George Allison reports for the UK Defence Journal – motto ‘Impartial and Current’ (snigger) – that British strikes have killed 1,000 Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq since bombing began with zero civilian casualties.
I don’t doubt the RAF take great care to avoid civilian casualties but war is an ugly business and we’ve heard this kind of thing before. In fact, little has changed since 1758 when Samuel Johnson observed: ‘Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.’
It was much the same in Afghanistan and I can’t help but wonder at the assessment criteria which judged those 1,000 to be IS fighters.
“According to an October 2011 study by the Afghanistan Analysts Network simply being a facilitator was enough to be assigned a codename and subjected to priority effects. The report examined the effectiveness of controversial ISAF night raids aimed at decapitating the Taliban on the battlefield by removing their commanders. This was a tactic much favoured by General Petreus who had replaced McChrystal after his motormouth got the better of him. It revealed that the words leader and facilitator were sometimes used interchangeably in ISAF press releases, although facilitator could just be someone whose house an insurgent group was thought to have used.
The study also revealed that these night raids were not exactly a precision tool. For every leader killed eight other people also died. Since ISAF was very careful not to kill civilians I presumed these other eight must all be insurgent facilitators. American Special Forces were particularly adept at avoiding civilian casualties.
In the first few weeks of our tour I’d been approached by a US Navy Seal team running a Village Stability Operation¹ in Parschow, an area just south of Main Operating Base (MOB) Price. The Seals had been in contact with the enemy when they witnessed a young boy being callously gunned down by insurgents as they fled the scene. The Seals were keen to be first to the truth with the news and wanted to use the MOB Price radio to communicate the brutal and heartless disregard for human life which the Taliban had displayed.
Since isolating the insurgents from the population is a cornerstone of counter‑insurgency operations, this seemed like a good idea to me and I readily agreed, asking only that the Seals provide me with a few more facts before I could produce a transcript. I also explained that I would need approval from Task Force Helmand for broadcast, which needn’t be a problem but was a factor in determining the speed with which we could get the message into the public domain.
The Seal team leader seemed reluctant to submit to a British chain of command but promised to get back to me with more details. When he returned a short while later, he revealed that it might in fact have been a stray American round that tragically killed the boy after he was caught in crossfire. The incident, as with all incidents involving civilian casualties, would now be subject to an internal review. All reporting on the subject would be postponed until this had been completed. I inwardly breathed a sigh of relief that I’d not been tempted to step outside the Task Force Helmand (TFH) reporting chain in order to assist the Seals. In the light of these new details it would have shown appallingly poor judgement on my part which, quite rightly, would have cost me my job.
The next morning I again bumped into the Seal team leader outside the DST office. He cheerily informed me that there was no longer any need for an enquiry. The casualty was not after all an innocent young boy but a baby‑faced Talib fighter whose body had been recovered along with an AK47 rifle. He now wanted me to report a great victory in which ISAF had protected the people of Parschow from vicious insurgents, one of whom had been killed in the battle. Promising to look into it, I made myself scarce.”
SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.
¹Village Stability Operation (VSO). A US Special Operations Force initiative the aim of which was to provide enhanced security, governance, and development in strategically important rural areas critical to the Afghanistan campaign but beyond the effective reach of the Afghan government and U.S. conventional forces. It was perhaps insightful that the Parschow VSO was just 3 km due south of Gereshk, the seat of GIRoA District Governance and home to the District Police Headquarters, the main Afghan National Army base and ISAF’s Main Operating Base Price yet still beyond the reach of the Afghan government and US conventional forces.