Victims of US drone strikes in Afghanistan remain anonymous

Victims of US drone strikes in Afghanistan remain anonymous
Comment: Unlike in Iraq and Syria, casualties resulting from US airstrikes often go unreported, leaving the victims anonymous, and numbers unknown, writes Emran Feroz.
6 min read
11 Apr, 2017
US airstrikes hit the MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in October 2015 [AFP]

Airstrikes by the American-led global coalition against the Islamic State group reached a new peak in both Iraq and Syria earlier this month. 

According to monitoring groups and human rights organisations, hundreds of civilians have been killed in both countries over the past few weeks. The focus of much reporting has also shifted to increasingly shed light on the civilian victims of the bloodshed.

But American bombings are also happening beyond Iraq and Syria, in places that have long since dropped from the headlines. 

In 2016, at least 1,337 bombs were dropped in Afghanistan, making it the third most-bombed country by the United States. 

Since the first day of the NATO presence in 2003, the country has played host to conventional airstrikes and drone strikes. In fact, the very first strike of an armed drone took place in Kandahar in October 2001. The reported target was Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar.

While he was able to flee, dozens of other people were killed in the drone strike. Even today, the identities of these victims are unknown in the west, remaining nameless and invisible - just like tens of thousands of other Afghan war victims.

According to a 2014 report by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Afghanistan is the most heavily drone-bombed country in the world. 

Current records indicate that no other country has faced as many drone strikes as Afghanistan. And yet, most of the time those killed by the strikes remain anonymous in international media.

In 2016, at least 1,337 US bombs were dropped in Afghanistan

According to media reports from the end of March, at least four people were killed by US airstrikes in the eastern province of Nangarhar. All victims have been described as high-ranking members of the Afghan Taliban. However, as so often is the case, any proof for the claim is missing.

In addition, media outlets as well as the US government itself claimed that Qari Yasin, a senior Al-Qaeda militant, and three of his accomplices were killed by a drone strike in Afghanistan's Paktika province.

"The death of Qari Yasin is evidence that terrorists who defame Islam and deliberately target innocent people will not escape justice," US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a statement.

But here again, the US government cannot offer definitive proof for its claims. It should not be forgotten that such allegations do not become true just because US officials or members of any other Washington-backed governments are the ones pronouncing them.

Besides, even if Qari Yasin or any other militant were killed by the strike, it is not known if civilian lives were also taken, as has often been the case in the past.

Another unknown is how many airstrikes there have been in Afghanistan since 2001. According to research by the Bureau and New America - a Washington-based, non-partisan thinktank - at least 1,670 drone strikes hit the country between 2001 and 2013.

Thousands of lethal airstrikes conducted over several years in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have gone unreported

But the exact number of American airstrikes remains unclear, and so too, does the number of civilian casualties.

Furthermore, a recent investigation by the Military Times revealed that thousands of lethal airstrikes conducted over several years in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have gone unreported.

In 2016 alone, at least 456 airstrikes in Afghanistan went unreported, according to an open-source database maintained by the US Air Force.

This means that even the scant statistics that the US military is offering are wrong, and the data has been incomplete since the so-called "War on Terror" began in October 2001.

Afghan experts, analysts and journalists have often pointed out something that I too have observed: The official numbers are much lower than we have witnessed on the ground.

However, our voices remained unheard, or, to be more precise, many people - including a lot of western journalists - simply did not want to hear them.

Even the scant statistics that the US military is offering are wrong

Both Afghan media and international outlets have played a disastrous role, mainly simply furthering the "War on Terror" narrative, serving only to dehumanise the victims.

Leading Afghan media channels such as Tolo News frequently report in favour of Afghanistan's US-backed government, pushing the US view on the "fight against terrorism" in the country.

Media officials openly support airstrikes and drone attacks against "terrorists" - a word with no real meaning, but one which is often used in Afghanistan's daily news bulletins.

Both Afghan government officials and media outlets have often insisted that militant fighters were killed in airstrikes, when the victims were known to be civilians.

One particular example is the attack on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz which was heavily bombed by US jet fighters in October 2015.

At least 40 people were killed, while dozens more were injured. But even after Doctors Without Borders confirmed that all victims were civilians, and that the hospital was not used as a shelter for Taliban fighters, local politicians, including the Afghan defence minister and other leading government figures, continued to spread lies in favour of the culprits. 

One of the reasons we have heard so much about US airstrikes in Syria and Iraq of late is that, in both countries, experienced monitoring groups are actively gathering and sharing information. Many of these groups are organised on the ground and are well-connected with journalists and news agencies.

Establishing Afghan monitoring groups and supporting independent Afghan journalism would be the most positive moves towards improving transparency

As a result, airstrikes and civilian casualties receive media attention, especially in western countries. Meanwhile, the story in Afghanistan is very different. Just a few organisations - such as the Bureau and New America - try to monitor what is happening.

Many journalists and activists on the ground are not connected with each other, or with human rights organisations or any other kind of monitoring groups. Consequently, their reports often fail to reach western spheres.

One of the most active organisations in Afghanistan is the United Nations. Since 2009, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has been reporting annual civilian casualties.

But although UNAMA is doing important work in Afghanistan, much remains to be done with regards to airstrikes. Afghan critics of UNAMA complain that the majority of their observers are sitting in Kabul, while the airstrikes target remote, rural areas. Added to this, UNAMA's method, which demands at least three different sources for a single casualty, is also problematic.

Considering all these realities, establishing Afghan monitoring groups and supporting independent Afghan journalism would be the most positive moves towards improving transparency around American airstrikes in the country. This would go some way in ensuring that those victims who have remained faceless over so many years, begin to gain the visibility they deserve.

Emran Feroz is a freelance journalist based in Germany and the founder of Drone Memorial, a website that lists the victims of drone strikes.

Follow him on Twitter: @Emran_Feroz

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.