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Civilian Casualties from British Military: The Afghanistan War

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in the Afghanistan War.

When did this conflict occur?

11th September, 2001^ – 28th August, 2021*

^ – The Ministry of Defence defined the start date of the Afghan theatre of operations, allowing UK servicemembers to receive an Operational Service Medal, as September 11th, 2001; however, the initial British ground forces, drawn from A and G Squadrons of the 22nd Special Air Service, first arrived in October of 2001 to conduct reconnaissance on behalf of US Central Command. [1] 

* – British combat operations under the banner of Op Herrick officially ended in December of 2014, but UK forces remained in Afghanistan as part of Op Toral, the British contribution to NATO’s Resolute Support training mission, and assisted in the evacuation of foreign nationals and vulnerable Afghans during Op Pitting in August of 2021. [2]

What is the political, economic, social or historical background to this conflict?

In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks perpetrated by al-Qaeda, then-headquartered in Afghanistan with security provided by the incumbent Taliban regime, NATO invoked its collective defence provision, Article V, in support of the United States. Two weeks later, the first Americans, consisting of a seven-man CIA team known as “Jawbreaker”, landed in Afghanistan to begin liaising with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. [3] By October, US, British, and other coalition forces began  a combined air, land, and maritime offensive against targets in Afghanistan. Known as Operation Enduring Freedom, the campaign sought to eliminate al-Qaeda leaders, overthrow the Taliban government, and prevent Afghanistan from being employed as a staging ground for future attacks. [4] Though successful at removing the Taliban from power and largely eliminating the al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force, the multinational effort aimed at rebuilding the institutions of the Afghan state and raising a nascent local security apparatus, soon found itself embroiled in a relentless counterinsurgency campaign against Taliban forces.  UK troops, primarily responsible for the volatile Helmand Province in the country’s South, engaged in numerous offensive operations, as the Taliban contested British control of major towns such as Musa Qala and Sangin. Unilateral offensive efforts slowed in 2011, with a gradual handover to Afghan police and military from British and American forces beginning that year and continuing through  2014 when coalition combat operations came to an end. [5] Though international troops remained present in Afghanistan under the NATO Resolute Support Mission, Taliban forces steadily captured large swathes of Afghan territory and, in August of 2021, the capital of Kabul fell, and the largest international non-combatant evacuation operation began.

What role did British military forces play?

British military action in Afghanistan began in 2001 under the banner of Op Veritas, considered an act of self-defence under the UN Charter. [6] RAF aircraft operated alongside those of the US and international coalition, launching targeted strikes against al-Qaeda training camps and Taliban concentrations threatening friendly Northern Alliance forces; simultaneously, UK ground troops began arriving in Afghanistan, initially drawn from A & G Squadrons of the 22nd Special Air Service, C Squadron of the Special Boat Service, and 40 Commando Royal Marines. [7] Upon deploying to Bagram Airfield, a vital airhead for future coalition operations in Afghanistan, British forces conducted reconnaissance, close protection, and limited direct action in support of the growing International Security Assistance Force as well as the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom. In November of 2001, for instance, members of Z Squadron, the Special Boat Service, played a key role in quelling an al-Qaeda prisoner uprising at Qala-i-Jangi, an event which saw the first US death in Afghanistan. [8] UK forces operated throughout Afghanistan as part of ISAF, but were regionally focused in Helmand following a 2006 announcement of 3300 British troops being committed to the volatile Helmand Province in Southern Afghanistan. Though British combat operations under Op Herrick came to an end in 2014, British forces remained present in Afghanistan as part of the NATO training effort in support of the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces, the Resolute Support Mission, and played key roles in evacuating over 15,000 vulnerable Afghan and international personnel following the fall of Kabul in August of 2021. On the 28th of August, the final British C17 departed from Kabul International Airport, and UK military involvement in Afghanistan formally came to an end. [9]

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

Yes. Over the course of the war in Afghanistan, there were 298 confirmed killings of civilians by the British military. In contrast to these 298 civilian deaths, 456 British military personnel died in the conflict as of 2015, with 405 of these deaths being due to hostile action. [10]

Are there any trends or particular incidents of note?

The figure of 298 noncombatant fatalities comes from new claims register data detailing cases of civilian deaths where compensation was requested by family members. This figure includes nine fatalities previously unlisted in the AOAV report, ‘Blood Money: UK Compensation Payments for Afghan Civilian Harm Explained’. [11] These additional recorded deaths stem from discrepancies in the accompanying narrative reports which listed civilian fatalities in cases defined as property damage or as being not related to British combat operations. 

  • 16th October, 2008: In an incident with 18 recorded deaths, seven of the claimants listed in the register were noted as being children. This is the largest quantity of child deaths due to British military action in a single incident throughout this conflict. [12]
  • 15th, 27th and 28th June, 2010: Three instances of British troops destroying Afghan compounds to facilitate the construction of Route Trident, a road built in Helmand Province to replace more vulnerable logistics routes, resulted in three deaths listed as not being combat-related. [13]
  • 2009 – 2010: On 2nd July 2009, new rules of engagement, known as the McChrystal Directive, introduced severe restrictions on the application of close air support against potential civilian areas. [14] The McChrystal Directive constituted the greatest shift in coalition ROEs up to this point in the Afghan conflict. It is worth noting, however, that the following year saw the highest number of civilians killed by British forces, with 116 fatalities, although the precise figure of noncombatant deaths due to UK air strikes in this period cannot be ascertained. [15]

Endnotes

[1] Neville, Leigh. Special Forces in the War on Terror (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2015): 160.

[2] Operation PITTING – The Moving Story, Royal Air Force, 2021, https://www.raf.mod.uk/news/articles/operation-pitting-the-moving-story/

[3] Schroen, Gary. First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in 

Afghanistan (New York City: Presidio Press, 2006): 83-84.

[4] Zucchino, David, “The U.S. War in Afghanistan: How It Started, and How It Ended,” The New York Times,  2021, https://www.nytimes.com/article/afghanistan-war-us.html 

[5] UK forces: operations in Afghanistan, Gov.UK, 2015, https://www.gov.uk/guidance/uk-forces-operations-in-afghanistan#:~:text=This%20final%20phase%20of%20the,end%20on%2031%20December%202014.

[6] Mills, Claire and Walker, Nigel, “Proposal for an inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the NATO-led mission to Afghanistan,” UK Parliament, 2021, https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cdp-2021-0174/ 

[7] Neville, Special Forces in the War on Terror, 161.

[8] Harnden, Tony. First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11 (London: Welbeck, 2021): 367.

[9] New medal unveiled to honour Kabul evacuation heroes, Royal Air Force, 2022, https://www.raf.mod.uk/news/articles/new-medal-unveiled-to-honour-kabul-evacuation-heroes/

[10] British Operations in Afghanistan, Ministry of Defence, 2015, https://www.gov.uk/government/fields-of-operation/afghanistan 

[11] Jones, Murray, “Blood Money: UK Compensation Payments for Afghan Civilian Harm Explained,” Action on Armed Violence, 2021, https://aoav.org.uk/2021/blood-money-uk-compensation-payments-for-afghan-civilian-harm-examined/ 

[12] Civilians Killed- Claims Register Data https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/e/2PACX-1vR8pcRUvriJ3GCoejJTMePTDEwuhYAtcJ3NA8_BAWIwCo5Q60uekGRuzh6Y7socaQ/pubhtml 

[13] Civilians Killed- Claims Register Data https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/e/2PACX-1vR8pcRUvriJ3GCoejJTMePTDEwuhYAtcJ3NA8_BAWIwCo5Q60uekGRuzh6Y7socaQ/pubhtml 

[14] Perkins, Robert et al. Air Power in Afghanistan: How NATO changes the rules, 2008 – 2014  (London: Action on Armed Violence, 2015): 3. 

[15] Civilians Killed- Claims Register Data https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/e/2PACX-1vR8pcRUvriJ3GCoejJTMePTDEwuhYAtcJ3NA8_BAWIwCo5Q60uekGRuzh6Y7socaQ/pubhtml