Afghanistan: human costs of war, impunity and indifference

A new and insightful USA Today report shines an overdue spotlight on the lack of accountability of US military personnel, and the hollowness of their repeated denials of the extent of the death and destruction inflicted on the village of Azizabad close to the Shindand air base, Herat province, western Afghanistan in August 2008.   

Brett Murphy of USA Today visited Azizabad last year and met some of those who survived. They still struggle with their memories and the task of living in a village that is mostly a ruin in an area that is now under the control or influence of the Taliban. In recent months, Murphy and other journalists were able to access some 1,000 pages of classified US Department of Defense documentation. This material included various investigations into the night-time bombing mission that happened notwithstanding prior knowledge that the target was a family compound full of civilians. Dozens of relatives were in Azizabad for a memorial service to commemorate the death, a few months previously, of Timor Shah, a well-known local elder and tribal leader.  

The prolonged bombing raid killed 62 children and 30 adults, including men who were part of a private security company employed as guards at the nearby US military base. Initially, the US military claimed that 5 civilians were killed and the rest of the dead were Taliban fighters. The in-depth USA Today report exposes the machinations, questionable decision-making, incompetence and profound lack of ethics, compassion or respect for the fundamentals of the laws of war surrounding this deadly event. Most of the victims were killed in their beds or were buried under the rubble of their traditional mud homes.   

More than ten years after this event, not one US official has been held to account.  Impunity reigns as the war has intensified and the death toll mounts. In August 2019, ten years after the Shindand massacre, a BBC study found that “74 men, women and children” were killed every day throughout the month.

The bombing of Azizabad was a high casualty event that made headlines and led to efforts by the US military to restrict the use of airpower in populated areas. It also resulted in the establishment of a mechanism to track civilian casualties by the US military. These initiatives were helpful, at least initially, but as the war was ramped up, the human costs have grown even as they were denied, minimised or ignored. A few months ago, a spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan called into question a long-standing United Nations programme that investigates, documents and reports on the killing of civilians, claiming that the US methodology was “more thorough, evidentiary and accurate” than that of the UN.

This claim was made before the release of the Afghanistan Papers at the end of 2019. This cache of declassified papers includes interviews with US officials directly engaged in, or responsible for, the war in Afghanistan. They show that little has been learnt in terms of how Afghan society works or how the war economy operates. The Afghanistan Papers also show that from the start of the US intervention in 2001 “official assessments of the war were consistently positive, optimistic, hopeful…”, but behind closed doors the analysis was starkly different. Some interviewees described “explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public” including distorting statistics. John Sopko, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan is quoted to the effect that the “American people have been constantly lied to.” 

Lies have consequences. For the people of Afghanistan, the consequences are often terrorising, brutal and deadly. Lies are also an affront to common decency, fairness and a shared humanity. The human costs of the war, for Afghans, barely featured in the media coverage and analysis of the Afghanistan Papers, that are preoccupied with the ramifications of the conflict from an American perspective.

The war, and the way it is conducted, is a key factor in the rising toll of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Pro-government forces including NATO allies caused more civilian deaths than anti-government armed groups in the first half of 2019 accounting for 52% and 39% respectively; 9% of deaths were attributed to both sets of warring parties in cross-fire incidents. The war remains lethal for children who comprised 84% of all civilian casualties “from explosive remnants of war” between January and June 2019.

As Afghanistan moves into its fifth decade of armed conflict, the indirect and accumulated consequences of war are difficult to calculate. Afghans constitute one of the world’s largest and most protracted refugee populations which, coupled with rising numbers of compatriots who are internally displaced, adds up to some 5 million people who have fled their homes in search of safety elsewhere. Some 90% of Afghan refugees are in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Iran where many have lived for decades. Millions of refugees have returned to Afghanistan when signs of peace seemed promising but this past decade has seen a steady flow of Afghans seeking refuge abroad. Afghans are also being “forcibly returned in large number from Europe, Iran and Pakistan or subjected to cruel conditions in Australia’s offshore detention camps.” This is happening notwithstanding the widespread instability, violence and deprivation that characterise Afghanistan, ranked as the world’s least peaceful country in 2019 by the Institute for Peace and Economics.

Decades of war coupled with dysfunctional and contested governance that make life hell for many can, in part, be attributed to global geo-political agendas, covert and overt military intervention, and the promotion of “liberal peace” in the post 9/11 era. At the same time, NATO countries and others that bear a huge responsibility for the violence and volatility that compel Afghans to flee have forcibly returned tens of thousands of asylum seekers in clear breach of the international principle of non-refoulement – namely the right not to be sent to a country that poses life-threatening dangers and where fear of persecution is widespread.

Azizabad may be a fading memory crowded out by the non-stop toll of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used by the Taliban and ISIS-linked fighters or by headline-making US bombing raids such as the destruction of the MSF hospital in Kunduz in 2015. For Afghans, however, the pain and trauma of war is ever present.   

The inhumanity of contemporary wars is a reflection of our general indifference to the suffering of others and the politics that generate and sustain armed conflicts. But as we move into the third decade of the third millennium in an increasingly turbulent world, it is also clear that lots of people are taking to the street to demand respect for human rights, greater social equality, or an end to war, discrimination and anti-migrant sentiments and policies. Citizens everywhere who desire a more civilised and sustainable world can join in local or global action including, for example, by supporting UAI’s Call to Action.


This Opinion piece was penned by Norah Niland, a UAI Executive Committee member.
Norah was the Director of the Human Rights team in UNAMA at the time of the Shindand killings. 

Photo credit ©Khaled Nahiz, The New Humanitarian

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