year of intensified armed conflict, with a surge of activity by pro-government forces and increased use of improvised explosive devices and assassinations by anti-government elements, Afghan civilians paid the price with their lives in even greater numbers in 2010,” said Ivan Simonovic, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights...
Anti-government elements were linked to 2,080 civilian deaths (75 per cent of all civilian deaths), up 28 per cent from 2009, while pro-government forces were linked to 440 civilian deaths (16 per cent), down 26 per cent from 2009. Nine per cent of civilian deaths in 2010 could not be attributed to any party to the conflict.

Suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) killed the most Afghan civilians in the conflict in 2010, taking 1,141 lives, or 55 per cent of civilian deaths attributed to anti-government elements. In the most alarming trend, 462 civilians were assassinated by anti-government elements, up 105 per cent from 2009. Half of civilian assassinations took place in southern Afghanistan, with a 588 per cent increase in 2010 in Helmand province and a 248 per cent increase in Kandahar province...

Among tactics used by pro-government forces, aerial attacks continued to have the highest human cost in 2010, killing 171 civilians or 39 per cent of total civilian deaths linked to pro-government forces. However, in spite of a significant increase in the use of air assets by progovernment forces in 2010, the proportion of pro-government forces-attributed civilian deaths caused by aerial attacks fell sharply by 52 per cent compared to 2009.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

British Casualties in Afghanistan Fall Slightly During 2010

An updated analysis of casualty data for British forces in Afghanistan has now been posted. Total UK casualties during 2010 totalled 2,744, a slight decrease from the peak of 2009. Casualties fell by a small margin in all categories accept field hospital admissions. These figures do not of course reflect the recent increase in fatalities seen in the last few weeks.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

British Casualties in Afghanistan: Updated data posted for 3rd quarter of 2010

An updated analysis of casualty data for British forces in Afghanistan has now been posted. Total UK casualties now stand at 2,192 for the first 9 months of 2010. The data shows that MOD classified casualties spiked to their second highest ever monthly total in July and then fell back in August and September to levels seen in the spring.

Since the last data update in August there have been a number of notable developments. In brief:
Following much uncertainty over UK government statements on the pull out date for British forces, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, states that their combat role will end in 2015. [Reuters] A security think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, publishes a report claiming the threat to the UK of the Taliban and Al Qaida is overplayed and that the war in Afghanistan risks becoming a long drawn-out disaster [Guardian].

At the end of September British forces hands over control of Sangin to the Americans, prompting much debate over the costs involved of establishing bases that are now being closed, and the way the US apparently disregards British advice [BBC, Telegraph].

Things continue to go badly for the Americans with their highest annual casualty toll already reached during September and the increased activity of the Haqqani insurgent group [AFP, Telegraph]. More bad publicity also emerges, this time regarding 'sport' killings of Afghans by a rouge US platoon [AFP]. At the beginning of October Pakistan closes its border with Afghanistan as a protest against US attacks that kill three Pakistani Frontier Scouts [Indian Express]. The border is eventually reopened but not before a series of convoy attacks within Pakistan and apologies from the US Ambassador [AFP].

Towards the end of October it emerges that not just the US, but also Iran, has been financially supporting the government in Kabul with, literally, bags of cash [Reuters]. Speculation also emerges about a possible Russian intervention in Afghanistan; this time fighting on the side of the US against the nationalist insurgents [Guardian].

Finally, the escalating human cost of the continuing conflict is brought home by a a report from the International Committee of the Red Cross that describes how admission of war casualties are soaring in the Mirwais hospital in Kandahar [ICRC].

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

WikiLeaks: UN High Commisioner for Human Rights calls for war crimes investigation

Following the release of the Iraq War Logs the The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for an investigation of torture in Iraq by both the Iraqi and US authorities. 
"The information adds to the High Commissioner Navi Pillay’s concerns that serious breaches of international human rights law have occurred in Iraq, including summary executions of a large number of civilians and torture and ill-treatment of detainees.
The US and Iraqi authorities should take necessary measures to investigate all allegations made in these reports and to bring to justice those responsible for unlawful killings, summary executions, torture and other serious human rights abuses, in line with obligations under international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which both the US and Iraq are parties."[OHCHR]

Update 27.10.2010: Members of the European Parliament have demanded that European leaders challenge the US president, Barack Obama, over WikiLeaks' disclosures of alleged torture in Iraq. They want the issue to be raised at the EU-US summit agenda next month.
"Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberals group in the European parliament, said on Tuesday that the Obama administration had to investigate the "abuses" revealed by WikiLeaks.

"This will obviously be a sensitive topic for the US administration, but partners in the transatlantic alliance must be clear on common rules of engagement in times of conflict if we are to retain any moral standing in the world," Verhofstadt said

"Whilst the allegations concern actions undertaken during the previous Bush administration, it will be incumbent on the present one to investigate the abuses, pursue those complicit and lay down stricter guidelines for conduct in combat."

"The US remains a hugely important ally in terms of security. We cannot afford to allow our standards to slip so far that respect for the rule of law is ignored." [Guardian]

Monday, October 25, 2010

Leaked War Logs Shed Limited Light on Iraqi Death Toll

With the publication of the substantial Iraq war logs by WikiLeaks last week, there was understandable optimism that this would provide a definitive insight into the conduct of the war and its impact on the population of Iraq. [WikiLeaks] Undoubtedly, the logs provide unprecedented access to military records of a conflict and their analysis by the Guardian has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the war. [The War Logs]

The data is being used by a number of organisations.  For example, the Iraq Body Count project is a media reporting based method that has documented deaths in the Iraq war from its inception.[IBC]  Whilst they a use a method that is widely assumed by epidemiologists to result in the substantial under-reporting of casualties, they have estimated that the war logs will allow them to record an additional 15,000 deaths on their database. [CIF]

The War Logs are indeed detailed and highly important.  However, they can not comprise a definitive record of the human impact of the war and attempts to use them to generate a definitive number of civilian casualties are misplaced. [BBC] Their inappropriateness for this purpose arises for several reasons:
  • The logs represent records from the US military only. Files from UK and other coalition forces are not represented.  This will exclude, for example, the numerous killings undertaken by British special forces.
  • The records only document reports lodged by low and mid-ranking uniformed US military personal . Deaths resulting from CIA, US special forces operations and covert operations are therefore largely excluded.
  • Activities of the numerous mercenaries employed by private security companies are not usually documented. So, for example, the killing of civilians and combatants by Blackwater, Aegis, and other companies are likely to be heavily under represented.
  • Even when considering the completeness of the reporting by the uniformed US military there are substantial gaps in reporting.  For example, casualties resulting from the two large scale assaults on Fallujah by US forces in 2004. In an interview on Al Jassera on Sunday Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks said that he thought only about 50% of incidents were reported in the war logs.
  • The result of conflict between different Iraqi groups is likely to be heavily under reported in the war logs. 
  • The low ratio of injured to killed implies a persistent under-reporting of those wounded in the violence.
The overall story that is told by the war logs may be deeply shocking to some of the supporters of the invasion in the west, but has been reported as being nothing new to most Iraqis. [AFP] The political consequences of the data release are still unfolding in Iraq and elsewhere.

Even in the UK, the war logs have led to a call from within the coalition government for investigation of the various documented war crimes committed by British forces and their connivance in torture.

Whilst the war logs cannot come close to painting a complete picture of the human cost of the Iraq invasion, they just might contribute to a permanent change in the more general perception of war and require proponents to more carefully justify its initiation.

Note added: A powerful Channel 4 Dispatches Documentary has explored the contents of the War Logs. 'Iraq's Secret War Files' can be watched here.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

United Nations Report An Increase of 31% in Afghan Civilian Casualties

A large increase in civilian casualties has been reported by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) during the first six months of 2010. From 1 January to 30 June 2010, UNAMA Human Rights Unit documented 3,268 civilian casualties including 1,271 deaths and 1,997 injuries. It is worth noting that the very low ratio of injuries to deaths suggests that injuries are seriously under recorded. However, the increase is more than that estimated by other bodies. [UNAMA, Reuters]

Two major changes in the overall causation of fatalities have been reported by UNAMA. Firstly, there has been a 30 per cent decrease in civilian casualties caused by the US coalition compared to the same period in 2009, reflecting growing implementation of ISAF’s July 2009 Tactical Directive that regulates the use of air strikes and other measures to reduce civilian casualties. Secondly, there has been a 31 per cent increase in conflict-related Afghan civilian casualties caused by the Taliban and other elements of the armed opposition.

“Afghan children and women are increasingly bearing the brunt of this conflict. They are being killed and injured in their homes and communities in greater numbers than ever before,” said Staffan de Mistura, Special Representative of the Secretary-General.

Analysis by UNAMA's Human Rights Unit identified two critical developments that accounted for the increased civilian casualty burden. There was a greater use of larger and more sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) throughout the country and the number of civilians assassinated and executed by the armed opposition rose by more than 95 per cent. Southern Afghanistan showed the largest increase in civilian casualties during their reporting period.

UNAMA issued the following recommendations:
• The Taliban should withdraw all orders and statements calling for the killing of civilians; and, the Taliban and other AGEs should end the use of IEDs and suicide attacks, comply with international humanitarian law, cease acts of intimidation and killing including assassination, execution and abduction, fully respect citizens’ freedom of movement and stop using civilians as human shields.

• International military forces should make more transparent their investigation and reporting on civilian casualties including on accountability; maintain and strengthen directives restricting aerial attacks and the use of night raids; coordinate investigation and reporting of civilian casualties with the Afghan Government to improve protection and accountability; improve compensation processes; and, improve transparency around any harm to civilians caused by Special Forces operations.

• The Afghan Government should create a public body to lead its response to major civilian casualty incidents and its interaction with international military forces and other key actors, ensure investigations include forensic components, ensure transparent and timely compensation to victims; and, improve accountability including discipline or prosecution for any Afghan National Security Forces personnel who unlawfully cause death or injury to civilians or otherwise violate the rights of Afghan citizens.