What Dead Afghans Tell Us About COIN: the UNAMA Report


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The happy fun time factory that is the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afhghanistan (UNAMA) released its mid-year report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, and the news was even worse than usual. Not quite OMG-they-canceled-Firefly bad. Maybe they’re-rebooting-the-Teddy-Ruxpin-videos bad. Either way, the report does tell us one thing: how well this COINerific interventiongasm’s really going. Spoiler: not well.

This pretty much sums it up. Probably should stop reading now.

Pointless references to disturbing childhood toys aside, the numbers are pretty staggering. For the first six months of 2014, UNAMA recorded 4,853 civilian casulaties, an increase of 24% over 2013. That included a 17% increase in deaths and a 28% increase in injuries over the same period last year.

And then it just gets heartbreaking.

In a country where CODELS burble out platitudes about Afghan lady problems, female casualties were up 24%. So the Noble Order of White Helpfulness can feel super good about girls reading in schools, but can’t seem to fix the dead ladies problem. Or the dead kids problem: child casualties were up 34% over last year.Afghans learning from Afghans: Farming best practices shared in Kandahar exhibition [Image 1 of 8]

All of which usually means good news as far as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is concerned, but so far they’ve been silent about this report, breaking a three year run of being super excited about dead Afghans. Since the first casualty of COIN is metrics, ISAF scrambles whenever it can to point to a number that shows they’re winning the war here. Even if that number shows that a whole lot of Afghans keep getting all blowed up.

Only in the Orwellian ooze that is a PAO’s mind are dead people good news. But each year the ISAF public affairs machine churns out the kind of feel-good response that just…won’t…wash…off. I’ve posted quotes and links below, but in short they welcome the report each year because it shows the world that ISAF’s killing fewer civilians.

Corpsmen patrol AfghanistanISAF’s commander is quick to point out that ISAF works super hard to not shoot women and children in the face. And to ISAF’s credit, UNAMA does attribute fewer civilian casualties each year to foreign forces. What ISAF conveniently ignores is that this has less to do with being careful and more to do with ISAF’s actively turning its combat role over to the Afghans over the last year.

Operation Ready or Not, or “transition” is in full effect, so fewer ISAF troops are in the fight. By virtue of their absence they’re going to be respsonsible for fewer civilian casualties. But what ISAF’s super awful PAO machine wants us to miss is what an increase in insurgent-caused casualties says about the state of the intervention.

By blaming the insurgency for Afghan deaths, the coalition only highlights its own failures. ISAF gave Afghans the gift that keeps on giving: a conflict killing more civilians than ever. By failing to defeat the insurgency, the Americans and their partners are just as responsible for the Afghans still dying in someone else’s war.

Swarm of Afghan KidsBecause it is someone else’s war when you’re a bystander. Sure, today’s military aged male could be tomorrow’s civilian casualty. Such is the nature of insurgency: people change sides faster than Americans at the buffet on a cruise. But just because your cousin wants to go to war doesn’t mean you do, too.

So in 2014 Afghans are dying because of a failed doctrine. Instead of trying to find the “win,” ISAF needs to find a way to fix this. But if the 2016 timetable holds, it’s too late for that. Victory’s not waiting in the wings. She left long ago, and the best the coalition can hope for is a graceful exit. Left behind? Fewer Afghans to pick up the pieces. Maybe they can find their own win once the Americans are gone.


Some light reading — from February of 2012, referring to 2011:

ISAF commander encouraged by UNAMA report findings

Gen. John R. Allen, commander, International Security Assistance Force, welcomes the latest report from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan that shows a reduction in coalition-related civilian casualties.

1,159 Afghans died because of the war that year.

From July of 2013, referring to the mid-year report:

Response to UNAMA Mid-Year Report

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) welcomes the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s (UNAMA) recent Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict report. We take our commitment to protecting the Afghan people seriously. Working side-by-side with our Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) partners, we have taken a number of positive steps to reduce the number of civilian casualties in this country and our efforts are having a real result.

From February of 2014, in response to UNAMA’s report on 2013:

ISAF welcomes UNAMA Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Report

The International Security Assistance Force welcomes the 2013 Annual Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Report released today by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. While we recognize that one harmed civilian is one too many, we are encouraged that the report reflects the comprehensive measures we take to avoid civilian casualties and diminish the threat of explosive remnants of war.

1,342 Afghans would eventually die because of the war in 2013.

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