Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

Yesterday the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released a report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan over the last year.  It concluded that “2009 proved to be the deadliest year yet for civilians since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.”  The surprise is what it says about the causes of these deaths, which in turn identifies an under-exploited opportunity to amplify ideological contradictions.

Sources of conflict-related civilian deaths in Afghanistan, 2009

Of the 2412 conflict-related deaths in 2009, 67%  were at the hands of “anti-government elements,” whereas 25% were attributable to ISAF and other pro-government forces.  Eight percent “died as a result of cross fire or by unexploded ordinance[sic].”

The anti-government figures represent an increase of 41% over 2008.  According to the report this is attributable to an increase in suicide and IED attacks.  Militants are also killing people they believe to be government supporters.

The pro-government numbers represent a decrease of 28% over the same period.  A report by Dexter Filkins in the New York Times attributes this welcome news to a tightening of restrictions on use of airstrikes.  To maintain the downward trend, American commanders also plan to reduce their use of night missions into villages, which often lead to unintended firefights with locals.

The state of affairs signaled by this report presents the UN/NATO/ISAF forces with a crucial opportunity.  As we argued in a white paper published last year, one of the critical functions of ideology is to smooth-over contradictions, like the one between the realities of extremist operations and the Qur’anic prohibition on killing innocents (especially when they are Muslim).

This function of ideology is why we were treated last month to a desperate video by Adam Gadahn, in which he said his buddies are not killing civilians, and are sorry for any civilians they have killed by accident. His dissembling is a clear sign of worry about the issue, and these new numbers show that there is good reason for worry on their part.

The pro-government response should be to push this contradiction into the open.  Norah Nilan, Chief Human Rights Officer for UNAMA, took a small step in this direction by saying in today’s release

Anti-Government elements remain responsible for the largest proportion of civilian deaths, killing three times as many civilians as pro-Government forces. It is vital that determined efforts are now made by the insurgency to put into effect the Taliban “Code of Conduct” that calls on them to protect the lives of civilians.

She added that “Anti-Government elements must realize that they too have obligations under international law.”

To me this statement is too tepid and deferential to the Bad Guys.  It more or less says that they have good intentions but have problems with execution, and they need to do better.  This is not unlike Gadahn’s argument.

Yet this assessment is at odds with facts stated in the same report that a number of the casualties are from cold-blooded political executions.  And isn’t killing 70 adults and children (and wounding 65) by bombing a volleyball game in Pakistan something more than a failure to stick with policy?

A better statement would be that the extremists are insincere in their claims that they want to protect civilian lives.  The Good Guys should be putting Gadahn saying “we don’t kill Muslims,” and quotes from the Taliban “code of conduct” about protecting civilians, side-by-side with press reports about and images of the innocent civilians who they are killing.

They should ask how the extremists can say they value and protect civilian lives when they bomb volleyball games and execute people.  And how could it be true that the extremists value innocent civilians while the Western forces hate them, as Gadahn claims, when the extremists’ deaths are going up and the Westerners’ numbers are going down?

Muslim allies in the region should be branding the extremists al-Munafiqin (or perhaps an equivalent in local languages).  Because like the Hypocrites of Medina they say they accept the word of God, but then act contrary to it when they see some advantage in doing so.  They are pretending to be devout Muslims for the sake of political expediency, but they are not acting like devout Muslims.

These kinds of efforts would help amplify the extremists’ contradictions and show them for what they really are.  Chiding them about their obligations under international law, not so much.