NFZ for Aghanistan?

As Jim White reported just a few days ago, on Thursday US forces in Afghanistan announced the “inadvertent” killing of two civilians when a US helicopter opened fire on a target. The claim was made that the civilians just weren’t noticed during the airstrike in Khost.

A day later, on Friday, AFP reports:

Seven civilians, three of them children, were killed and five others wounded in a NATO airstrike targeting insurgents in restive southern Afghanistan, a local official said Saturday.

The governor of Helmand province said the two men, two women and three children died when the car they were travelling in was hit by NATO fire late Friday.

Earlier, NATO said its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) called in an airstrike on two vehicles believed to be carrying a Taliban leader and his associates, but later discovered they were transporting civilians.

Earlier this month nine children were killed in an airstrike in Kunar province – even leading to “a rare public apology” from General David Petraeus.

We are once again seeing increased civilian casualties followed by the usual denial and then the forced apology when the facts surface.

Yet officials and US media point to the UN’s study of civilian casualties in Afghanistan to suggest that while they are increasing, the Taliban is responsible for most of them. But there’s a problem with that study.

In an analysis published by Gareth Porter and Shah Noori earlier this month, we learn that:

The number of civilians killed in U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) raids last year was probably several times higher than the figure of 80 people cited in the U.N. report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan published last week

The report also failed to apply the same humanitarian law standard for defining a civilian to its reporting on SOF raids that it applied to its accounting for Taliban assassinations.

The Mar. 9 report, produced by the Human Rights unit of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) jointly with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), said a total of 80 civilians were killed in “search and seizure operations” by “Pro-Government Forces” in 2010.

But AIHRC Commissioner Nader Nadery told IPS the figure represented only the number of civilian deaths in night raids in the 13 incidents involving SOF units that the Commission had been able to investigate thoroughly.

Nadery said the AIHRC had received complaints from local people alleging civilian casualties in 60 additional incidents involving raids and other activities by Special Forces. “We did not include them in the report, because we were unable to collect the exact figures for casualties, which takes time,” Nadery said.

… If the sample of night raids investigated is representative of the total of 60 incidents of SOF night raids about which civilian casualty complaints were generated, the total number of civilians killed would be around 420.

The UNAMA-AIHRC report shows a total 406 killings of civilians by “Anti-Government Elements” reported for 2010.

The different standard used for defining civilians in the report is also troubling:

But the UNAMA-AIHRC report uses a strict humanitarian law definition of “civilian” in regard to victims of assassination by “Anti-Government Elements” which was not applied to victims of U.S. night raids.

“If Afghan soldiers travelling from one place to another, on holiday, with no weapon and no uniform, are killed, we count them as civilians, and the same with policemen,” Nadery told IPS.

Mayors and district chiefs, who participate in military planning with NATO military commanders, were also considered civilian victims of assassination, according to Nadery.

A large proportion of those killed as “Taliban” in SOF night raids, however, would also qualify as civilians under this definition…

UNAMA team leader Denise Lifton conceded that the report had made no effort to ascertain what positions had been occupied by those who had been killed in U.S. raids. “We have not looked at the functions, per se, of those [who are] accused of being Taliban and are killed,” she said in an e-mail to IPS.

As we watch the NATO actions in Libya and listen to the discussions about “the responsibility to protect,” it does make you wonder who is looking out for the civilians of Afghanistan.