Civilian deaths in Afghanistan: a different perspective

The leaked reports about the war in Afghanistan that have emerged this week show that NATO forces have killed more civilians than previously acknowledged. Understandably, the British press has focussed on these innocent victims of the war.
But what is even more striking about the data is the evidence it provides of the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians by the Taliban’s improvised explosive devices. For every NATO soldier killed by an IED, three civilians died and another six were injured, a casualty ratio that would appal a normal military force.
The data also make it possible to estimate how many lives, both military and civilian,  have been saved by the clearance of IEDs by NATO forces. In 2009 alone, we estimate, NATO clearance efforts prevented 900 Afghan civilian deaths, as well as 1,800 civilian injuries and 300 NATO fatalities.
Monday’s Guardian carried a 15-page account of the secret logs passed on to Wikileaks. that exposed, it said,  “the true Afghan war”. Tuesday’s Times (p7) highlighted what, for us, was a key 2004-2009 comparison: 369 logged civilian casualties were attributed to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) of whom 195 were fatalities compared to Taliban Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) having claimed 6,374 civilian victims, of whom 2,187 were fatalities.
The Guardian’s take was that, in nine years of war, coalition troops had killed hundreds of civilians: in Richard Norton-Taylor’s words, “the logs shatter the illusion that conflicts can be meticulously planned”. NATO was fighting “a losing battle with Taliban’s homemade terror weapon”. The IED, a simple but deadly device, is the biggest killer of troops, as we have consistently reported since May 2006; but, as the logs now reveal, also of civilians.
From The Guardian’s account, it is unclear whether the leaked logs record IEDs cleared by American troops only, by ISAF (which notably includes British and Canadian forces), or by ISAF together with the Afghan National Army. We assume ISAF at least. Also, unlike our monitoring of IED-only fatalities, The Guardian’s wider definition of IED attack includes those by suicide bombers and those in which an IED attack is followed-up by small arms fire or rocket propelled grenade.
To set in context The Guardian’s reporting by calendar year, the Table below approximates, by calendar year, the personnel-years of deployment to Afghanistan for US/UK/Canadian troops from our contemporary 20-weekly reporting. For the 4 months of 2006 prior to 1 May 2006, we have assumed that UK’s deployment was two-thirds of its level on 1 May 2006 but that US/Canadian deployments were as on 1 May 2006.
Our Table shows that, whereas the Guardian-reported IED attack rate per 1,000 US/UK/Canadian personnel-years (pys) has gone up by a factor of 1.8 between 2006 (27) and 2009 (49), ISAF’s fatalities from IEDs have gone up more: by a factor of 2.7 between 2006 (1.4 ISAF IED-only fatalities per 1,000 pys) and 2009 (3.7 ISAF IED-only fatalities).
Thus, not only did Taliban IED attacks increase at a greater rate than ISAF’s deployment did. but better placement of these IED attacks may account for the even faster growth in the ISAF fatality rate*.
But what has been the cost to civilians of more and differently located Taliban IEDs? Today it has been reported that a bus carrying around 50 Afghan civilians had set off an IED that was intended for a military convoy.
In 2006, using Guardian figures, 767 IED attacks claimed 347 civilian + 47 ISAF lives (394) a civilian/ISAF kill rate of 0.51 per IED attack. By 2009, there were 3,420 IED attacks which claimed 793 civilian + 263 ISAF lives (1,056), a civilian/ISAF kill rate of 0.31 per IED attack.
The Table shows that although the civilian IED fatality rate per 100 IED attacks decreased from 44 in 2006 to 23 in 2009, the Taliban’s civilian collateral damage more than doubled from 347 civilian deaths in 2006 to 793 in 2009 because their increased IED attack rate more than outstripped the better sparing of civilian lives.
The Guardian’s account of civilian victims of IED attacks during the six years 2004-09 puts the indicative toll at: 2,187 civilians killed and 4,811 wounded. It acknowledges that these measurements may not be accurate but may be indicative.) The same ratio of wounded: fatality (2.2:1) cannot necessarily be assumed for ISAF personnel - as some are on foot patrol, but others are travelling in armoured vehicles when they come under IED-attack. Just as the number of civilians reported to have been killed in IED attacks rose from 347 in 2006 to 793 in 2009, the number also doubled of Afghan civilians wounded by Taliban IEDs: from 770 in 2006 to 1,569 civilians injured in 2009.
To summarise: in IED attacks in 2009, the Taliban were killing 3 civilians (793) and injuring 6 civilians (1,569) for every ISAF fatality (263).
The leaked logs suggest that, over the six years, 8,582 IEDS were found/cleared versus 7,553 explosions/ambushes. ISAF’s detection rate may well have improved between 2004 and 2009 but if, conservatively, we assume a common detection-rate and also assume that the placement of cleared versus exploded IEDs is similar (a major - and probably naïve - assumption), then ISAF personnel may have cleared around 3,900 IEDs in 2009 and thereby potentially prevented 900 Afghan civilian deaths, around 1,800 civilians injured and 300 ISAF fatalities.
The leaked logs reveal the civilian callousness of the Taliban; and the tremendous saving of Afghan lives, even more so than of military lives, that clearance of indiscriminate IEDs achieves.
The Afghan President and others might do well to reflect on these indicative calculations that leaked logs have brought into the public domain. The monitoring of military fatalities in Afghanistan needs to be partnered by better monitoring of the achievements that those deaths helped make possible. Not the least of those achievements are the substantial numbers of averted civilian and military deaths and injuries.
Professor Sheila Bird is at the  MRC Biostatistics Unit, CAMBRIDGE CB2 0SR; Clive Fairweather CBE is a Consultant to Combatstress, EH39 4BE.