Mapping Kill/Capture Missions in Afghanistan

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Frustrated by the lack of aggregate data released by ISAF about its kill/capture missions in Afghanistan, two Kandahar-based researchers decided to examine the policy’s scope and efficacy by digging deep into nearly 4,000 press releases, issued between December 2009 and September 2011.

Their analysis, published in a report [PDF] by the Afghanistan Analysts Network this week, is the most comprehensive picture to date of the quantitative scope of night raids, controversial operations that the U.S. military considers it’s most successful, safe and surgical tool against the insurgency.

Who Is Being Killed or Captured?

Researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn assert that ISAF’s classifications of “facilitators,” “leaders” and “insurgents” is inconsistent,  with some individuals being labeled facilitators and leaders in the same statement. Without a precise definition, the researchers caution that ISAF’s claims about militant leaders killed or captured should not be used as indicators of success of operations.

“The use of the word ‘leader’ is intended to convey the impression that the masterminds of the Taliban are being taking off the battlefield. That’s a misrepresentation,” Strick van Linschoten told The Guardian.

The researchers also say data from the press releases contradicts the aggregated data ISAF occasionally supplies, with ISAF’s claims over a given period sometimes being much higher than the number calculated from press releases.  They caution that the inconsistencies should make “policymakers and analysts evaluating ISAF’s progress think twice about accepting these bodycount figures without more serious scrutiny.”

Who Is Being Targeted?

The report suggests that ISAF is pursuing more broad targeting than in the past:

The data suggests that ISAF is pursuing a ‘networked’ targeting strategy, targeting not only specific individuals (presumably on the basis of evidence) but also others perhaps only tangentially connected to them (for which there may be no evidence of wrongdoing). For instance, in July 2010, there was roughly one leader killed for every 20 individuals who ended up dead in capture or kill raids across Afghanistan, the second lowest monthly figure during the 22-month period.

And the researchers’ findings compliment a report released by the Open Society Foundations last month, which warned that the surge in the number and scope of targets has “put many more civilians at risk than past intelligence flaws ever did.”

Where Are the Operations Taking Place?

The data shows that majority of kill/capture missions are taking place in Kandahar, Helmand and Khost provinces, while the smallest numbers of kill/capture missions are in Nooristan and Kunar, along the eastern border, suggesting ISAF’s operations there are primarily fought by air.

A Surge under Gen. Petraeus

Comparing the pace of operations under ISAF commanders Gens. Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus and John Allen, the researchers found a significant increase in kill/capture missions when Gen. Petraues took command in 2010, and a decrease when he left the position. Their analysis suggests the the number of those being killed or captured increased over the 22-month period, although the numbers of detainees increased more rapidly than the number of those killed. However, they caution that “without a better understanding of internal discussions within ISAF during this period,” the data only suggests correlation between this escalation under Gen. Petraeus rather than causation.

“The figures reported in ISAF press releases are not intended to provide a complete historical documentation of every battlefield event that occurs in theater,” Col. Gary Kolbe, an ISAF spokesman, told The Guardian in response to the AAN report.  He said that more than 85 percent of the time “night operations are conducted without a shot being fired” and that they “get the intended 50 percent of the time.”

Dig Deeper: Every NATO Kill/Capture Mission in Afghanistan Detailed and Visualized – The Guardian’s DataBlog lets you download the data for yourself and also features this interactive map of the data you can explore by province.

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