Monday on the Couch: Does Data Change Behavior of Belligerents in Wars?

Examples from Afghanistan

On the afternoon of 7 December 2020, the Bosch Alumni Network's last virtual Monday on The Couch 2020 was held, a discussion format whereby experts from the network are invited to discuss a current political or societal topic. This edition was organized in collaboration with United Against Inhumanity (UAI), an international movement of civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations, and individuals that address human rights violations of people endangered by conflict or in need of refuge.

Co-founder of UAI, Norah Niland, and Zaman Abdul Ghafor, project manager at the Afghanistan Forensic Science Organization (AFSO), were on the panel moderated by Kabul-based journalist Kate Clark. They shared their experiences with documenting the harm caused to civilians during the four-decade long Afghanistan conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people. The discussion was aimed at raising awareness about the benefits of data collection by various organizations, but also its gaps and limitations to challenge the policies and practices that produce human suffering.

Clark, who is co-director of the independent non-profit policy research and analysis organization Afghanistan Analysts Network, has spent years investigating and telling the stories of the people of Afghanistan. To put the Afghanistan conflict into perspective, she introduced the session with its various phases. The war started when the Soviet Red Army marched into the country in 1979. A decade after the Soviet forces withdrew, the civil war continued, and the Taliban emerged. US military troops entered Afghanistan in October 2001 and have since tried to end the Taliban’s deadly regime.

Norah Niland, as head of the human rights team within the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), pioneered a special program in 2008, aimed at reducing the direct impact of war on civilians with the use of evidence-based advocacy. With an emphasis on systematic and credible reporting of atrocities on civilians, the program was meant to enhance accountability and coordinate efforts to ensure their protection.

Subsequently, several other projects were introduced in the same vein, including the one by Afghanistan’s national human rights institution, Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and two NATO-led military missions- Afghanistan International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Resolute Support Mission. Local NGOs such as AFSO, where Zaman Abdul Ghafor works, also record civilian casualties, and after 2016, the government of Afghanistan started chronicling it too, he said.

Norah Niland explained that the program she introduced in Afghanistan between 2008-2010 entailed systematic investigation, analysis and public reporting of civilian casualties. Its dedicated data collection program included the development of protocols and guidance and continued support for front-line workers, networks and alliances. Right from get-go, evidence-based advocacy or lobbying was central to achieving useful results.

Continued monitoring produced data and reports that brought attention to the problem and the need to reduce casualties, Norah Niland said. For example, just a few months into the project in 2008, the US military and its allies issued one of the many tactical directives with the intent of minimizing risks to civilians. Taliban fighters were pushed to take steps to limit harm to civilians, based on a revised code of conduct. In 2009, a surge in American troops could have led to more casualties, but the death rate did not keep pace with increased warfare, she said.

Despite a lot of push-back in military, diplomatic and institutional circles, the program succeeded due to the significant support of the Afghans, which boosted networking with the civilians, Norah Niland explained. Over time, belligerents could not ignore the data which emerged from clear, transparent methodology. Impartial accounts added to the credibility of the reports.

UNAMA has been regularly publishing figures regarding the protection of civilians in armed conflict, a few times a year, since 2009. As Norah Niland stated, wars are dynamic processes, so it is important to keep on learning and strengthening such program.


Monday on the Couch is a discussion format within the Bosch Alumni Network. One Monday each month, we are inviting experts from our network to the iac Community Space to discuss a current political or societal topic. After the discussion, there is time to continue the conversation over drinks.

Are you interested in organizing a Monday on the Couch event? Please feel free to send us some lines with your idea at!