Last week marked twenty years since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan began, following which the UK, Netherlands and other NATO members began their own presence with the declared aim to install “security, stability and the rule of law.”
This anniversary happens after last month saw a wave of resignations by senior Ministerial staff and frank debate across Parliaments in Europe, including in relation to the sudden and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Airwars and Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) urge the new ministers to take a frank look at the mistakes of their predecessors, and understand what could have been done differently. The public and political criticism surrounding the withdrawal of the United States and its allies from Afghanistan and the devastating humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan, sends a strong message about the urgent need for stronger approaches to civilian harm mitigation, transparency and accountability policies in future military operations.
We encourage the new ministers in the Netherlands and in the UK to learn about the risks to civilians caught in armed conflict in planning phases for any military operations, so they may work towards their protection. We also call on them to commit to improving transparency and accountability for civilian harm, including by consistently tracking, investigating, publicly acknowledging, and amending harm through compensation payments, apologies, and other offerings in accordance with victims’ needs and preferences. We extend the same call to the United States and other NATO nations. This is especially important because the risk to civilians in Afghanistan is not unique. In fact, in the 20 years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we have seen risks to civilians multiply and deepen in many parts of the world. War is now increasingly fought in urban environments with long-lasting and lethal effects. NATO members, increasingly hesitant to deploy “boots on the ground,” have relied instead on supporting local forces through air support – even when local partners may lack the capacity to protect civilians. And multiple countries have claimed the power to use force anywhere in the world, including outside recognized war zones and including through the use of armed drones, sometimes devastating civilian communities in the process.
As risks to civilians have increased, transparency and accountability for harm is diminishing. In Iraq and Syria, the UK still only admits one civilian death over the course of its operation, despite declaring thousands of UK airstrikes and despite Airwars’ own assessment showing that at least 8,300 civilians have likely been killed by the US-led Coalition.
We urge all NATO nations to take heed of these past mistakes, which had devastating and continuing consequences on the lives of civilians. As Liz Truss starts as the new UK Foreign Secretary, and as the new Dutch Minister of Defence, Henk Kamp, and Foreign Minister, Ben Knapen, begin their tenure, we urge them to immediately take the following steps:
Recognise publicly and through a revision of doctrine, the imperative of civilian harm mitigation, transparency, and accountability in all aspects of defence and foreign affairs, including in their nations’ own operations as well as “train, advise, and assist” missions.
Prioritise resourcing for the monitoring and tracking of civilian harm in current and future military deployments.
Commit to investigating, publicly recognizing, and amending legacy civilian harm from Afghanistan and other operations over the past 20 years, including by issuing compensation or solatia payments; and commit to applying these policies and practices in all future operations.
Adopt and implement clear policies for civilian harm tracking, mitigation and response through consultation with civil society experts, which are adequately resourced at all areas of deployment.
Incorporate open-source information from civil society, the media, and other external sources into civilian harm assessments and investigations.
Publish the specific date; location; munition type used; and nature of target for all weapon deployments in the anti-ISIS Coalition from 2014 to the present day and in all future operations.
Publish regular reports on civilian harm allegations from past and current missions.
Engage with conflict-affected civilians (including civil society groups and communities) on issues pertaining to civilian protection and civilian harm mitigation, both at the capital level and in countries of deployment. This includes the establishment of a regular dialogue with civil society, as well as establishing safe channels of communication with conflict-affected civilians to discuss protection concerns.
As part of all lessons learned processes around the war in Afghanistan, withdrawal, and evacuation, identify gaps in civilian harm mitigation as well as gaps in civil-military coordination that may have hampered the capacity of civil society and at-risk Afghans to access safe and secure air evacuation options.