< < >

2019 | Neil Shortland, Huseyin Sari and Elias Nader - Recounting the dead

In 2009, the Commander of the U.S. Armed Forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, determined that there was an urgent need for change in the way the International Security Assistant Force (ISAF) operated. General McChrystal underscored that ISAF-caused civilian casualties were eroding the mission credibility with the local population and strengthening the Taliban propaganda. Accordingly, ISAF adjusted its strategy and revisited the rules of engagement. This article examines whether the strategic and tactical adaptations employed by ISAF led to a reduction in the number of civilian casualties between 2010 and 2013. Adopting an empirical analysis, the authors also investigate the variations in lethality among the six different regional commands and among several ISAF tactics in Afghanistan.   

The review of civilian casualties is based on the data presented by the ISAF Civilian Causalty Tracking Cell/Civilian Casualty Mitigation Team (CCTC/CCTM). It is important to note that the number of civilian casualties reported by ISAF differs from the one provided by the UN’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in three significant respects: (i) while the CCTC/CCTM database accounts only for ISAF-caused civilian casualties, UNAMA reports include casualties caused both by ISAF and the Afghan government; (ii) NGO’s and military organizations have a different understanding of who classifies as a civilian; (iii) ISAF data do not include civilian casualties caused by international personnel which occurred outside of ISAF area of operation.  

Relying on CCTC/CCTM’s data, the authors conclude that, although the overall number of civilian casualties caused by ISAF decreased over time, the trend was not consistent across regional commands and tactics. Notably, close air support was responsible for the largest proportion of civilian deaths from 2010 to 2013, suggesting that the lethality of airpower did not decline. In fact, the author argues that the reliance on airpower lowers the risk to military personnel but not so much the risk to civilians. This is especially problematic considering the increasing use of air weapons, including but not limited to drones, in populated areas. 

The collection of this data is essential for understanding the legal position of civilians during and after conflict. The availability of reparatory measures including investigations, compensation and recognition of the harm done, depends upon the registration and publication of such data.