Rights watchdogs urge regulation of US-led military operations in Afghanistan

An international rights watchdog and Afghanistan’s leading rights group have called on the US and Afghan governments to create a legal framework to regulate US-led military activities in the country.

The calls come as a result of an increasing number of civilians being killed in military operations.

“There needs to be a specific legal structure for the coalition forces’ activities in Afghanistan,” Fareed Hamidi, a commissioner for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), said in Kabul.

According to AIHRC, Afghanistan’s constitution and the six international human rights treaties that the country is signatory to are too vague to regulate multilateral military engagements in the country.

“Countries that have contributed soldiers to international forces in Afghanistan should take responsibility for their actions,” said Hamidi.

His comments followed recent US military operations in two provinces which resulted in more than 20 civilian deaths, according to international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) and media reports.

On 4 March, US forces were accused of indiscriminately firing on people in the eastern Nangarhar province, killing 16 civilians and injuring 30 others.

In another incident on 5 March, US warplanes dropped a bomb on a house in the Kapisa province in the north, killing a family of nine.

Key civilian death incidents 

  • 5 March 2007, nine civilians were in a US air raid in Kapisa province
  • 4 March 2007, up to 15 people died in an indiscriminate shootout by US soldiers in Nangarhar province
  • October 2006, about 60 civilians were killed in fighting between NATO forces and insurgents in Kandahar province
  • July 2006, 13 members of an extended family were killed in a NATO raid in Helmand province
  • January 2004, four children and seven adults died when US forces bombed an area in Ghazni province
  • July 2002, about 30 people at a wedding party died in a US air raid in Urozgan province

However, US forces have denied any wrongdoing, saying in both incidents insurgents used civilian shields while attacking coalition forces.

“Obviously, the Taliban should be blamed for their choosing to fight from civilian locations. They are responsible for non-combatant casualties,” said Colonel Tom Collins, a spokesman for international forces in Kabul.

No official data is available on the number of ordinary Afghans who have been killed or wounded in US-led military operations in Afghanistan since the Taliban was ousted in October 2001.

According to HRW, more than 1,000 civilians have been killed or injured in insurgent-related violence since January 2006.

Significant number of civilian casualties

“Many of these casualties were the result of insurgent attacks, but US-led coalition and NATO operations were also responsible for a significant number of civilian casualties in 2006,” HRW said in a statement.

On 16 February this year, HRW complained that the US military continues to operate in Afghanistan without any legal framework.

Afghan MPs and citizens are increasingly criticising President Hamid Karzai for his government’s inability to protect civilians in US-led military operations.

“Karzai rules by US support, but he does not have the leverage to compel the US to act responsibly and restrain doing perpetual mistakes,” said Attullah Ludin, an MP from Nangarhar province.

"The Taliban should be blamed for their choosing to fight from civilian locations. They are responsible for non-combatant casualties." 

In December 2006, Karzai admitted that attacks by the Taliban and collateral damage in US-led military operations were a “dual misfortune” for his government.

The US has set up a compensation fund for victims, which provides condolence payments to families who suffer losses in US military operations.

But money alone cannot win the hearts and minds of Afghans, said Ludin, and international forces should be held responsible for civilian casualties.

Ludin said he was disappointed over what he called “lack of commitment” among coalition forces “to avoid future blunders”.

“We do not want dollars. We want assurance that civilians will not be targeted under any circumstances any more. We want coalition forces to take responsiblity for their shootouts and bombings of civilians,” said Ludin.

International humanitarian law prohibits the targeting of civilians and the use of all means and methods of warfare that fail to discriminate between combatants and civilians.