Archive for July, 2009

The Washington Post today reports that Gen. McChrystal is likely about to request more troops for the stated rationale of protecting the civilian population in Afghanistan. President Obama should deny this request because no past increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan prevented a subsequent yearly increase in a) civilian casualties generally or b) civilian casualties specifically caused by pro-Afghan-government forces (that’s us, folks).

From a new report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA):

Operations carried out by PGF [pro-government forces] have resulted in a growing number of civilian casualties since 2007. Whereas the overall proportion of civilian deaths attributed to the PGF has declined in recent years, mainly due to concerted mitigation efforts, the actual number of civilian deaths continues to increase.

UNAMA’s report shows that troop increases in Afghanistan for the purpose of reducing civilian deaths are all repeats of a failed tactic. Note this chart from BBC:

Source: BBC News

Source: BBC News

U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan have increased every year since 2001.

The data clearly show that escalation as a tactic to reduce civilian casualties does not work. Systematic collection of civilian fatality data only began in 2007,” but if we begin our analysis in that year, we find:

  • No escalation has been followed by a subsequent overall decrease in civilian casualties in the following year. To the contrary: each year following an increase in U.S. troops since we started systematic collection of civilian casualty data has seen an increase in civilian casualties over the previous year.
  • In 2007, the Afghan NGO Safety Office estimated that “1,980 civilians were killed”.
  • In 2008, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded “2,118 civilian casualties.”
  • According to the UNAMA report, “In the first six months of 2009, UNAMA recorded 1013 civilian deaths, compared with 818 for the same period in 2008, and 684 in 2007…This represents an increase of 24% of civilian casualties in the first six months of 2009 as compared to the same period in 2008.”

    Further, escalation as a tactic to reduce civilian casualties caused by pro-Afghan-government forces also fails:

    • In every year since systematic civilian casualty data collection started, civilian casualties caused by pro-government forces (PGFs) per year have increased.
    • In 2007, PGFs caused 539 civilian casualties, according to the Afghan NGO Safety Office.
    • In 2008, UNAMA reported 826 PGF-caused civilian casualties.
    • From January-June 2009, UNAMA reports 310 PGF-caused civilian casualties, compared with 276 for the same period last year.

    All of these facts, taken together, show that troop increases do not prevent increases in a) civilian deaths generally or b) civilian deaths caused specifically by pro-government forces (that’s us).

    McChrystal is expected to couch a request for troop increases in the context of a larger new strategy. At least one piece of the new strategy is worth applauding:

    “…McChrystal has indicated that he is considering moving troops out of remote mountain valleys where Taliban fighters have traditionally sought sanctuary and concentrating more forces around key population centers.”

    This move tracks with recommendations by Giles Dorronsoro at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as part of a strategy to sharply reduce military conflict in Afghanistan, which he suggests should become the overriding goal of near-term U.S. policy in Afghanistan. But, Dorronsoro suggests moving troops out of the remote contested areas in Afghanistan to population centers as the first step in a strategy that withdraws U.S. troops from Afghanistan. So, despite this apparent area of agreement, McChrystal’s reported overall strategy is headed in exactly the wrong direction, digging us deeper into Afghanistan.

    When you add to that McChrystal’s planned escalation of drone strikes inside Afghanistan against the Taliban, it’s hard to see how his “new” strategy will reduce civilian casualties. After all, experience in Pakistan shows that drones strikes kill 10-15 times as many civilians as they do suspected militants. And if we withdraw troops on the ground from remote areas and replace them with drones, doesn’t that contradict the last rationale we were given for putting boots on the ground–to reduce reliance on airstrikes that kill so many civilians?

    McChrystal’s new strategy is headed in the wrong direction. We should decrease, not increase, the number of troops in Afghanistan. Troop increases do not reduce civilian deaths.

    For more on civilian casualties in Afghanistan, check out Brave New Foundation’s Rethink Afghanistan, and in particular their segment on civilian casualties.


    The United States should pursue strategies in Afghanistan that focus on reducing civilian deaths and enhancing stability.  However, a report today by Julian Barnes at the LA Times shows that the U.S. is shifting drones from hunting al-Qaida to attacking suspected Taliban in Afghanistan, a shift likely to cause more civilian deaths and further destabilization.

    This actual policy of escalating drone strikes runs exactly counter to the “official policy” of reducing airstrikes and civilian casualties in Afghanistan under McChrystal’s much ballyhooed new orders. We know from experience in Pakistan that drone strikes kill far, far more civilians than they do suspected militants, and that drone operators in other branches of the U.S. government are firing their weapons even when they lack intelligence to back them up. Ratcheting up their use in Afghanistan will mean more dead civilians, and a higher ratio of civilian-to-militant death.

    While the rationale offered for increasing drone attacks against the Taliban is to “prevent the country from slipping deeper into anarchy,” their use could very likely have the opposite effect. Again, as we’ve seen in Pakistan, rampant drone attacks were used against targets under the rationale of preventing the country from ‘falling into anarchy.’ However, their use helped contribute to one of the largest human migrations in recent history, actually pushing the country closer to anarchy. Drones will not help stabilize Afghanistan.

    If the U.S. wants to reduce civilian casualties and enhance stability in Afghanistan, we should decrease, not increase, the number of drone-based airstrikes.

    I just sent this email to my friends and family. We’re working to get a new nonprofit off the ground in Texas to provide nonviolence trainings to people and groups around the state. Please donate if you can:

    monarchlogo_webAs some of you may already know, Laurie (my wife) and I, together with a co-worker, have incorporated a new non-profit in the state of Texas called Texas Nonviolence Resource. One of the primary purposes of this new organization is to help raise money and provide trainers for local groups hosting nonviolence trainings. We’re sending you this email to offer you the chance to support our work with a financial contribution so we can get started.

    Please donate online:

    We’ve got our first nonviolence training scheduled in November in Austin, Texas, at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. The training will consist of 20 hours of Creating a Culture of Peace education, involving two trained facilitators (myself included) and 20-30 participants. The trainees will not only get in-depth popular education about violence, nonviolence, social action and group decision-making; they’ll also plan concrete projects to improve their local communities.

    So, not only will your contribution help train these folks, but you will also be partially responsible for these projects’ positive impact. And, these trainings are the prerequisite for folks who want to become trainers themselves, so there’s the possibility that your donation will have additional impact with dozens of other trainees down the road.

    Would you be willing to help fund this training and others like it through your financial contribution? We appreciate any donation amount. When you’re considering how much to give, please keep in mind that each training costs roughly $2,000 to host (which, if you’re familiar at all with any kind of conference or training program for this number of people and training hours, that really is a bargain). Also, please keep in mind that because we’re just starting out, we lack a large fundraising list, so we’re really counting on the support of like-minded friends and family to get started.

    Here’s an estimate of what your donations can provide:

    * $25 – printed handouts and certificates for the entire training.
    * $50 – training fees for one attendee.
    * $100 – training and food costs for one attendee for the full four days of the training.
    * $500 – travel and housing for a facilitator.
    * $1,000 – reduces by half the sign-up fees for 20-30 participants.
    * $2,000 – funds an entire 20-hour training for 20-30 people.

    Of course, we welcome any donation amount.

    Please donate online:

    (If you have any trouble with this link, please feel free to email or call me and I’ll walk you through it.)

    Thanks for any donation you can make. We know times are tough, and we would not be asking anyone to part with any of their hard-earned, hard-to-come-by money if we didn’t believe in this work with all our hearts.

    If you’d prefer to mail us a donation, you can send it to:

    Texas Nonviolence Resource
    c/o Derrick and Laurie Crowe
    9009 Great Hills Trail #2613
    Austin, Texas 78759

    Please make out any checks to “Texas Nonviolence Resource.”

    The sooner we get the donations rounded up, the sooner the second facilitator for the training can buy her travel tickets–which means your prompt donation could help participants save on training fees.

    If you want to learn more about the kind of training we’ll provide, feel free to visit

    If you want to stay updated on this new project, you can visit (It’s just a logo right now, but stay tuned…I’m working furiously on the site on my lunch breaks.)


    Derrick Crowe
    202.669.9852 cell

    P.S. You may be wondering about the tax status of your donation. We are currently in the process of applying for a tax exemption from the IRS. If we get a favorable determination from them, the tax deductible status applies all the way back to March of this year. So, while you probably shouldn’t deduct your donation yet, once we get our exemption we’ll email all of you and let you know so you can make sure to count it on your federal returns. Please donate if you can!

    I was baffled by the cavalier attitude displayed yesterday by Richard Holbrooke about violence in Afghanistan. Sounding positively Dick-Cheney-ish, Dick Holbrooke waved away concerns about the potential of widespread violence to damage the legitimacy of the upcoming elections. Here he is during an NPR interview, emphasis mine:

    Q: Wouldn’t the people, though, who can’t vote think maybe it wasn’t fair because their voices can’t be heard?

    HOLBROOKE: Does that invalidate the election? If that’s true, the 2004 election in the United States should be questioned. Because a lot of the voters in Ohio stood in lines and the polls closed and they were left out there not voting. And that was in the world’s greatest and oldest democracy.

    Elections are rarely perfect. This election, in unprecedented wartime conditions, is certainly not going to be without its rough spots. It’s the integrity of the voting process in the middle of a brutal war. How many countries would have had the courage to hold an election under these circumstances? But Afghanistan is, and they should be given credit for it.

    Yes, Dick, obviously those are analogous situations. We all remember the Taliban planting IEDs in Cleveland and the women immolating themselves in despair brought on by widespread rape by government officials in Columbus. The press was full of reports of Blackwater guards brandishing guns at passers-by. Remember when John Edwards almost got assassinated? I totally get your point!

    Or not:

    Hundreds of polling stations could be closed in Afghanistan’s most violent regions, raising concerns that many ethnic Pashtuns will be unable to vote in next month’s presidential elections. That could undermine the legitimacy of the election, cause turmoil and possibly deprive President Hamid Karzai of a first-round victory.

    Compare Holbrooke’s statement with this little gem from the other Dick (Cheney), coincidentally from 2004:

    “Twenty years ago we had a similar situation in El Salvador. We had hal[sic] guerrilla insurgency [that] controlled roughly a third of the country, 75,000 people dead, and we held free elections. I was there as an observer on behalf of the Congress. The human drive for freedom, the determination of these people to vote, was unbelievable. The terrorists would come in and shoot up polling places; as soon as they left, the voters would come back and get in line and would not be denied the right to vote.”

    Coincidence? Not on your life.

    The timing of Holbrooke’s comments defending the legitimacy of the election, coming before the election takes place, exposes the game plan for the weeks ahead. Holbrooke is seeking to preempt questions about election legitimacy before the election takes place because the administration plans to defend the legitimacy of the election no matter what. That’s because this is what occupiers do–what Edward Herman calls “ratification-of-conquest.”  The Obama administration needs to be able to point to a “legitimate” election so they can translate that legitimacy into a perception of legitimacy for their entire Afghanistan policy.

    For an example of how this works, see Dick Cheney, January 2006:

    And I think we’ve had a lot of good news out of Iraq over the course of the last year. It’s hard sometimes to see through that, given the continued level of violence, obviously.

    But when you look at the fact that they’ve made every political deadline that’s been set: January elections, wrote a constitution in the summer, ratified it in October, national elections in December. It’s been a — I think a remarkable success story so far.

    We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but I think the president has made the point repeatedly out there that the only way we lose is if we pack is it in and go home. And we’re clearly not going to do that.

    Or Dick Cheney, Feb. 23, 2007:

    When asked whether the Bush administration had a failed strategy in Iraq, Cheney pushed back hard, insisting there had been significant progress.

    “A failed strategy? Let’s see. We didn’t fail when we got rid of Saddam,” Cheney said. “We didn’t fail when we held elections. We didn’t fail when we got a constitution written. Those are all success stories.”

    But, most infamously, see Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, May/June, 2005, emphasis mine:

    On CNN’s ”Larry King Live” on Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney said of the violence in Iraq, ”I think they’re in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.”

    This is after May became the deadliest month for US forces since the January elections, with 76 US military casualties.

    At a press conference on Tuesday, President Bush was asked about the US casualties and the deaths of 760 Iraqis since the new Iraqi government was named April 28. A reporter asked Bush, ”Do you think that the insurgency is gaining strength and becoming more lethal?”

    Bush responded, ”I think the Iraqi people dealt the insurgents a serious blow when they, when we had the elections.”

    For the record, this month is already the deadliest month of the Afghanistan war so far.

    Purple fingers, anyone?

    Much has been made of the so-called “civilian surge” that’s supposed to accompany the military escalation in Afghanistan, but it comes with an ugly caveat: a civilian surge means an escalation in the presence of private military contractors like Xe, formerly known as Blackwater, acting as guards and bodyguards.

    Nancy Youssef’s McClatchy article last week details how the security firms are clamping down around civilian life in Kabul and beyond, driving resentment (emphasis mine).

    Huge intimidating convoys of armored SUVs now are common sights in the city’s growing traffic jams. …Nearly every day, there’s some incident involving security teams pointing guns out of windows at frightened commuters.

    “I have not faced an incident myself, but in front of me I saw foreigners shoot and kill two people in a small bus. We feel like we are condemned in our own country. They came from thousands of miles away, and my car can’t go in front of them. We are not happy about this situation,” said Mohammad Aziz Azizi, 45, the head of a cultural society.

    For anyone who’s visited Baghdad in recent years, the feeling is familiar: the tension of never knowing when violence might break out, when a wrong turn or a moment of inattention might bring one face-to-face with a security guard whose first priority is to protect the life of the person he’s assigned to.

    We’ve seen this movie before.

    These for-profit mercenaries managed to not only incense Iraqis, but U.S. troops as well with their gung-ho brandish-weapons-and-shoot-first mode of operation. A civilian surge of the type pushed by supporters of the military escalation in Afghanistan, though, has the effect of flooding Afghanistan with contractors working for Blackwater and its cousins. Spencer Ackerman:

    But what about the firms hired to protect the new State Department personnel on their way to Afghanistan? State Department security contractors like Blackwater Xe, Triple Canopy and DynCorp have been tied to more population-alienating abuses than the ones who work for the Defense Department.

    The use of these contractors accompanying a “civilian surge” has a corrosive effect on life in Kabul, and have become a serious political problem for the continued U.S. occupation. Again, from Youssef’s article:

    “In the mind of the Afghan people, democracy is tied to the arrival of the foreign forces,” said Wahed Mughzada, a political analyst. “They don’t like it.”

    That’s contributing to growing calls for a timetable for U.S. forces to withdraw, said Ashraf Ghani, a leading candidate in next month’s presidential elections. He’s suggesting that the U.S. withdraw in seven years.

    “The Afghans want the use of forces to be predictable. They feel they are not being heard,” Ghani said. “The pre-eminent issue is justice.”

    Further, as the U.S. counterinsurgency operation established forward operating bases, we will likely see even more private security firms hired and sent to Afghanistan to act as guards.

    So let’s recap. First, we find out that the supposed “civilian” surge in Afghanistan would be largely made up of military personnel. Now, we find that it requires widening the use of civilian contractors, including those from the very companies responsible for carnage and popular outrage in Iraq.

    This is all starting to feel so very familiar.

    We are moving into a new home this week, and I will be hard-pressed to find the time or the energy to blog. In the meantime, I’ll be posting links to stories on nonviolence, Christianity, and Afghanistan for your reading enjoyment while I’m otherwise occupied. Here’s the first:

    If you haven’t yet heard the excellent NPR story about the mass grave in Afghanistan and the massacre of thousands of prisoners by General Dostum, who was a CIA asset at the time, please listen. I wrote about this story several months ago, but that was before it was clear that the U.S. government participated in a cover-up of the incident. Kudos to Physicians for Human Rights. Well done. Here’s a link to the media stories that certainly came about only because of their efforts.

    If you were under any illusions about the nature of the regime we’re fighting for in Afghanistan, and if my post last week about how the Kabul regime treats women didn’t already convince you that the regime’s not worth another bullet or drop of blood on the part of the U.S., please do yourself a favor and listen to this story in full.

    A friend recently sent me a great article from The New Scientist called “Winning the Ultimate Battle,” which details the work of anthropologists and others showing that war is not inherent in human biology.

    …[A]nthropologists Carolyn and Melvin Ember from Yale University…argue that biology alone cannot explain documented patterns of warfare. They oversee the Human Relations Area Files, a database of information on some 360 cultures, past and present. More than nine-tenths of these societies have engaged in warfare, but some fight constantly, others rarely, and a few have never been observed fighting. “There is variation in the frequency of warfare when you look around the world at any given time,” says Melvin Ember. “That suggests to me that we are not dealing with genes or a biological propensity.”

    Anthropologist Douglas Fry of Åbo Akademi University in Turku, Finland, agrees. In his book, Beyond War, he identified 74 “non-warring cultures” that contradict the idea that war is universal. His list includes nomadic hunter-gatherers such as the !Kung of Africa, Australian Aborigines and Inuit. These examples are crucial, Fry says, because our ancestors are thought to have lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers from the emergence of the Homo lineage around 2 million years ago until the appearance of permanent settlements and agriculture less than 20,000 years ago. That time span constitutes more than 99 per cent of the evolutionary history of Homo.

    The article gives a good primer on the cultural changes that led to the development of warfare: the birth of agriculture, food stores, symbolic objects of value, etc. The author even contends that human culture has become less violent:

    Indeed, perhaps the best and most surprising news to emerge from research on warfare is that humanity as a whole is much less violent than it used to be (see our timeline of weapons technology). People in modern societies are far less likely to die in battle than those in traditional cultures. For example, the first and second world wars and all the other horrific conflicts of the 20th century resulted in the deaths of fewer than 3 per cent of the global population. According to Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois in Chicago, that is an order of magnitude less than the proportion of violent death for males in typical pre-state societies, whose weapons consist only of clubs, spears and arrows rather than machine guns and bombs.

    While excited about the rest of the article, I take this paragraph with a grain of salt. The marked decrease in violent death among males can be partially accounted for by:

    1. advances in medical science,
    2. technological advances that make it possible for one person to kill many more of one’s enemies, thus enabling societies to inflict lethal harm on enemy societies with fewer individuals from their society participating in the fighting; and
    3. specialization of labor, leading to the development of warrior classes who fight while others in a violent society do other specialized tasks.

    Is it one thing to say that fewer people in a society are participating in violent conflicts, and another thing to say that “people” or “societies” have become less violent across the board?  I’m not sure, and it’s certainly not a binary choice. I just would have preferred to see the author deal with these other factors as well.

    The research highlighted in the article reinforces the Seville Statement on Violence, made in 1986 by an interdisciplinary group of leading scientists. Here’s a summary of the five propositions made in the statement:


    • that we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal ancestors.
    • that war or any other violent behaviour is genetically programmed into our human nature.
    • that in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behaviour more than for other kinds of behaviour.
    • that humans have a ‘violent brain’.
    • that war is caused by ‘instinct’ or any single motivation.

    You can read the full statement and its complete list of signatories here.

    Considering the scientific community’s continued validation of the proposition that humans are not violent by nature, together with this and other assertions that humans are becoming less violent, I’m reminded of this passage from Revelation:

    7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

    10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,
    ‘Now have come the salvation and the power
    and the kingdom of our God
    and the authority of his Messiah,*
    for the accuser of our comrades* has been thrown down,
    who accuses them day and night before our God.
    11But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
    and by the word of their testimony,
    for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
    12Rejoice then, you heavens
    and those who dwell in them!
    But woe to the earth and the sea,
    for the devil has come down to you
    with great wrath,
    because he knows that his time is short!’