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Afghan Security Forces Should Prioritize Protecting Civilians

Afghan security forces take positions after militants attacked the Kabul International Airport (file photo).
Afghan security forces take positions after militants attacked the Kabul International Airport (file photo).

Civilian harm caused by members of the international military and Afghan forces and militias has contributed significantly to the growth and sustainability of the Taliban, damaged U.S.-Afghan relations, and undermined the legitimacy of the international mission and Afghan government, according to our recent research.

For the report The Strategic Costs of Civilian Harm, which I co-authored, we interviewed more than 60 current and former senior officials and experts, including former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and former Generals David Petraeus and John Allen.

At a strategic level, the failure to protect Afghan citizens has prolonged the war and exacerbated human suffering, and substantially lowered the odds of defeating the Taliban.

Long-term studies suggest insurgencies tend to succeed when they attain durable external and internal support. Governments tend to lose when their legitimacy is damaged. Civilian harm by pro-government forces accelerates both problems.

The U.S. military and its allies finally came to grips with this problem in 2009, when U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal took command of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force. A year earlier, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), international forces killed a record 828 Afghan civilians -- 39 percent of total civilian fatalities in 2008. UNAMA only started counting civilian deaths in 2007.

Until 2009, the U.S. military tended to view civilian harm through the lens of the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC). As long as forces operated within the bounds of LOAC, civilian casualties were often regarded by ISAF as sad and unfortunate “collateral damage” during military operations. Characterizing civilian deaths like that came across as callous and insensitive to Afghan citizens.

The Taliban, of course, used civilian casualties as tools for recruiting and propaganda. Empirical studies -- challenging in Afghanistan to be sure -- cited strong correlations between civilian harm and strategic penalties in contested areas, to include increased violence, reduced support for international and government forces, and greater support for the insurgency.

McChrystal recognized these problems and directed ISAF to place a much greater emphasis on avoiding civilian harm. He was the first to make clear the connection between civilian protection and success in the mission. His successors, Generals David Petraeus, John Allen, and Joseph Dunford did the same. The results were impressive. From 2008 to 2012, the number of ISAF-caused civilian fatalities fell by 69 percent.

On top of that, ISAF directed countries that contributed troops to ISAF to incorporate the new tactical directives and counterinsurgency guidance into pre-deployment training. As a result, leaders and units came to Afghanistan better prepared.

Intelligence reforms also reduced the risk that local elites would dupe international forces into targeting and attacking their rivals.

Finally, a dedicated data collection and analysis capability enabled ISAF to track civilian casualties, understand their causes and effects, and to provide feedback on ways to address systemic problems.

The reforms met some initial resistance over concerns that they put international soldiers at greater risk. Upon taking command of ISAF in 2010, Petraeus reviewed the directives and found them to be largely sound. Some commanders, however, had been placing additional and unnecessary restrictions on the use of force, which were potentially leading to lost opportunities to engage the Taliban and causing some soldiers to question whether the right of self-defense was being compromised. Petraeus lifted those restrictions and increased the standards of civilian protection.

U.S. troop fatalities due to ground engagements (those firefights in which U.S. forces would be most likely to call in airstrikes or artillery in self-defense) decreased by 22 percent by 2012 from a high in 2010. Civilian casualties caused by ISAF declined by 41 percent over the same period. Security gains in former Taliban strongholds such as Wardak, Helmand, and Kandahar were significant. All this was achieved without unnecessary restrictions on the use of force.

Sadly, these hard-won lessons do not seem to be surviving the 2014 transition. The airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz last October shows that the skills and judgment needed to achieve military objectives while protecting civilians and protecting military forces are perishable and require constant attention and reinforcement.

More damaging is that the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces do not appear to recognize the strategic value of civilian protection or the strategic costs of failing to do so. Army and police tend to remain fixed on bases and checkpoints, ceding the initiative to the Taliban to operate among the people. Predatory behavior by some officials and militias further alienates the population. When the army conducts so-called clearing operations, civilian casualties are significant. In fact, UNAMA reports find that pro-government forces inflict more civilian casualties during ground engagements than the Taliban.

The Afghan government and security forces should take the following five steps:

  1. Operate on a daily basis among the local population and build relationships;
  2. Conduct leader training and education from ministerial to local levels on the tactical and strategic importance of civilian protection;
  3. Train leaders and units from Corps and Police Zone to Company and Police District levels on ways to conduct operations that accomplish relevant military objectives while protecting civilians and Afghan forces;
  4. Develop cells at the Corps, Police Zone, and Afghan Defense and Interior Ministry levels capable of tracking and analyzing civilian harm, and providing assessments and feedback to commanders on ways to adapt tactics.
  5. Make amends when civilian harm is caused.

Critically, the people that need to own the civilian protection issue are not the lawyers and human rights advocates but the political and military leaders from the president all the way down to company commanders.

ISAF eventually figured out that Afghan lives matter strategically as well as intrinsically, but it was too late to undo a lot of the damage. The Afghan government and security forces have no more time to waste.

Christopher D. Kolenda commanded paratroopers in Afghanistan and served as senior adviser to three commanders of ISAF. He is co-author of the Open Society Foundation’s report, The Strategic Costs of Civilian Harm: Applying Lessons from Afghanistan to Current and Future Conflicts.