Afghan government must improve its response to civilian harm
With civilian casualties once again rising in Afghanistan, the Afghan government must urgently boost its response to civilian casualties, said the advocacy group Center for Civilians in Conflict.
Today the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported that the civilian death toll in the first half of this year increased 23% compared to same period last year. The Taliban and other armed groups were responsible for the majority of civilian casualties, often caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), accounting for 2,863 deaths and injuries and underscoring a disregard for Afghan civilian life. International forces and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were responsible for 362 deaths and injuries, out of which 124 are attributable solely to ANSF.
“Afghanistan’s leadership has been critical of how international forces handled harm,” said Sahr Muhammedally, Senior Program Manager MENA and South Asia at CIVIC. “Now that they’re in charge, it’s time to look in the mirror. They’ve got to reduce the suffering of their own population by recognizing civilian losses across the country and providing better help to victims harmed by all groups.”
In the January 2013 report, Caring for Their Own: A Stronger Afghan Response to Civilian Harm, CIVIC assessed how ANSF responds to civilian harm and evaluated current government assistance programs for Afghan civilians harmed, including by anti-government forces. The research finds that the Karzai Administration has created programs to help civilians harmed by the conflict, but that inadequacies left many victims without any recognition or assistance. Civilians suffering losses—regardless of which warring party caused them—face numerous challenges in securing assistance from several programs designed to help them. The application process is unwieldy and requests for assistance often go unanswered. Those who eventually do receive funds face significant delays, insufficient levels of assistance, and sometimes extortion while trying to get officials to verify claims. Many civilians interviewed by CIVIC, who were harmed directly by the ANSF or in an armed clash involving Afghan and other forces did not have their case investigated or managed appropriately. Some interviewees appealed directly to Afghan officials or ANSF commanders, but even they failed to garner acknowledgement of their losses or a legal investigation.
“The Afghan government should be commended for creating programs to assist civilians who are harmed, but without an overhaul, these programs won’t make a real difference for Afghans looking not to international forces, but to their own government for help,” said Muhammedally.
In addition to its response to harm, the Afghan government’s ability to protect civilians is equally a major concern. The UNAMA Report’s assessment of ANSF-caused civilian casualties is alarming, showing a 170% increase in these civilian casualties compared to last year. This is mainly attributable to the ANSF taking the lead in combat operations as part of the transition of responsibility.
CIVIC noted that the Afghan government began tracking civilian casualties caused by all warring parties in May 2012 and established a Civilian Casualties Tracking Team in the Presidential Information Coordinating Center—both designed to minimize civilian harm and suffering. But in order for these mechanisms to save lives, the Afghan government would need to recognize the harm occurring in the first place. Center for Civilians in Conflict’s research in Afghanistan found that the ANSF and the government’s civilian leadership is reluctant to take responsibility for civilian harm caused by their own forces. The tracking team is not analyzing ANSF operations that result in civilian harm, which it must do in order to learn lessons and change tactics that cause civilian casualties. Afghan security officials interviewed were reluctant to acknowledge or admit that Afghan forces cause civilian casualties during combat, even if by accident.
Many Afghan security officials also told CIVIC that cultural awareness and speaking the language allows their troops to avoid civilian casualties. CIVIC noted that while these skills have advantages in understanding who is a civilian and who is a combatant, cultural understanding is not in and of itself a civilian protection strategy.
“The government’s responsibility is to ensure its forces have real protection strategies in place to limit harm before it happens, that it can investigate any harm, and fix problems that are causing civilian casualties,” said Muhammedally. “What’s clear is that the safety of Afghan civilians will squarely rest with the Afghan forces as international forces depart. Without doing the hard work now to avoid civilian harm, the Afghan government could pay later with a loss of legitimacy in the eyes of its people.”
As the ANSF takes the lead for security and combat operations across the country, reforming the way it addresses civilian harm, especially when caused by their own forces, takes on critical importance. The US and other ISAF nations must also provide the necessary assistance to Afghan authorities so that they are prepared to protect civilians and respond appropriately to harm. ISAF can provide guidance on improving the cell based on experience: in 2009, NATO forces made changes to their operations based on collected data and civilian casualty rates went down.
In light of the transition, Center for Civilians in Conflict makes the following recommendations:
To the Government of Afghanistan
Develop a comprehensive response to civilian harm, including:
- Develop procedures with step-by-step instructions detailing how the ANSF should report and respond to possible civilian casualty incidents, and ensure all forces are trained on this procedure;
- Create professional investigation teams to identify civilians harmed by Afghan forces, contribute to the development of best practices to help the ANSF prevent civilian casualties, and make recommendations regarding specific claims for monetary payments to officials overseeing these programs; and
- Ensure that the Afghan civilian casualty tracking team has the capabilities to analyze civilian casualties, coordinate investigation teams, and manage the response to civilian harm caused by Afghan forces.
Improve the efficacy of Afghan government monetary payments, including:
- Reform the application process and guidelines for monetary payments, ensuring it is simple, transparent, easily accessible to all, including women, and includes a process for notifying applicants of the status of their claims;
- Distribute national payment guidelines to provincial governments, ensure relevant provincial officials are trained on procedures for offering monetary payments, and eventually devolve responsibility for approving payments to a provincial review committee that can meet as needed to approve claims in a timely manner;
- Institute a public awareness campaign to ensure all civilians, but especially more vulnerable segments of the population (i.e. displaced persons and women) are aware of assistance programs, eligibility criteria, and application processes;
- Enhance oversight of payments through regular audits and report allegations of extortion or corruption to Afghanistan’s Office of Oversight for Anti-Corruption;
- Solicit an independent review of the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs, and Disabled (MoLSAMD)’s vocational training programs that will offer recommendations towards expanding these programs and ensuring that skills offered better reflect local labor market demands; and
- Amend eligibility criteria for monetary payments to enable some recognition and assistance for civilians experiencing war-related property damage or less severe injuries (i.e. not death or permanent injuries).
To the US, other ISAF nations, and donors to the ANSF
Prioritize civilian protection and response measures within the ANSF, including:
- Provide technical assistance, including training, and fund an Afghan Civilian Casualty Mitigation Team for up to five years;
- Establish a formal process for civil society organizations to feed into working groups with ANSF officials on civilian protection and harm mitigation issues; and
- Ensure that training for all elements of the ANSF emphasizes the importance of civilian protection and practical steps to take in responding to civilian harm.
For more detailed analysis and recommendations see Caring for Their Own: A Stronger Afghan Response to Civilian Harm.