The South Asia Channel

The problem of "population protection"

The U.N. and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission have just issued their statistics and analysis on civilian harm in the first half of 2010. According to their findings, the tactical restrictions put in place by former ISAF commanding General Stanley McChrystal in 2009 and largely retained by General David Petraeus, his successor, are working: the number of civilian casualties caused by "Pro-government forces" (largely international forces) is down. Insurgents are responsible for the majority of civilian casualties (deaths and injuries) - 76% according to yesterday's U.N. report.

But if you were to ask the average Afghan who was more to blame for civilian casualties, their answer would most likely not reflect the bald statistics.  My organization, Open Society Foundations, conducted research across all regions of Afghanistan in the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010, asking community elders about their views of the different warring parties, and what they saw as the causes of the conflict. Despite the fact that more civilian harm is caused by insurgents, Afghans  tend to blame insurgents and international forces equally, and in many cases they hold international forces to be more responsible for the harm caused to them.

This is partly due to insurgent propaganda, bias against foreigners, and the fact that it takes time for impressions of foreign forces to change. Afghans are still nursing a long list of grievances against international forces from the past nine years. Yet the blame that Afghans attribute to international forces for civilian casualties is also a result of how the conflict is taking shape today.  Afghan civilians do not spare the Taliban or other insurgent groups in casting blame for specific incidents, but they hold the Afghan government and the international community responsible for a situation that is rapidly deteriorating and increasingly dangerous for ordinary Afghans.

Last July 2009, ISAF promised to not only prevent direct harm to civilians from international military forces but also to provide them better security against all warring parties. This "population protection" mantra may be dismissed in the US as counterinsurgency rhetoric but it rings true with what Afghans were demanding and expecting of the Afghan government and their international military partners at that time. Rather than population protection, there has been a 31% increase in civilian casualties since the same period last year, according to the U.N.. Though this was largely due to increased IEDs and suicide attacks by insurgents, Afghans hold the international military responsible for not keeping their promises of protection.

The U.N. report offered scathing reviews of the main international military operations this year - the operations in and around Marjah, Helmand, and those planned around Kandahar city.  Though tactical restrictions by international forces limited civilian deaths by pro-government forces in the initial fighting in Marjah, the overall effect on the population in the months following was severe: thousands were displaced; the entire area was blanketed with deadly IEDs and landmines, littering the land from farmer's fields to the walls of families houses; and those that even remotely cooperating with the incoming international and Afghan officials were picked off one by one in an ongoing Taliban intimidation campaign. An operation that was supposed to clear the Taliban and lay the groundwork for increased development and security instead resulted in a net security loss for residents in and around Marjah.

The planned operations in Kandahar have caused even more civilian harm, according to the U.N. findings. When ISAF announced it would increase its focus on securing and controlling Kandahar city, it sparked immediate Taliban reprisals and increased attacks in the city. And they carried through - at least the Taliban did:

[U.N. Human Rights] has documented that since the announcement of the military campaign early in 2010, civilians in Kandahar city and its surrounding districts have experienced high levels of assassinations, attacks, threats and intimidation by AGEs. Civilians have often been the target or borne the brunt of the AGEs response. The publicization of the operation and any impending military activities appears to have increased Taliban activity in Kandahar as more civilians were killed in the region in the first six months of 2010 than in any other region, particularly through the use of IEDs, suicide attacks, assassinations and abductions.

During June alone, 37 individuals were assassinated in Kandahar by the insurgents, mostly civilians, according to the U.N..

No one disputes that the Taliban and other insurgent groups are increasingly causing civilian harm. They are the ones who are executing, beheading, kidnapping, and torturing Afghan civilians on a repeated and widespread basis. They are increasing the use of IEDs and suicide attacks across Afghanistan, tactics that almost always result in disproportionate civilian harm, even where the targets are military. But operational choices, like those made by international forces in Marjah and Kandahar, can be as deadly for Afghan civilians as suicide bombings or airstrikes.  Though international forces should be applauded for reducing civilian harm by their own forces, there is still a long way to go until Afghans are convinced that they are able to provide meaningful "population protection."

Erica Gaston is a human rights lawyer for the Open Society Foundations, specializing in civilian casualty issues.  She is based in Kabul.

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