Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Drone Strikes and Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan

by Micah Zenko
July 31, 2013

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released its bi-annual protection of civilians in armed conflict report. The mission determined that civilian fatalities and casualties increased by 23 percent over the first six months of 2013, compared to the same time period in 2012. Moreover, consistent with all previous reports, the vast majority (74 percent) of all civilian casualties were attributed to “Anti-Government Elements,” meaning primarily the Taliban, and nine percent by “Pro-Government Forces.” The rest occurred in combat between the two sides, or count not be attributed.

One-quarter of the civilian casualties caused by pro-government forces were attributed to aerial attacks, leading to forty-nine deaths and forty-one injured for the first six months of 2013, portending a sharp increase from the eighty-three deaths and forty-four injured for all of 2012. According to UNAMA, of the forty-nine civilian deaths, fifteen were by drones. Like the last UNAMA report released in February, there is an entire section on targeted killings by drones, which appears below:

Targeted killings: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and other aerial platforms

In the first six months of 2013, UNAMA documented fifteen civilian deaths and seven injuries in seven separate incidents of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones targeting Anti-Government Elements. In the same period in 2012, UNAMA did not verify any incidents of civilian casualties from UAVs.

Although civilian deaths and injuries from UAV strikes accounted for less than one percent of all civilian casualties, UNAMA seeks clarification on the targeting criteria and accountability mechanisms regarding the use of UAVs (and other aerial platforms) to carry out air strikes that may be classified as targeted killings.

For example, on 4 June 2013, ISAF fired two missiles at a humanitarian de-miner as he was working with 80 de-miners clearing mines in Panjawi district, Kandahar, killing him instantly.

No other de-miners were physically harmed. At the time of the killing, the victim was not directly participating in the hostilities. He was carrying out humanitarian de-mining activities which would indicate that continuous combat function had not been established, as required under international humanitarian law for a civilian to lose protected status. ISAF stated that the target was a mid-level IED planter and an operation to track and detain him would risk the target’s disappearance before troops reached him.

It is unclear if all military forces currently operating in Afghanistan are held accountable to the same standards and policies regarding the use of lethal force in aerial operations. In this regard, UNAMA notes that coordination and consistency in practice, policies and procedures among ISAF, US Special Forces, US Special Operations Forces and US Government Agencies, including the CIA, particularly regarding the use of UAVs, is required to promote protection of Afghan civilians.

UNAMA notes that ISAF has agreed to brief UNAMA on its tactical and operational policies guiding targeting criteria and establishment of positive identification prior to release of weapons. Such dialogue may promote transparency and provide clarification on how current policies and practices comply with international humanitarian law. This is of particular relevance regarding the use of air-released ordnance against pre-approved targets.

Other examples of air-related incidents include:

 On 24 May, ISAF carried out a UAV strike targeting Anti-Government Elements in Achin district, Nangarhar province, killing one civilian farmer.

 On 5 March, Nad Ali district, Helmand province, international military forces conducted a UAV strike against Anti-Government Elements in the area, killing one insurgent and wounding five civilians.

 On 13 February, Pro-Government Forces conducted a night search operation against suspected positions of Anti-Government Elements in Sheigal district, Kunar province, which led to a clash between forces. International military forces carried out an airstrike on a compound targeting Anti-Government Elements, resulting in the death five children and four women and injuring of three children and one woman.

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