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Afghanistan: NATO Must Fully Respond to Alleged Civilian Harm from Airstrike Near Jalalabad

Twelve years after US invasion, lessons learned about civilian casualties may be fading

The alleged deaths of five Afghan civilians by a NATO airstrike must be transparently investigated and any confirmed civilian losses recognized, said Center for Civilians in Conflict. Civilian casualties caused by NATO forces have dramatically decreased public support for the presence of international forces. CIVIC noted today—a day after the anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001—that NATO must not forget the strategic and ethical implications of not properly responding to allegations of civilian harm.

“International forces must heed the lessons they’ve learned over twelve long years,” said Sarah Holewinski, executive director of Center for Civilians in Conflict. “Don’t deny civilian harm until you have facts to back it up, and if civilians were killed, explain why to the families, make amends, and commit to improving operations for the next time.”

On Friday, 4 October, a mortar attack on a joint NATO-Afghan base near Jalalabad City prompted a NATO airstrike in response. In a public statement following the airstrike, President Hamid Karzai strongly condemned the action for killing five civilians, including three brothers aged 10, 14 and 16. NATO forces initially denied civilians had been involved in the attack, but later launched an investigation after images of dead civilians were presented to them. A NATO spokesman said on Saturday that it takes “all allegations of civilian casualties seriously and is working with our Afghan partners to confirm the details.”

Center for Civilians in Conflict noted that NATO has improved its response to allegations of civilian casualties in recent years.  In 2008 and 2009, following vitriol over civilian harm from local communities and President Karzai, NATO forces stopped immediately denying civilian harm claims (the prevailing response to such allegations since the start of international operations). Commanders began explaining findings to survivors, and some nations offered amends in the form of monetary payments or in-kind assistance to families suffering losses.

“The knee-jerk denial of civilian harm in the October 4th airstrike makes me worried that the lessons of the past twelve years are leaving Afghanistan right along with many NATO forces,” said Holewinski. 

While NATO-caused civilian harm has decreased in 2013 as the force focuses on supporting Afghan forces, it is important that NATO maintain a focus on protecting the population from combat harm. Last month, NATO opened a similar investigation following a drone strike that hit a truck and killed as many as eight woman and children. No public information has been made available on the results of that investigation.

CIVIC noted that modeling a proper response to civilian harm takes on critical importance as Afghan forces take the lead for security and combat operations across the country. As part of this transition, NATO nations must provide the necessary example, mentorship, and technical assistance to Afghan forces so that they are prepared to protect civilians and respond appropriately to harm. 

This may prove to be difficult. Afghan security officials interviewed by CIVIC throughout 2012 were reluctant to acknowledge or admit that Afghan forces cause civilian casualties, even if by accident. Afghan forces have no systems in place to adequately track and analyze civilian harm, conduct full and transparent investigations, or offer amends for civilian losses caused by their operations. Without these mechanisms, developing and improving tactics that avoid civilian harm will be a challenge for Afghan forces. The UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported earlier this year a 170% increase in Afghan forces-caused civilian casualties compared to last year.

“The safety of Afghan civilians will squarely rest with the Afghan forces as international forces depart,” said Holewinski. “For NATO to be a responsible partner here, its forces cannot go back to the days of denying or ignoring civilian harm.”


For more information contact:
Center for Civilians in Conflict at 202-558-6958 or


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