KABUL, Afghanistan – I arrived back in Kabul this week. With the snow already melting, many fear that spring – and with it a spring offensive by the Taliban – is already on its way. If past years are any guide, those bearing the lasting costs of an escalation in the conflict will be the civilian population. The CIVIC report we released last week goes in depth on what happens to families caught in the conflict, and what warring parties can do to help them recover. Now the trick is getting someone to pay attention.
Increased fighting last year led to a 40% increase in civilian deaths, according to the United Nations. The Afghan population is tired of watching their friends, family members, and communities torn apart by conflict, and often without any response from an international community that came into Afghanistan with promises of help and peace. I interviewed a man a few months ago who lost several family members and his home to airstrikes in the southern province of Kandahar: “We are not happy with the coalition forces or the AGEs. We are stuck in the middle of them and we cannot escape,” he told me. There’s a great photo New York Times slideshow, the Wounded of Afghanistan, by photojournalist Lynsey Addario that captures more than any words can what Afghan civilians have already suffered in the conflict.
NATO countries have the money for compensation and victim assistance programs, and at least among most countries and the Afghan government, there seems to be the will to do something. After all, the amounts needed for victim support pale in comparison to other military expenditures, and providing some help and recognition can have quite a big “hearts and minds” impact. At the least they can forestall some of the community resentment and anger that happens when civilian losses go unrecognized and ignored.
Sadly, money and good intentions seem to go only so far in Afghanistan. On the one hand people tell me civilian casualties and compensation – now a regular part of President Hamid Karzai’s re-election stump speech – have become too politicized. But then a UN official told me compensation and assistance mechanisms are not a high enough priority vis-a-vis other urgent human rights issues to get any kind of sustained attention and resources. And in between these two perspectives, thousands of affected families continue to struggle on their own for recognition and help.
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