The Backstory: Nick Turse

Nick Turse discusses the challenges of collecting data in war zones and obtaining information from the US military.

Nick Turse discusses the opacity of the US military and the challenges of collecting data in war zones for The Nation’s October special report on civilian casualties in the war in Afghanistan, which he co-authored with contributing editor Bob Dreyfuss. —Abbie Nehring

Abbie Nehring: Hi everyone, this is The Backstory at The Investigative Fund, and I’m Abbie Nehring talking today with Nick Turse, award-winning investigative journalist, historian, and essayist. He is the managing editor of and a contributor to The Nation. He is the author of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real War in Vietnam and several other books. Along with Nation contributing editor Bob Dreyfuss, Nick co-authored the October special report, “America’s Afghan Victims,” which attempts to count and account for the suffering of Afghan civilians at the hands of the US military. The report includes an interactive database that is the result of four months of research tallying civilian deaths in Afghanistan from war-related actions by the United States and its allies from the invasion in October 2001 until the end of 2012.

So Nick, there was an airstrike in the village of Granai in 2009, which I think is emblematic of how civilian casualty data can be politicized in Afghanistan. So to go over the numbers here, there was a preliminary military investigation into the airstrike that day which put civilian fatalities at 20-30. And then there was a subsequent UN count, which said that 64 civilians had been killed. And there was also an investigation by the Afghan defense ministry [estimating it] was actually at least about 140. So I’m wondering how your observation of these types of discrepancies in civilian casualty data [led you] to pair up with Bob Dreyfuss and begin this research project to really tally how many civilian casualties have been caused at the hands of the US military.

Nick Turse: Well, thanks very much for speaking with me today Abbie. What Bob Dreyfuss and I really tried to do was we realized that there wasn’t a good accounting of civilians casualties in Afghanistan. We had these major incidents like the attack in Granai, and we did our best to sort through the data as best we could to try and grapple with all the different figures that were out there and give our readers a sense of exactly what the civilian toll has been in these major incidents and overall during the course of the war.

Nehring: And when you were first trying to get access to some of the data and put together what your methodology was going to be, it seems like it was pretty hard to find out much information about how the military collects civilian casualty data. For instance, this is something you report in The Nation special report, that in 2011 ISAF created a civilian casualty tracking cell. And this was in part in response to the trove of documents released by WikiLeaks on the Afghan War Logs. This opened up a database to a reporter at Science named John Bohannon, but then later they cut off his access — I hope I’m refreshing your memory here. And you also said that ISAF denied your own request to embed with the military, which you were trying to do to witness how the tracking was done. So in general how have you found the military’s relationship with the public has evolved during the course of the war and do you have any anecdotes about trying to access information through this civilian tracking database?

Turse: Yes, the military gave the reporting on this very difficult. I knew that John Bohannon had gotten in to see the military civilian casualty tracking cell up close and personal, and I asked for the same type of access. I was denied that. I asked to go see their civilian casualty mitigation team. I was denied that. Several others — what they call their CIVCAS, or civilian casualty system, and at each turn I was denied. The reason that I was given in one case was that this was conducted at a top-secret facility. I said I knew that John Bohannon didn’t have top-secret clearance, that these are negotiations that the press and the military go through and that I was willing to listen to their ground rules, but they stuck to that, and they just wouldn’t let me in. John Bohannon told me they won’t let him now see their civilian casualty tracking system in action. It’s very troubling because the military has at the same time said that their CIVCAS efforts have paid great dividends, that these have helped decrease the number of civilian casualties, that their mitigation efforts have been very successful, but they don’t allow you to see that so you’re forced to take their word on it.

Bob and I had a very difficult time trying to dig into the nuts and bolts of this military system. They released some documents to me inadvertently. They were documents that I was later told weren’t supposed to be released to the press. They did give us a glimpse of what their civilian casualty tracking is like and from the looks of it, form this fragmentary data, it doesn’t look like their efforts have yielded very much. It looks to me like the civilian deaths have only been reduced slightly the civilian wounded may actually have increased. So they talk a good game about what they’ve been doing in regard to civilians, but they won’t let anyone actually witness the system in action.

Nehring: So then how did you settle on what your methodology ended up being, which was to use media reports? You found the media reports which you thought were reliable enough and compiled all of those to put together this database.

Turse: You know, I think it was Bob at the beginning who had an idea to put together a database, and we thought about it for a while. There had been some databases that had been put together by others at various times during the course of the war. Most of them, they had taken reports from Pakistani media, media that was considered to be close to the Taliban and most mainstream outlets wouldn’t cite this data for that reason. So we made a decision early on that we were just going to take mostly Western press reports from big news organizations and just look at that data. We thought it was also a straightforward approach and we would just tally up the figures. It turned out to be a much more involved process than we had thought it might be, but I think in the end, it does give us some idea of the best data possible on what the civilian toll has been for this war. It’s only an indication — of course most civilian deaths probably aren’t logged in the press in any way. A lot of these deaths take place in the countryside. People are killed in ones and twos and there are now birth certificates, so there are no death certificates. It’s very tough for any kind of standardized tracking, but we did the best with what was out there just to give readers a general sense of what the toll has been.

Nehring: One of the things you’ve said previously is that you have this belief that you can always access the data, even if it’s behind a locked door, that there’s some way to get a hold of it. So has this project — given that it’s in the middle of a war zone in Afghanistan, and it’s really the wild west in terms of being able to actually collect data — has this challenged that view or confirmed it in any way?

Turse: Well I think there is a lot of data out there. Getting our hands on it was the problem. The UN does have data. We weren’t able to get a hold of their raw data. We know the military collects data, and we’re only able to get fragments of that. I think it’s out there and I’ve in the past done a lot of work on the Vietnam War and really getting a handle on the civilian toll in that war has taken decades, so I’m afraid it might be decades from now that a historian or journalist or maybe a team of the two are able to give us a sense. For the moment, Bob and I did what we could to just start on the path towards that.

Nehring: One of the things that I really appreciate is the honesty that the database ultimately portrays in showing both the minimum amount of casualties that have been reported and the maximum, so you’re really being honest about our uncertainty about what these numbers could be.

Turse: Yeah, we wanted to be upfront with the database. And also it’s a function of the way these incidents have been reported over the course of war. Sometimes you’ll read an account in the New York Times, and it’ll have one number for the civilian casualties count and the LA Times will have another number. Sometimes, as you mentioned with the Granai incident, you’ll have the US military come out with generally a lowball figure and maybe the Afghan government or an NGO with a much higher figure. Bob and I tried to work with those numbers and make sure that people are fully aware that a lot of these are contested in some way and be as upfront and honest as possible.

Nehring: Digging into how the civilian casualty numbers changed during the course of the war, you split the war into three sections in your piece. The first one is the first few months of the war, which there’s really not a lot of data during that period. And then the second period is what you refer to as the nation-building period, which goes from 2003 when the Taliban fell to the end of the Bush administration around 2007. Finally you talk about this counter-insurgency period around 2008 up to the present. So talk a little bit about how the civilian casualty numbers have shifted over the course of those three periods.

Turse: Ok, during the first period, this was a period of heavy air war, heavy bombardment, and we knew there were a good deal of civilian casualties during this heavy bombing phase. There weren’t a lot of reporters on the ground at the time. We did our best to scour all the reports that were out there. The Los Angeles Times at the time had done the best wrap-up piece on the subject, but there weren’t a lot of people looking at this at the time. There was an on-the-ground investigation that was conducted by Willian Arkin, who is a military analyst and a bomb damage specialist. And we interviewed him for the series and he said it was very difficult, even for someone with this much experience, to get any sense of what the toll of the air war was. He gave us a number of around 1,500 civilians during those first months of the war, but really it’s impossible to know.

During the second phase of the war, there really was a rather light US footprint, so there wasn’t as much in the way of civilian casualties as far as we could tell, but there also wasn’t a great press focus. This was the time when all eyes were really on Iraq, so we have a smaller US presence that was really based in Kabul for a lot of that time, but also not a lot of press out in the field. So reporting I think did suffer during that time. In the third phase of the war, we did have an escalation of airpower and then a ratcheting back under General Stanley McChrystal. When he was replaced by general David Petraeus, then the air war was ratcheted back up again. So we saw a big spike there in the figures. So we saw these general trends during the war, but it’s also a function not just of the way the US and its allies were conducting the war, but the press that were on the ground to report on this.

Nehring: So this is really quite a powerful research tool that you’ve created here and looking back on it through the eyes of history years later, you can start to see the way the military may or may not have responded to the reports of these mass casualty incidents that were beginning to come out. You report that there was some attempt to change military strategy in response to these air strikes that were casualties en masse. Starting in 2007, you mention there was a tactical directive, which was meant to better shield civilians during night raids, etc. So what is your judgment of the military’s attempt to reduce mass casualty incidents, and was this 2007 directive a step in the right direction?

Turse: Well, I think there was during the McChrystal phase of the war a ratcheting back on the use of air power to some degree, but what we found in the documents — and there were some secret briefing slides that I make reference to in our main piece — it doesn’t appear that the tactical directions that were initiated really were disseminated into the field as they should have been, and that not all the aspects of the directive were followed. It seemed to us and it seemed from the military documents that they were still having a problem of getting this guidance into the field and having personnel actually act upon it. Even thought these directives were put out, we continued to see mass casualty incidents caused by the same issues, basically the application of air power in and around civilian compounds.

Nehring: And particularly focusing in on what this says about counterinsurgency strategy, a huge irony to me is that the 2009 surge based on the counterinsurgency doctrine was that it was supposed to protect civilians and help empower Afghan government institutions. How do you think seeing this data, given that it really kind of went in exactly the opposite direction after 2009, how do you think that’s going to effect COIN’s legacy?

Turse: You know, COIN is like a Phoenix in some ways in that it doesn’t seem to matter when it fails, it just rises form the ashes. This was a failed strategy in Vietnam and it was brought back into vogue in Iraq and then Afghanistan. It was seen as a cure-all. You know I’d like to think that looking at the data, military officials would say, look this is a losing strategy for what we claim it is, for building rapport in the civilian population, for winning hearts and minds. But COIN just seems to have some lure for the military and I imagine it will come back and be born anew. There’s enough literature out there touting the success of COIN even thought the data doesn’t point that way that I’m sorry to say I think it will return and have similar results.

Nehring: And finally, one possibility that you mention towards the end of your story in The Nation is that the Department of Defense might create an Office of Civilian Protection to try and address some of the problems. So where has the push and advocacy for such an office gone in the past five years or so which was when this idea started becoming popular and what do you think such an office might be able to accomplish?

Turse: You know the people we talked to within the military seemed to think such an office actually existed and many calls later, they found out that it actually didn’t. And in some ways that might tell you all you need to know on this. I’m afraid that without a lot of money and without really high-level backing, such an office would probably become a backwater of the Pentagon. Obviously, they thought it existed, but no one seemed to know where it was, and I’m afraid that if it was created that’s probably what it would become. But I guess there is always some glimmer of hope that such an office could be created and might really have power to change tactical policy on the ground. But it would have to be well funded, and it would have to have high-level support and I just don’t see that happening.

Nehring: Well we can always hold out hope. Well thanks, this has been really interesting Nick Turse. Thanks for coming into the talk to us today. This has been Backstory at The Investigative Fund.

Turse: Thanks so much, Abbie.

About the reporter

Nick Turse

Nick Turse

Nick Turse is an investigative reporter, the managing editor of The Nation Institute's TomDispatch, and the co-founder of Dispatch Books.