Skip to main content

Afghanistan: Taliban Body Count a Poor Measure of Success

For US Review, Security and Justice Are Best Tests of Progress, Not Kill/Capture Rates

(New York) - The Obama administration should not backtrack on its commitment to make the protection of Afghan civilians a priority as it releases its assessment of the military situation in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said today. Strengthening civilian protection requires continued efforts to reduce civilian harm in military operations, improve due process for detainees, and sever US ties with abusive armed groups, Human Rights Watch said. 

"There is a danger that under pressure for ‘results' the US will revert to Taliban body counts as a benchmark of success," said Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. "President Obama should make clear that battlefield gains will be short-lived without a military and political strategy that protects rights." 

On December 16, 2010, the US government will release an assessment of the impact of an increase of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan over the past year to its current strength of approximately 100,000 troops.

In recent months, President Hamid Karzai and others have repeatedly expressed concerns about civilian loss of life during military operations by US and NATO forces in southern Kandahar province. Although accurate estimates of civilian casualties in these operations have not yet been published, the International Committee of the Red Cross has reported a 25 percent increase in patients admitted with conflict related injuries to Kandahar's Mirwais hospital - the main hospital in southern Afghanistan - in 2010, compared with 2009. During a visit by Human Rights Watch to Mirwais hospital on October 30 and 31, doctors confirmed this rise, and patients told Human Rights Watch of the deep concerns many Kandaharis have about increased levels of civilian casualties.  

One young patient, Zahir Shah, age 20, told Human Rights Watch that he suffered shrapnel wounds and that two of his brothers, Mohammad, age 8, and Wakil Ahmad, age 12, were killed in a missile strike following a US search operation in Zheray district, Kandahar. "In the night the Taliban come and tell us that we can't leave our homes, and plant mines on our land," Shah said. "Then the Americans come and do their operations and fire bombs and missiles on us, and we're caught in the middle."

Khodai Nazari, from Panjwaii district of Kandahar, said that a raid by US forces led to a firefight with the Taliban and US airstrikes. "I wish they would not do these operations in our villages," Nazari said. "It would be safer for us if they stayed away."

Recent interviews, news releases, and tweets by US and NATO officials suggest that a rapid rise in the kill/capture rate of suspected Taliban insurgents is being used as a sign of success in Afghanistan operations. Most recently NATO media officials told reporters that more than 2,600 Taliban had been killed between June and December, with more than 4,000 arrests. This is in sharp contrast to counter-insurgency guidelines issued as recently as August, which stated that US and NATO forces would not "kill or capture our way to victory." The previous US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, stated in October 2009, "We don't win by body count. We don't win by the number of successful military raids or attacks. We win when the people decide we win."

The rise in kill/capture rates appears to reflect a growth in activities of US special operations forces, which have tripled in numbers in 2010. Many analysts view this as a sign that US military strategy is moving away from classic counter-insurgency operations toward a growing emphasis on counterterrorism operations. At a news conference on December 8, the Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman, Gen. James Cartwright, said, "The COIN [counter-insurgency] strategy is balanced by a counterterrorism strategy. When we started, we probably were more aligned with counterinsurgency. The emphasis is shifting."

While Human Rights Watch takes no position on the overall effectiveness of the US counter-insurgency strategy, we have welcomed efforts associated with it to reduce civilian harm. Since 2008, a series of tactical directives - operational guidance issued to military units - has stressed the need to avoid civilian casualties. Such measures include reducing the use of airstrikes in populated areas, improving intelligence prior to targeting operations, and minimizing the harm and hostility produced by night-time arrest operations.

These efforts had a notable impact on civilian casualties resulting from airstrikes. It led to a drop in civilian casualties resulting from all US and NATO operations in 2009 and the first six months of 2010, according to United Nations figures. However, the recent intensity of special operations forces activities may result in a reversal of that downward trend. Statistics from the US and NATO civilian casualty tracking cell suggest an 11 percent increase in civilians killed in the first nine months of the year, although the numbers of civilians wounded dropped in the same period. Although there have been fewer incidents in which dozens of civilians were harmed, the intensity of the kill/capture campaign has produced high numbers of individual incidents in which small numbers of civilians have been killed or wounded.

Human Rights Watch urged President Obama to reaffirm civilian protection as a primary benchmark of the success of US military efforts. Obama should reassure Afghans that the US will continue efforts to minimize civilian harm, particularly as the use of airstrikes, missile attacks, and "night raids" increase following the surge in troop numbers. When harm to civilians does occur, investigations should be carried out promptly and transparently. 

US and NATO forces should do more to ensure that the improved guidelines are followed, such as a tactical directive on the conduct of night raids issued in a January that urged commanders to "explore all other feasible options before effecting a night raid." While the tactical directive notes that detention operations conducted at night may result in fewer civilian casualties than daytime raids, this should not rule out the consideration of community engagement and regular law enforcement operations which will sometimes be more appropriate than raids. 

The spirit of the tactical directive too frequently appears to be overshadowed by field commanders' concerns about force protection rather than civilian protection, Human Rights Watch said. For example, in September two night raids were carried out by US special operations forces on the homes of two Al Jazeera journalists in the provinces of Ghazni and Kandahar. The journalists were not thought to be combatants, but were accused of producing propaganda benefiting the Taliban. Both were well known locally, and had made frequent visits to the local international military base. The journalists and the editor of Al Jazeera in Afghanistan all told Human Rights Watch that the matter could have been easily dealt with through a phone call, rather than a night raid by special operations forces. 

Obama should also make clear that US forces will sever all ties with abusive armed groups and militia, Human Rights Watch said. The relationship of special operations forces and the CIA with regular and irregular Afghan forces is opaque, and accountability appears to be minimal. Human Rights Watch is investigating a number of incidents involving credible allegations of abuses by armed groups that are known to be working with US forces. The US embassy in Afghanistan should actively monitor military units that benefit from US security assistance to ensure compliance with the so-called Leahy Law, which prohibits the US from providing aid and training to units of foreign security forces if there is credible evidence that the unit has committed gross human rights abuses.

"This is not the time to backslide on protecting Afghan civilians," Reid said. "US forces should minimize civilian harm, improve accountability, and sever ties with abusive forces." 

The US troop increase has also led to an increase in the number of Afghans being detained by US forces, which almost doubled, to 1,150, in the first six months of the year. The number of people in custody has compounded concerns about the weaknesses in the legal system for detainees. While Human Rights Watch has recognized efforts to improve the US Detainee Review Boards, the reviews still fall well short of a meaningful opportunity for detainees to challenge the grounds for their arrest. 

Detainees are not given the opportunity to review the evidence against them, which is largely classified intelligence. Nor are they provided access to legal representation, a necessary component of a legitimate, fair, and accurate review process. Instead, detainees are provided with "personal representatives," military officers who have volunteered to assist detainees, and who have had 35 hours of training. The dramatic increase in the detainee population has not been matched by an increase in the number of personal representatives, with less than one personal representative for every 100 detainees. At review boards monitored by Human Rights Watch in September, these personal representatives failed to perform as strong advocates for their assigned detainees.

"A surge in arrests should not compound the justice deficit for detainees," Reid said. "The US should finally get its act together and immediately ensure that all detainees are given their basic rights."

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country