In a war zone, who counts as a civilian?

REZA SHIRMOHAMMADI/AFP/Getty Images Two weeks ago, an operation aimed at Taliban insurgents in the Afghan village of Azizabad looked like a public relations mess for the United States. The United Nations reported that the airstrikes killed no less than 90 civilians. Protests shot up in the local town, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
592849_080903_azizabad5.jpg
592849_080903_azizabad5.jpg

REZA SHIRMOHAMMADI/AFP/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, an operation aimed at Taliban insurgents in the Afghan village of Azizabad looked like a public relations mess for the United States. The United Nations reported that the airstrikes killed no less than 90 civilians. Protests shot up in the local town, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack.

Ninety civilian casualties? Nope, say U.S. investigators today, who put the number instead at just five. All the others killed -- somewhere between 30 and 35 people -- were Taliban insurgents.

REZA SHIRMOHAMMADI/AFP/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, an operation aimed at Taliban insurgents in the Afghan village of Azizabad looked like a public relations mess for the United States. The United Nations reported that the airstrikes killed no less than 90 civilians. Protests shot up in the local town, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack.

Ninety civilian casualties? Nope, say U.S. investigators today, who put the number instead at just five. All the others killed — somewhere between 30 and 35 people — were Taliban insurgents.

Could it just be the way we are counting? Besides, who really is a civilian?

In fact, there is an official definition, found in a 1977 addition to the Geneva Convention — but it reads like a confused doctors’ diagnosis of exclusion. If you’re not carrying a gun for somebody or for some reason, chances are you’re a civilian. The lines gets blurry when you start feeding the fighters, housing them, or just plain looking like them. 

I suspect that the United States, perhaps more focused on controlling a rebounding Taliban insurgency, might define a combatant a bit more loosely than does the United Nations. Or perhaps the “civilian” witnesses that both camps interviewed simply had motives for either exaggerating or supressing the death count, depending on who was asking the questions. 

Questions should keep being asked, though, as long as one-liners like this one keep popping up: 

On Tuesday, NATO said it accidentally killed four children in Paktika province with artillery fire.

Not a good way to win hearts and minds.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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