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  • An Angel of Death, as U.S. drones are called in Afghanistan.

    An Angel of Death, as U.S. drones are called in Afghanistan. | Photo: Reuters

Published 1 April 2016
Afghanistan is the country most bombed by drones in the world. Nevertheless, it seems that the world is silent on its devastation.

The vehicles were completely destroyed. So, too, was the body of one of the passengers, four-year-old Amir. In April 2013, a U.S. drone strike killed the child in Kunar, one of Afghanistan's eastern provinces, together with 13 other people.

25-year-old Abdul Wahid, Amir's uncle, was also among the victims. "I couldn't bear the news. I lost all sense in this moment. Suddenly, all the pictures of my son and my brother came to my mind while my tears couldn't stop," says Naqibullah, Amir's father.

In fact, Naqibullah took his son to the city of Asadabad for medical treatment. He told Abdul Wahid, his brother, to take his son back to their village while he stayed in the city. This was the last time he saw both of them alive.

When he telephoned home to find out if they had returned safely, he was told they had not. Locals told him that both of them have been killed by a drone strike. Later, government officials insisted that Amir and Abdul Wahid were Taliban fighters. According to Naqibullah, they also said the onus was on him to prove otherwise.

"It's so grotesque and detestable that they claim that my brother and my son, a four-year-old child, were armed militants", Naqibullah says outraged.

Until today, nobody knows why Amir, Abdul Wahid and the 12 other people, also civilians, were targeted. Nevertheless, since 2001, drone strikes have become part of the daily life in Afghanistan.

Unknown victims

According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based organization, Afghanistan is "the most drone bombed country in the world". Between 2001 and 2013, at least 1,670 drone strikes took place in the country.

Most times, it is not known who the victims of such strikes are. Accurate data about the impacts of the strikes, particularly casualty figures, do not exist. There are different reasons for this.

On one side, the media seems to largely ignore drone warfare and its victims — not just in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia. Apart from that, it often seems that there is no political will for transparency. In Afghanistan, this is especially the case since the so-called National Unity Government came to power in 2014.

Since then, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani has not said a single word about drone strikes and civilian casualties. Instead, it was reported that the president regularly drinks tea with leading U.S. military officials. In the first days of his presidency, Ghani hurried to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States. Hamid Karzai, his predecessor, refused to sign the paper when it became clear that the agreement assured impunity for U.S. soldiers and foreshadowed ongoing American violence in the country, such as brutal night raids and drone strikes.

"President Karzai was strongly against the use of drones. Unlike with the current government, there was no agreement with Karzai on the use of weaponed drones in Afghanistan. Therefore, the former president has publicly condemned such attacks", says Aimal Faizi, who was a spokesman of Afghanistan's former president.

Although Karzai was a strong opponent of the "angels of death", as people in some areas of Afghanistan call the drones, the known data, regularly published by the U.S. military, proves that most of the attacks took place during his term in office.

Media spreads official line

However, during the last months, reports on drone strikes in Afghanistan are increasing. Like in the case of Amir or Abdul Wahid, Afghan government officials or representatives of the military repeatedly insist that the victims were Taliban fighters or Islamic State group and Al Qaida militants. In most cases, media outlets just quote these officials and spread a one-sided view of the events. Rarely, do they scrutinize the victim’s real identities.

"In my experience, police and army officials and provincial government officials are generally the main journalistic sources for this kind of information. But it is not often clear where they get their information," says TBIJ's Jack Serle, who has been observing drone strikes in Afghanistan for years. "There are so many different lines of communication and circles within circles, it makes it really difficult to be sure exactly who has been killed in Afghanistan. Often all you can be sure of is someone's perished. Sadly, as ever, the challenge is figuring out who they were and what they did."

According to a recent report of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, more than 11,000 civilians were killed or wounded in the country in 2015. While armed groups and the Afghan military are thought to have been responsible for 98 percent of these incidences, 2 percent of civilians casualties were attributed to international forces, mainly in the form of air strikes.

The report also makes clear that the rate at which civilians are being killed by U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan is at its highest point since 2008. Research by TBIJ shows that on average a civilian was killed by every fourth drone or jet strike in 2015. According to the U.N. report, civilian casualties caused by international military forces and Afghan air force increased by 83 percent in 2015, causing 296 civilian casualties, of which 149 were deaths. Fifty-seven percent of those were caused by international forces.

But the U.N. report does not focus on drone strikes. Also the U.S. government data itself does not differ between classical aerial strikes and drone strikes. For that reason, it is not clear how many drone strikes really took place in Afghanistan.

Besides, UNAMA counts in a very conservative way and requires at least three different sources for a single casualty. Thus, family members of drone victims, like Naqibullah, say that their relatives have not even made it into the count. Additionally, it must be considered that has become a common practice among the majority of media outlets to describe all victims as suspected militants or terrorists, and not as civilians.

Critics of the U.N. report say that without journalists or human rights activists present in the country's most war-torn areas, killings often go unreported, never making it into formal records.

"Most war-torn areas of Afghanistan, especially where drone strikes take place regularly, are not visited by journalists and activists. They are considered as too dangerous, as dead zones," says Waheed Mozhdah, a political analyst based in Kabul.

Besides, records of civilian casualties only begin from 2009, eight years after the West's war in Afghanistan started. For that reason, the huge majority of the victims will remain unknown. 

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