Wednesday 13 May 2009

Wars, damned wars and statistics

While we are on the subject of civilian casualties (see my posting below this one), I have just noticed that the Taliban has issued detailed statistics for its operations in Afghanistan during the month of April. I have written about the Taliban’s statistics before, noting the organisation’s inability to count (See ‘Can the Taliban count?, 17 Nov 2008) and so I did not expect accuracy.

Nonetheless, the figures they produce make interesting reading. According to these highly suspect figures 53 civilians and 12 Taliban fighters were ‘martyred’ during the month. Interestingly, the civilians were killed in Helmand, Kandahar, Wardak, Logar and Kunar provinces. The Taliban lists no other civilian deaths for any other province. The Taliban deaths were even more geographically concentrated, with nine deaths in Kunar, one on Kandahar, one in Logar and two in Faryab (Yes, I know the total does not equal 12, but this is their maths, not mine).

Thus for the vast majority of provinces there are neither civilian nor Taliban casualties. Even if we include Taliban woundings, there are still nine provinces without any civilian or Taliban statistics.

Then we come to the most creative part of the statistics. Compared to the dozen or so Taliban deaths in the month, they claim to have destroyed 338 military vehicles, including tanks, in April and to have shot down three helicopters and one aircraft. They say they killed 992 Afghan National Army soldiers and 533 ‘invader’ soldiers. The table they have produced shows military actions took place in every province In the country, but mostly in Kandahar, Helmand, Ghazni, Khost,Wardak, Kunar, Paktika, Paktia and Kunduz – provinces that it most cases share a border with Pakistan.

Clearly the Taliban is continuing its policy of paying little heed to traditional forms of arithmetic. It continues to announce large-scale casualties that have no basis in fact. According to the official records for Operation Enduring Freedom, 14 Coalition soldiers –six Americans, two Romanians, two Canadians, one Dutch, one British and one Norwegian – died in April in Afghanistan.

Of course, the battle over statistics is very much part of the military conflict. In the last week there has been another dispute over figures, this time over deaths of civilians. According to President Karzai, around 140 civilians - including more than 90 children - were killed in an airstrike by US warplanes in Faryab province on 4 May. It later emerged that around a dozen of the wounded appeared to have been hit by white phosphorus, a deadly chemical that causes terrible burns and which it is illegal to use as a munition – although the USA has never signed a treaty forbidding its use.

As soon as the claims of civilian deaths and use of white phosphorus (known as wp) became public, the US military denied them, saying the deaths had been exaggerated and that in fact it was the Taliban that had been using wp. The US said militants used wp in improvised explosive attacks at least seven times since the spring of 2007, sometimes in civilian areas. Declassified documents showed 12 attacks where militants used wp in mortars or rockets, the majority of which came in the last two years.

The most recent militant attack occurred last week when a NATO outpost in Logar, manned by US troops, was hit with two rounds of indirect wp fire, the document said.

It was in the wake of this mess that the Pentagon announced the replacement of the top US and NATO general in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan. Replacing McKiernan will be Lt Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who has had the top administrative job at the Joint Chiefs of Staff for less than a year. Was there a connection between the two events? No-one is saying, although Pentagon officials struggled to explain exactly why McKiernan was being replaced.

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