Russia’s foreign ministry has just issued a new statement lecturing the U.S.-led coalition “to take additional steps” to reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
Presumably, in this post-Osama Bin Laden era, Moscow is trying ingratiate itself with Afghan public opinion, and ultimately, the Taliban.
If so, then it’s time for some reality checks:
Reality Check 1: in March, the United Nations issued its annual report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Of the 2,777 civilians killed last year, the U.N. said, 75 percent were killed by the Taliban, 16 percent were killed by NATO and Afghan government forces, and 9 percent by unknown actors.
The trends favor NATO forces. In 2010, the number of civilians killed by NATO and Afghan government troops dropped by 25 percent compared to the previous year. In contrast, the number of civilians killed by the Taliban increased 28 percent during the same time.
As the legal successor government to the Soviet Union, the Kremlin might best stick to highlighting civilian casualties in Libya’ civil war, its pet human rights cause this spring.
In pumping up NATO-caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Russian diplomats must think – or hope — we live in a world without memory.
Reality Check 2: During the nine year, 50 day Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, between 1 and 2 million Afghan civilians were killed. Since the Afghan population was 15.5 million in 1979, at the start of the war, let’s say the Soviet invasion led to the deaths of 1.5 million people, or 10 percent of the population. With another 5 million fleeing to Pakistan and neighboring countries, about one third of the population became refugees. Another two million were internally displaced inside Afghanistan. So about half Afghanistan’s 15.5 million people were killed or forced to flee their homes.
During the nine year and 213 day (as of Monday) American-led war in Afghanistan, total civilian deaths range from 14,000-34,000. Since Afghanistan’s current population is 28.4 million, let’s assume, for mathematical neatness, that 28,400 Afghan civilians have died during the decade since the Taliban were forced from power.
In the war between NATO and the Taliban, one out of 1,000 Afghan civilians have died.
In the war between the Soviet Union and the mujahedeen, one out of 10 Afghan civilians died.
So, one can conclude that Washington’s war in Afghanistan is 100 times easier on the civilian population than Moscow’s war was.
But let’s drop the numbers and get on the ground.
In September 2002, I spent two weeks reporting newspaper stories in and around Kandahar.
Kandahar Airport was built in the late 1950s by the U.S. Government. During the Soviet period in Afghanistan, it became a key staging area for Soviet forces in southern Afghanistan. During the Taliban era, it became an international training center for Al Qaeda.
Kandahar’s three kilometer air strip is the key to supplying southern Afghanistan. The key to controlling the strip is to control a 15-kilometer perimeter zone around the airport. Mortars infiltrated into this zone threaten the air strip and the airplanes parked there.
One morning that September, I climbed into a United States Army humvee to ride along as American soldiers patrolled the perimeter zone. We passed the Tarnak Farms, a series of obstacle courses and firing ranges that Al Qaeda had used to train international jihadists.
After a few kilometers, our three humvee convoy rolled to a dusty stop at a baking hot village. Kids immediately ran out of their houses and gathered around the military vehicles. I soon saw why. Before leaving the base, the soldiers had thrown into their humvees several cardboard boxes. They were stuffed with small gifts collected and shipped from the soldiers’ hometowns, somewhere in the U.S.A.
Soon these beefy privates in flak jackets and helmets were handing out pens, school notebooks, and the occasional ball.
Meanwhile their officers had disappeared into a mud-walled house, where they sipped tea with elders and discussed, through an interpreter, civic action – well drilling, farm tools, jobs on the base. The trade off was clear: In return, alert us to all, absolutely all, outsiders who come into the area.
During a break in the tea drinking, I walked outside. Through an interpreter, I struck up a conversation with a farmer in his 40s, not old enough to be an elder, but old enough to remember the Soviet era.
How, I asked, were relations with the Soviet troops at Kandahar base?
There was no contact, but one. And he remembered that one very clearly. There had been a nighttime mortar attack on Kandahar airport from the vicinity of his village.
The next morning, Soviet tanks lined up on that ridge over there, he said, pointing to a slight rise with eucalyptus trees.
Then, the tanks shelled the village. Several hundred people, about 40 percent of the village population, were killed. The firing stopped. The tanks clanked back to the base.
Today, in the jockeying for influence in the post-Osama era, the Russians should remember that they return to Afghanistan with heavy historical baggage, marked USSR.