An Afghan Surge. . . in Civilian Casualties

If you’ve been reading along with us on Sunday nights, you’ll remember that over and over we’ve reported on Afghan civilians being killed by US forces – in air strikes and in night raids. Each report follows a very similar pattern – US forces report some number of militants killed, then a report from local authorities appears saying something like, "No, actually that was just a family in our village (or a wedding party, or a…), and we want answers." Eventually, there’s a report that a US officer has visited the village, handed out a check… and expressed our deepest apologies – and then a commander in Kabul issues a very serious statement about how troubling the civilian casualties are, and how we are now going to change our approach and take all sorts of steps to protect civilians. The most recent of such statements included a promise to coordinate all raids with local Afghan forces.

During a recent visit to Afghanistan by Pierre Krähenbühl, Director of Operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, who had worked in Kabul during the 1990s, called for more protection of Afghan civilians. In his report, he notes:

I cannot sufficiently stress the unbearable levels of individual and collective suffering that Afghan men, women and children have had to endure over three decades, and that they continue to endure at levels that defy belief.

And continues:

This brings me to the critical issue of civilians at risk in the current conflict. For the past three years the ICRC has repeatedly drawn attention to the increasingly severe impact of the conflict on the civilian population.

Never, however, has our concern been as acute as it is now. The conflict is intensifying and affecting wider parts of Afghanistan. Civilian casualties are significantly higher than a year ago…

This was a central issue during my visit. I raised the ICRC’s acute concerns about the protection of civilians with Generals McKiernan and Schloesser of the US armed forces and ISAF respectively. I emphasized in particular the constant obligation to make a distinction between those participating in hostilities and those who do not or, in the case of injured or captured fighters, who no longer directly participate in hostilities.

Mr. Krähenbühl also received assurances that the commanders shared his concern – but again, their assurances have not led to action.

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