US Special Forces in Afghanistan killed as many as 1,500 civilians in night raids by ground forces during nine months spanning 2010 and early 2011, according to an estimate produced by Gareth Porter, a US journalist for Inter Press Services (IPS).
Porter’s estimate is of especial interest as accurate information about civilians killed by NATO forces is hard to come by, not least because NATO rarely admits to killing any civilians, unless forced to do so by independent media coverage (see PN 2439).
A leading official from the Afghanistan independent human rights commission (AIHRC) has criticised the UN for excluding most allegations of civilian deaths in raids from its 2010 tally of civilian deaths.
Last March, the UN identified improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as the leading cause of civilian deaths in Afghanistan in 2010, with a death toll of 904, leading Porter to claim that, if correct, his estimate “would make US night raids by far the largest cause of civilian casulties in the war.”
Porter calculated his figure using five ingredients: official data on night raids; a guesstimate regarding the proportion of “killed or captured” Taliban “leaders” who were killed rather than captured; NATO claims about the proportion of raids in which shots were fired; a “generally known” claim about such raids, confirmed by a US military source; and a claim about the nature of targeting in such operations.
The official (NATO) data covered three 90-day periods: May-July 2010; early August – early November 2010; and mid-November 2010 – mid-February 2011, and recorded 6,282 night raids, in which 2,599 rank-and-file “insurgents” were killed, and a further 723 “leaders” killed or captured.
Porter guesstimates that one-third of the “leaders” were killed, yielding a total death toll of 2,840.
For the third ingredient – the proportion of such raids in which shots were fired – Porter notes that during the period concerned US and NATO officials repeatedly stated that no shots were fired in 80% of raids*. In other words, shots were fired in one-fifth (20%) of such operations.
Shots fired = people killed
Porter also claims that “[a] US military source who has been briefed on SOF [special operations forces] operations” has confirmed to IPS what is “generally known among outside observers”, namely that whenever shots are fired during such a raid at least one person is killed.
Finally, Porter assumes that “[w]ith very rare exceptions” each raid targets a single individual.
Putting these pieces together, shots were fired in 20% of the 6,282 raids, in other words, during 1,256 night raids. Each raid had a single target, so 1,256 people were targeted during these raids. However, 2,840 people were killed during the raids.
This means 1,584 people were killed during the night raids who were not targeted.
While not all of these 1,584 were non-combatant civilians, Porter points out that the targets are often extended family compounds, in a society where almost every adult Pashtun male owns a weapon and is culturally compelled to defend his home using physical force. This “guarantees that the percentage of civilians in that total is extremely high”.
Even if only two-thirds of the untargeted victims were civilians, this would still make US-led night raids a greater cause of civilian deaths than IEDs. (The night raids estimate is also for nine months rather than the 12-month period monitored by the UN.)
Citing a recent report by the Open Society Foundations, Porter also notes that NATO special forces sometimes deliberately target individuals who they do not believe to be insurgents, but who they think may be able to provide them with useful intelligence. Likewise, in September 2010, the Telegraph reported that the SAS were “not waiting for gold-plated intelligence to launch strikes” against suspected “Taliban”.
If some of the civilians targeted (either deliberately or accidentally) in these raids were killed whilst attempting to repel attacks on their homes, then their deaths would boost the civilian toll still further.