Science Exclusive: Civilian Casualties Rising in Afghanistan Conflict

Civilian deaths in the decade-old war in Afghanistan are rising, largely the result of indiscriminate attacks by insurgents who are battling soldiers from the United States and other nations in the International Security Assistance Force, according to data released for the first time to the journal Science. The data, detailed in a report by correspondent John Bohannon, show that the international forces are causing a shrinking share of the civilian casualties even as their troop numbers and combat operations have surged.

Bohannon’s story is based on information in the CIVCAS database released by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), along with additional civilian casualty records from the United Nations and an Afghan human rights organization. The report appears in the 11 March issue of Science.

These data, never before released, provide the clearest picture yet of the civilian cost of the war. The number of civilian deaths in the military data is significantly lower compared to the other data sets, particularly for air strikes. ISAF officials acknowledged the gap, but said all of the data show the same general trend.

Perhaps most surprisingly, for the period in which they can be directly compared, the total number of civilian deaths in CIVCAS is nearly identical to data made public by Wikileaks last summer, suggesting that those classified reports are more reliable than researchers have suspected.??

The CIVCAS data show that in the past two years, 2537 civilians were killed and 5594 were wounded; 88% of the casualties were attributed to insurgents and 12% to ISAF.

Experts assembled by Science “conclude that while the war has grown deadlier for Afghan civilians over the past 2 years—up to 20% more civilians were killed in 2010 compared with the year before—ISAF has become a safer fighting force,” Bohannon writes.

“The majority of deaths, and nearly all of the recent increase, are attributed to indiscriminate attacks by insurgents rather than ISAF soldiers. In spite of a troop surge and the launch of new operations against the Taliban last year, the data provided by the U.N. show a 26% drop in civilian deaths caused by military forces. And both the U.N. and ISAF data sets show a drop in deaths due to air strikes last year, by 50% and 10%, respectively.”

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John Bohannon

Bohannon reported his News Focus story while embedded with ISAF forces in Kabul and Kandahar. In his story, he explains that the military is using the CIVCAS data to track their progress in reducing civilian casualties and to find new ways to become a safer fighting force. The public release of this data, under the auspices of Science, should also help outside researchers analyze the conflict in Afghanistan, an effort that has been hampered by a lack of hard data on civilian casualties.

Bohannon, who was a molecular biologist before becoming a journalist, has reported for Science since 2002 from such countries as Iran, Libya, and Mongolia. His reporting from Gaza won an IUCN-Reuters environmental journalism award in 2006.

Links

Visit Science to read John Bohannon’s news story and see a range of data on civilian deaths resulting from the war in Afghanistan.

View a chart of civilian casualties plotted by time and location. Credit: George Brower