The South Asia Channel

Afghan Forces Need to Protect Civilians Too

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's continued refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement that would extend the American troop presence in his country after 2014 is due in part, he says, because he wants international forces to end operations that cause civilian casualties.  His resistance to an ongoing security partnership with the United States publicly began in November 2013 after an air strike killed three Afghan civilians, and was reignited in mid-January 2014 after another deadly airstrike that Karzai blamed on U.S. forces (the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force says it was an Afghan-led operation). A spokesman for Karzai said after the strike: "Of course, this is exactly about one of our conditions about the signing...but it seems like it is not understood. How many more innocent Afghans have to die so it gets the attention of U.S. officials?"

Karzai's anger when Afghans die at the hands of foreign forces, even if the operations were conducted lawfully, is understandable; and his demand that the United States take every possible precaution to avoid civilian deaths is legitimate. But his conditions on the security agreement divert attention from an inconvenient fact:  Karzai's own forces have yet to fully adopt the practices that international forces put in place to minimize civilian harm.

In 2008, U.S. and allied forces were taking well-deserved heat about civilian casualties. Following a string of civilian deaths, Afghans began protesting the international presence with an anthem of "Death to America." And Karzai took his concerns from closed-door meetings with U.S. officials to the airwaves, warning Washington that continued harm to civilians would make it hard for him to support the foreign presence in Afghanistan.

To their credit, international forces made changes, reflecting their own assessment that civilian casualties were hurting their mission. Commanders knew they couldn't win with an angry population, an angry president, and an angry pool of Afghan army recruits.  

Among the changes were new directives that limited airpower when civilians were in the area and civilian casualty rates went down as a result. Commanders were encouraged to offer apologies and explanations to the families of the victims, which lessened lingering grievances. A new policy of being "first with the truth" meant that instead of immediately denying civilian harm, international forces would thoroughly investigate cases where such casualties may have occurred. Military headquarters began to track and analyze civilian casualties over time and feed lessons learned back into operations, saving even more lives.

None of these efforts were perfect, but they showed a sincere effort to curb civilian suffering. And international forces didn't keep what they learned to themselves: they mentored the Afghans by bringing them directly into their tracking, investigation, and harm response processes.

But with the international coalition stepping back from the operational lead, these joint efforts are dissolving and lessons learned about how to minimize civilian suffering are being lost. In their place is a president who is prioritizing criticism of international forces over ensuring his own forces are able to avoid causing civilian harm.  

Afghanistan's security forces will be fighting in small towns where civilians work and live, just as their international counterparts had to do. They'll be fighting against a foe that uses civilians as shields. Yet Afghan officials tell us they're not concerned about causing civilian casualties because their soldiers -- simply by virtue of being Afghan -- will know who is a civilian and who is not. It's an illogical argument that is likely to result in more civilian deaths if Afghan forces don't prepare for the reality that civilians are at risk in any conflict, including theirs.

What could protect Afghans, rather, is a security force that recognizes and plans for the inevitability of civilian harm with similar systems to those the international forces put in place. Karzai created an office in 2012 to track civilian casualties by all warring parties, but it doesn't do much more than record incidents -- providing raw data that is useless without the analysis that would prompt changes in military operations. There is no policy in place to ensure uniform investigations are conducted into possible civilian casualties caused by Afghan forces, nor to publicly respond if any civilian harm found as a result. And while the Afghan government should be commended for creating programs to help civilian victims, many receive nothing and reforms are urgently needed.   

Afghan forces need to hear from their leaders the mantra that international force commanders instilled in their own: that the civilian is the center of gravity and the soldier will take responsibility for harm caused. 

What makes these missed opportunities to save lives so frustrating is that Karzai's government has proven that it can make improvements when it wants to. With assistance from international forces, a counter-IED program championed by the Afghan security forces has saved many civilian lives, and is seen as a big success. Why not give the military all the tools proven to reduce civilian harm?

While Karzai has every right to call on the United States to curb deadly airstrikes and night raids that put his population at risk, if he doesn't give his own forces the guidance, training, and tools they need to protect Afghan civilians, his concern will look like nothing more than empty political brinksmanship.

When being sworn in for his second term, Karzai pledged " learn from the mistakes and shortcomings of the past eight years. It is through this self-evaluation that we can better respond to the aspirations and expectations of our people." He needs to recognize that the lessons the United States and its partners learned from their mistakes in Afghanistan must guide his forces as well. The burden for protecting the Afghan people is a shared one.   

Sarah Holewinski is the executive director of Center for Civilians in Conflict, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. working to make warring parties more responsible to civilians before, during, and after conflict. 


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