The South Asia Channel

What civilian casualties? Afghan forces' implausible denials

In January, Afghan forces shot grenades and bullets at a remote village in Nangarhar province, in eastern Afghanistan. One civilian died, and villagers rushed six other injured residents to the hospital in Jalalabad. Nasir saw it all happen. He then had to beg $11,000 from friends and relatives to cover medical care for his injured family members.

Several days later, Nasir asked the district chief of police why Afghan forces fired on the village.  "We had an intelligence report that insurgents were in the village and we wanted to scare them, so we just started firing on the village," the police chief told him. Furious, Nasir complained to the Afghan Army Regional Corps Commander and the Provincial Governor's office to no avail. He went to the Governor's office itself to demand an investigation and financial help for the medical bills. An official there told him to rewrite his complaint letter to blame opposition forces. When Nasir refused to lie, he was turned away.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case.  Of the hundred or so families I interviewed with my colleagues for a report by Center for Civilians in Conflict, most say they've received nothing from their government for deaths or injuries caused by Afghan forces.

One major reason these families are ignored is that Afghan officials often refuse to acknowledge that its security forces cause civilian casualties in the first place. Over the past year, Center for Civilians in Conflict interviewed other civilians harmed by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) whose complaints were ignored by their government. And we're not the only ones to notice. In its latest protection of civilians report, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) noted: "UNAMA is concerned by the reluctance of ANSF leadership to acknowledge civilian casualties caused by ANSF. Senior ANP [Afghan National Police] and ANA [Afghan National Army] senior officers consistently asserted that ANSF do not cause civilian casualties."

Like Nasir, some of the civilians we interviewed appealed to Afghan officials for an investigation and assistance in response to deaths and injuries caused by Afghan forces. But local Afghan officials frequently denied that harm had been done, cast blame on other warring parties, or were wholly indifferent. While Afghan government programs exist in principle to ease the suffering of all civilian victims of the conflict, in practice the government rarely investigates, holds accountable, or offers assistance to those harmed by its own security forces.

This is a disturbing trend, and eerily similar to how the United States and other international forces dealt with civilian casualties at the start of their time in Afghanistan. The civilian casualties they caused-and ignored-generated anger and harsh criticism from ordinary Afghans and President Karzai.  Commanders eventually recognized that their mission was undermined every time Afghan civilians are killed or injured by international forces.

Civilian harm caused by Afghan forces hasn't yet generated the same level of local anger, nor had the same strategic effect, for two main reasons. First, Afghans have historically been opposed to the presence of foreign forces on their soil. Civilian harm caused by international forces played into these anti-foreigner sentiments. In contrast, many Afghans I have met expressed pride in their security forces, particularly the Afghan army. Second, the ANSF have not yet caused as many civilian casualties as international forces or the Taliban, primarily because they have not been in the lead during combat operations.  As could have been predicted, ANSF-caused civilian casualties are increasing as Afghan forces assume control of their country.

Civilian deaths caused by Afghan forces are beginning to spark some protests, albeit less frequently than when international forces are responsible for such incidents. Over time, it's easy to see how Afghan forces could lose the support of their people. Three weeks ago, an elder from Nangarhar told me, "[Afghan forces] call us insurgents. That is why they kill us. Some Taliban are in our villages, but many are ordinary civilians. The Afghan army chases them and when they go to the villages [the Afghan army] shoots civilians...We are upset with both sides-the government and the Taliban. They shouldn't be killing us.  The Taliban and the ANSF are the same."

To be fair, the Taliban and other armed opposition groups are responsible for the overwhelming amount of civilian casualties. Many Afghan officials are quick to highlight this fact in an apparent strategy to deflect criticism. But, that is no excuse for the Afghan government to ignore civilians harmed by its own security forces. The population is looking to them not only for security but also to be an honest broker-capable of protecting, serving, and taking responsibility for its actions. That means Afghan forces, and the government behind them, need to avoid civilian harm and respond with integrity when civilian casualties do happen.  

Best practices can be found close to home. In 2008, international forces began noticeable efforts to better prevent and respond to civilian casualties they caused.  Instead of frequently denying responsibility for them and not offering any assistance in the aftermath, international forces started building up policies and practices that sought to avoid civilian casualties and dignify the families left behind when civilians were killed or injured.  They saw this shift as both a strategic and a humanitarian imperative.

To start, ISAF instituted a mechanism within command headquarters to track and investigate civilian harm, analyze it for lessons learned to help prevent recurrence, and respond to allegations of civilian casualties with timely information rather than denials.  Some international forces began offering monetary payments to civilians in recognition of their losses and as a culturally appropriate gesture of dignity.

These practices are by no means perfect and we still meet many civilians harmed by international forces who are not offered the assistance they deserve. But ISAF policies to track, analyze, and respond to civilian casualties have meant fewer civilians are harmed and the response to many incidents of civilian harm has improved. In 2012, UNAMA found that international military forces caused 491 civilian casualties, a marked reduction from 2009, when they were responsible for 1008 civilian deaths and injuries. For the Afghan government not to enact similar policies is a wasted opportunity to learn from past mistakes.

It's not too late. There are two ways to prove to the Afghan people that their forces are there to help, not to cause more harm.

First, Afghan forces need to own up to the harm they cause. They need a fully operational civilian casualty mitigation team-similar to what ISAF created-housed in the National Security Council. It should be staffed professionally and be responsible for tracking, investigating, and responding to civilian harm. Last summer, the Afghan President's Office began a worthwhile effort to track civilian casualties caused by Afghan forces. But the main input to this system is reporting from Afghan forces spread out in the provinces-a dispersed system that is woefully weak. The effort will certainly fail unless this reporting structure is strengthened and all data gets from the countryside to the capital.  Investigations and harm response procedures need a major overhaul, as both are inadequate to actually identify and help civilians harmed.  (Civilian harm that violates international or domestic law should be dealt with through separate legal channels.)

Second, the Afghan government should offer financial help to civilians harmed by Afghan forces.  There are already two programs in effect to assist war victims, but they don't go nearly far enough, and civilians harmed by Afghan forces are rarely offered help. One program-called the Code 99 Fund-is housed in President Karzai's office and gives payments of about $2,000 for family members killed and about $1,000 for conflict-related injuries. Another program, under the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs, and Disabled, offers smaller monthly sums for conflict-related losses. In our interviews, we found that nearly all recipients of this aid were harmed by the Taliban or international forces. 

One simple reason civilians harmed by Afghan forces don't get as much help is that the forces responsible don't have a way of referring people to these assistance programs. That's an obvious fix that's needed and could be immediately rectified by creating protocols for what to do once a civilian has been harmed. When I met with the spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of Defense several weeks ago, he agreed that such procedures should be developed for the Afghan Army.  The Ministry of Defense, Interior, as well as the National Directorate of Security-all of which oversee elements of the ANSF-should act without delay to create these channels for getting civilians through the system.

The United States and its allies shifted tactics to better avoid and respond to civilian casualties in Afghanistan, but they're not off the hook yet. They can and should do more to ensure that the security forces they leave behind are professional and accountable, including supporting the Afghan government in creating a civilian casualty mitigation team and fixing its assistance programs. The US and NATO allies currently offer $6 billion each year to pay for the ANSF, so they have plenty of leverage.  Donors should strongly encourage the Afghan government to direct a small amount of those funds towards these civilian-centered initiatives. Whether or not Afghan forces are prepared to avoid and respond appropriately to civilian harm will ultimately reflect on the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan.

As Afghan forces take the lead, ordinary Afghans will judge their security forces by how they treat civilians. That means both their ability to avoid harm to civilians during operations, and their response when civilian casualties occur. The Afghan government has something to prove, too, as its immediate and long-term legitimacy will very much depend on whether people like Nasir and his family are cared for, not ignored.

Trevor Keck is a Kabul based field researcher with Center for Civilians in Conflict.

*Names have been changed

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

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