Casualties in Afghanistan: How To Think About Them?

I was listening to a podcast of the Pritzker Military Library with Sebastian Junger yesterday.   Junger was talking about his book War and the film Restrepo which he made with the late Tim Hetherington.  He made a claim about casualties in Afghanistan which boggled my mind.  If it is true, it puts for me a whole new light on the Afghan war and ought to influence our debate and understanding about the war.

He claimed that the 1980s saw 1.5 million Afghan civilians killed in the Soviet war.  The 1990s saw 400,000 civilians killed in the Afghan civil war and killed by the Taliban.  The decade since 2001, the time in which the US, NATO, et al, have been there, “occupying” the country, as many people in the world see it, has seen 30,000 dead civilians of whom two thirds were killed by the Taliban.

Junger has made the claim before but is it true?  Well, estimates for the war against the Soviets in the 1980s from other sources seem to range from ~900,000+ to 1.5 million.  The 400,000 dead in the 1990s number also seems to be out there.  Estimates for the 1990s The Guardian, which is reliably anti-American gives casualties figures for Afghanistan 2007-2010 that are broadly consistent with this Junger’s claim for the last ten years: roughly 10,000.

Given that Junger’s numbers seem to be plausible, why aren’t these numbers one of the central organizing facts of the way we think about the story?  Melissa Roddy frames the issue this way: by being in Afghanistan we have prevented something on the order of the Rwandan genocide.  Remember that President Clinton famously apologized for America’s failure to stop that catastrophe.  The explanation, I think is, at least in part, that human beings have a hard time thinking about the significance of things that didn’t happen.  That’s why we think that Sherlock Holmes was being remarkably smart in this famous exchange from the story “Silver Blaze:”

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” “

To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.” “

That was the curious incident.”

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Published in: on August 12, 2011 at 3:58 AM  Comments (3)  

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  1. Three reasons:

    1) The civil war was largely over by 2001, thus its difficult to argue the coalition invasion caused the reduction in casualties.

    2) 20,000 civilians may have been killed by Taliban, but the targets have been largely western forces and those who cooperate with them – thus the occupation forces are a cause of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

    3) A civil war is not genocide. In the Afghan civil-war there were several armed groups fighting, and 400,000 civilians died as a result. That’s not the same as Nazis killing Jews or Hutus killing Tutsis.

    • You raise a good point about the Afghan Civil War being largely over by 2001. Largely is about the right word, though the Northern Alliance was still holding out. A key question would be how many of those alleged 400,000 deaths were caused by the Taliban as part of their governance? I most definitely do not know the answer to that. Junger described Afghanistan under the Taliban as a “horror show’ and he’s certainly right. How high they stacked the bodies isn’t entirely clear.

  2. I suspect that part of the reason is that the sort of people who usually write about how they want genocide prevented (by the West) are also the sort who are generally anti the West invading places and frequently anti-West in general.

    So Rwanda is used as the example of when the West should have intervened precisely because we didn’t. In humanitarian cases where the West did intervene the result is either controversy (Somalia, the Balkans) or forgetfulness (Sierra Leone).

    In addition to which many of the sort of people who do support the war in Afghanistan are not the kind to rank humanitarian concerns as amongst the most important.

    Furthermore the stated objective in Afghanistan – first revenge/counter-terrorism, later counter-narcotics, state-building and so on – has never been humanitarian and any attempt by ISAF to claim it as such would (probably rightly) be seen as propagandistic. If Western intervention has had humanitarian benefits they have largely been incidental.

    I can’t do the numbers off the top of my head but I suspect that you could also say the same thing about Iraq; that the post-invasion civilian casualties have been less than those inflicted under Saddam (even excluding the civilian casualties caused in military operations in the Iran-Iraq War, the invasion of Kuwait and the First Gulf War).

    Probably the over-riding factor though is 24 hour news culture which prioritises emotion over analysis, only acts when images are available and has both a short attention span and a shorter memory. Like many other salient facts these casualty figures will slip through the net unless someone deliberately goes looking for them. God knows, when I was sitting in a newsroom during the 2006 Lebanon war, what we were reporting and what I was reading on the internet were like two completely different worlds.


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