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An Anatomy of an Airstrike: Other Considerations

Chapter 7: Other Considerations

Psychological Harm

“Our whole family is ruined and destroyed. Our homeland is still in fear. Our children are still afraid of planes.” – Abdul Ahad, brother and uncle of victims in Kustay.

One factor, omitted from UNIDIR’s EWIPA indicators, is the psychological impact of explosive weapons in populated areas. As highlighted in this report, aside from devastating physical injuries, psychological harm is likely the most common health impact inflicted by airstrikes. 

Whilst mental health conditions are harder to measure and quantify than physical injuries, this should not preclude an attempt to codify their link to the use of explosive weapons. 

“Gaza Civil Defense Directorate crews remove the wreckage of an Israeli airstrike” by joegaza is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0.

Economic Impacts

“My brother’s house was in the middle of the farm, he had planted cotton, he had harvested, the cotton and trees were destroyed – nothing left.” – Abdul Ahad, brother and uncle of victims in Kustay

Another area not explored by UNIDIR’s EWIPA indicators is the extensive, and often long-standing, economic impacts brought about by explosive violence. The damage from airstrikes, combined with the fear of future attacks, can prevent economic development efforts. 

In Yemen, for example, Human Rights Watch profiled 13 economic facilities that were hit by airstrikes over the course of a year (March 2015-February 2016). They “produced, stored, or distributed goods for the civilian population including food, medicine, and electricity…[and] employed over 2,500 people; following the attacks, many of the factories ended their production and hundreds of workers lost their livelihoods.” Measuring reverberating effects such as food insecurity, education attendance and crime rates would provide a fuller overall picture of the harm done by airstrikes on commercial properties. 

“Sana’a after airstrike, 2015” by Mr. Ibrahem is licensed with CC BY-SA 4.0. 

Rules and Violations and Casualty Counting

The United States were the main perpetrator of airstrike-related civilian harm in Afghanistan in the past five years (2016-20). They were responsible for the majority (57%) of child casualties in 2018, the year of the attack in Kustay which killed 10 children and injured five more. The United States Department of Defense’s official line has not been updated since a NATO spokesperson first responded to the incident. 

“At the time of the strike, the ground force was unaware of any civilians in or around the compound; they only knew that the Taliban was using the building as a fighting position.”

“We investigate every credible allegation of error and review every mission to learn, adapt and improve,” they said. The event was acknowledged in the US Department of Defense’s 2018 Annual Summary of Civilian Casualty Incidents, but listed only 17 civilian casualties, rather than the actual 27. 

There remains a huge gap in the civilian casualties acknowledged by the US & NATO compared to UNAMA. In both 2018 and 2019, UNAMA and the US diverge dramatically on the figures. In 2018, the US only acknowledged 118 civilian casualties from airstrikes (70 killed, 48 injured). A difference of over 500%. Again, in 2019 the US counts 98 deaths and 61 injuries due to their airstrikes. A margin of nearly 500%. 

And yet, if anything, UNAMA believes they are potentially still undercounting. 

Civilian casualties are recorded as ‘verified’ where, based on the totality of the information reviewed by UNAMA, it has determined that there is ‘clear and convincing’ evidence that civilians have been killed or injured. In order to meet this standard, UNAMA requires at least three different and independent types of sources, i.e. victim, witness, medical practitioner, local authorities, confirmation by a party to the conflict, community leader or other sources.

Where UNAMA is not satisfied with the quantity or quality of information concerning civilian casualties, it will not consider it as verified. Unverified incidents are not included in this report. UNAMA does not claim that the statistics presented in this report are complete and acknowledges possible under-reporting of civilian casualties given limitations inherent in the operating environment.” – UNAMA statement on their casualty counting methodology.

In late 2017, then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis announced that the Rules of Engagement for airstrikes against the Taliban had been loosened, enabling the US Air Force to conduct more airstrikes. This was part of President Trump’s promise to “lift restrictions and expand authorities” for fighters in Afghanistan. 

In each of the following two years, the US dropped more weapons on Afghanistan than in the height of their presence in 2011 – at a rate of more than 20 a day. Consequently, the civilian casualty rate tripled between 2017-19. Yet despite this increase, the number of in-depth investigations into these incidents halved in 2019, with many charges of death or injury only receiving an initial assessment. 

One of the key US rule changes was allowing more US forces to be embedded with Afghan military units. Since US airstrikes can only be called in by US personnel, this created far more opportunities for the use of aerial force. This is what happened in Kustay, with tragic consequences for Abdul Ahad’s family. 

Report continues:

Conclusion and Recommendations

More in this series: An Anatomy of an Explosive Weapon Attack