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Visualizing the Afghan War Diary Data


An initial look at the first 76,000 records in the "Afghan War Diary" leaked by Wikileaks yields some important information, much of which has been known or suspected by analysts for years. Given the sheer size of the database, there is a great deal more to be learned, but here are some initial findings.

Casualty data

The first impression is one of an extremely lopsided war, like all wars of occupation, where occupied casualties are vastly higher than those by the occupier.

The database records 15219 Afghans killed in combat – these are classified as Enemy Killed in Action, or Enemy KIA in the database. The majority of these deaths (9652) occurred in engagements started by Afghans, with the second largest number of deaths (3749) occurring in engagements started by the US/NATO. The third major killer was the "Explosive Hazard", with 1691 deaths. As far as how these Afghans died, the majority died in Direct Fire incidents (8225), with Indirect Fire killing another 1345.

Skepticism about these incidents is warranted for several reasons. These records were prepared by the US military, which would have an interest in presenting all those it killed as combatants. Even so, to have killed 15,219 Taliban fighters over a 5 year period is some 3,000 per year. If the Taliban are, in fact, replacing those numbers every year, the real size and strength of the organization must be vast.

By comparison, the database records 3994 civilian deaths, attributing most of those (2650) to "Explosive Hazard", most of which are IEDs planted by the Taliban, and relatively few to US/NATO, with 162 deaths attributed to "Friendly Action" and 34 to "Friendly Fire".

US/NATO deaths, of which there were 1146 (less than half the civilian deaths and less than 1/10 of Taliban deaths), come mostly from IEDs (694 from Explosive Hazard) and fewer from engagements started by the Taliban (290), and still fewer in engagements started by the US/NATO (44).

Spatial pattern

The spatial pattern is evident from a map of the incidents. Pulling out 3800 incidents mentioning "CF", or "Coalition Forces", gives a sense of the spatial pattern for the whole war. Below, incidents are in red, district boundaries in black, roads in green:

The map gives a strong indication of the regional character of the war. Most incidents are clustered in the southeast, along the border with Pakistan. Note also the significant number of incidents in Pakistan itself, which can be shown on a separate map, and indicates incidents in Balochistan, NWFP, and FATA:

The over 3000 references to Pakistan in the database are visualized here:

The war is occurring principally in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given the somewhat fragile multiethnic character of both societies, a character they share with all of their neighbours (especially India and Iran), the fact that some parts of the country are under occupation and active insurgency while others are possibly leaving them behind is very troubling.

The Drug War in Afghanistan

It is well known that counterinsurgency operations encourage drug traffic, as was well documented in Southeast Asia, the Andean region, and Afghanistan, for example by Alfred McCoy’s "Politics of Heroin". I wrote about this from Pakistan two years ago ("On Drug Wars and Opium Fueled Insurgencies"). There is currently an unusual situation in that the US is simultaneously fighting counterinsurgency warfare and a war on drugs in Afghanistan (and in a more complex and less direct way in Colombia). The 800+ hits on drug-related terms (narco, poppy, opium, heroin, drug) are visualized here:

Note the concentration in the south (Hilmand) and the east. Now let’s zoom in on one of the areas, one the clusters of points in the south:

Afghanistan Information Management Services (AIMS) provides a map of cultivated areas in Afghanistan. When you put the cultivated areas of Afghanistan (green) under the drug incidents (red) for this Hilmand zoom, you see that there are incidents in virtually all the cultivated area in this map:

The same holds, on a quick glance, for the other clusters in the south and east. Noting such caveats as the fact that this is 800/76,000 hits, and that much of the cultivated area in the north has very few drug-war related hits, these NATO activities would still be antagonizing to Afghan farmers of the south and east, which is also where the war is mostly concentrated. This is the whole country’s cultivated areas (green) and the "narc-opium-drug-heroin-poppy" hits in red:

Given that it constitutes an attack on farmers in Afghanistan’s rare cultivated areas of the southeast, the drug war is likely fueling anti-US/NATO sentiment in the region, leaving farmers with no economic options but to grow poppy and seek protection from the Taliban. On the US/NATO side, the drug war provides a pretext for very detailed surveillance and control of rural Afghanistan and an attack on the entire society on the grounds that their livelihoods are sustaining "terrorism".

Conclusions

A few points emerge from these data. First, the US has always claimed that its principal interest in Afghanistan was not to help or liberate Afghans but to fight "terrorism" and avenge 9/11. Almost ten years later, US data show that Afghans have sacrificed far more for these US goals than the West has (19213 Afghan combat and civilian casualties, 1146 coalition casualties). Second, the war is concentrated in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and this is likely to further divide both of these countries. Third, the drug war focuses on the cultivated areas of the southeast and is ongoing. Both drug trafficking and drug war fuel insurgency. There is a great deal more in the data that careful work by the many people who are studying it will likely reveal. In the most optimistic scenarios, we can hope that this may lead to a reconsideration of how the US treats countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, that one day the West might respect the sovereignty of poor countries.

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