According to a new United Nations report, 2,118 civilians were killed in Afghanistan last year. This figure represents a 40 percent increase from 2007, and the highest total since the Taliban's ouster in 2001. The UN study also finds that the number of civilians killed by U.S.-led coalition forces and those of the Afghan government in 2008 increased sharply from 2007—with most of these deaths caused by airstrikes and nighttime village raids. In a new ABC News/BBC poll, 77 percent of Afghans describe civilian casualties triggered by these attacks as "unacceptable." Concludes a new CIVIC report on Afghan civilians: "The international coalition in Afghanistan is losing public support, one fallen civilian at a time."
On February 18, the Asia Program, with assistance from the Middle East Program, hosted the release of CIVIC's report, "Losing the People: The Costs and Consequences of Civilian Suffering in Afghanistan." The study assesses what is currently being done to help civilians, the challenges involved, and how such efforts can be improved. Erica Gaston, a Kabul-based CIVIC fellow and the report's author, highlighted the document's key points. While the report acknowledges that the majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan are caused by Taliban and other anti-government forces, Gaston's presentation focused only on civilian deaths and suffering inflicted by coalition and Afghan government forces.
Gaston interviewed 143 civilians across Afghanistan. She discovered that affected families want help dealing with medical issues and with recovering financially. They also seek "emotional redress," in the form of recognition, an apology, or a sense of justice. However, the reality is that "the vast majority" of affected families across Afghanistan "receive no compensation, no assistance, not even an apology or basic recognition of their loss." Assistance and compensation programs do exist, Gaston pointed out. International military forces, foreign governments, and the Afghan government all offer some type of medical help, compensation, or ex gratia ("out of kindness") payment. Therefore, in a best-case scenario, families who have lost a loved one would receive immediate medical relief from coalition forces; monetary payments "soon after" from coalition forces or from Kabul; community support from coalition forces and Provisional Reconstruction Teams; and monthly payments from various Afghan government funds.
Such a scenario, however, is extremely unlikely in Afghanistan. Gaston cited a variety of reasons why. One is lack of accessibility: Families "do not know to go" to coalition forces to seek assistance, or are too afraid—and those who do go are "often turned away at the gate." Another reason is lack of coordination: Countries comprising the international forces in Afghanistan have not forged a common policy on compensation or ex gratia payments. Civilian relief is also hampered by a lack of funding or "workable procedures": Not all countries' troops have monies for ex gratia payments, and some nations' forces impose strict procedures for authorizing claims. In effect, Gaston noted, "It matters who you're injured by." Civilians are more likely to get help from the United States or Canada than from Romania.
What must be done to improve assistance to civilian victims in Afghanistan? Gaston asserted that those involved in providing compensation or apologies must be "more proactive and prompt" in identifying and reaching out to victims; declared that all victims of conflict should receive "equal and adequate recognition and apologies," to the extent possible; and proposed that a tracking system be established to keep tabs on victims of conflict and on the aid provided to them—in order to foster better accountability. In order for all this to happen, Gaston said, the international community must improve coordination mechanisms and ensure adequate funding and on-the-ground resources.
While acknowledging the challenges ahead, Gaston insisted that there are signs of improvement. She praised U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' congressional testimony from late January 2009. Gates confessed to Congress that U.S. responses to civilian casualties have been "too bureaucratic." He advocated more prompt admissions of regret and apologies, and called for the making of amends, "if appropriate." Gaston also extolled the "more proactive responses" that followed the killing of civilians by U.S.-led forces in an attack on a Kandahar wedding party in November 2008, and in a series of deadly raids in January 2009.
Commentator Dennis Kux applauded the CIVIC report for focusing on Afghanistan's civilian casualties, a highly salient issue which has evolved from a humanitarian concern into a "strategic problem." However, he argued, the challenges of improving civilian assistance in Afghanistan are immense, and "it's hard to envisage happy endings." The dreadful security situation, he said, poses a major impediment to coordinating a better response to civilian casualties.
Drafted by Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program, Ph: (202) 691-4020