A street debate

IssueNovember 2009
News by Gabriel Carlyle

“This is last year’s protest,” he told us, smiling.

Ten minutes from the end of our eight-hour vigil opposite Downing Street – during which four of us had our details taken by the police for the crime of holding an “unauthorised” demonstration within 1km of Parliament – he had stopped to talk, apparently oblivious to the disruption he was causing to our name-reading ceremony.


Smartly dressed, and apparently on his way from one Whitehall department to another, he oozed self-assurance. “Civilian deaths are down 95%,” he said, referring to our “Stop Bombing Afghanistan” sign. “Whose figures are those?” we asked. At first he didn’t appear understand the question. Surely mere assertion – his assertion – should be enough.

We pressed him. “The Afghan Government’s,” he claimed.

Growing casualties

Later, I searched the net in vain for any sign of such a figure. At the time I knew what the UN had said in its last report on civilian deaths, which covered the first half of 2009. There they concluded that operations by international forces and their Afghan allies had “resulted in a growing number of civilian casualties since 2007”.

While the proportion of civilian deaths attributed to US-led forces has declined in recent years, the report said: “the actual number of civilian deaths continues to increase.” Airstrikes accounted for 20% of all reported civilian deaths during the first half of 2009.

More violence and killing

In August, a US military helicopter attacked a medical clinic in eastern Afghanistan where an injured Taliban fighter had reportedly sought treatment (the US claimed to have first checked that no civilians were present), while in Helmand an elderly man on a motorbike was shot dead from a helicopter for no apparent reason.

In September, dozens of civilians were killed in an airstrike in Kunduz, while on 1 October an airstrike killed a further five in the village of Khushal in southern Afghanistan.

Reporting from Helmand, Guardian journalist Jon Boone notes that, “if counter-insurgency theory seems obvious to foreign soldiers and western policymakers, most Afghans appear to only see yet more violence and killing”.

Topics: Afghanistan