NATO must put protection of civilians at the heart of Afghanistan 'transition' strategy

By Oxfam

International military forces must take urgent steps to protect civilians caught up in the escalating conflict as they plan for the handover of responsibility for security to the Afghan government, warned leading aid agencies today.

The call comes as NATO leaders gather for a major summit in Lisbon on November 19-20 where they are expected to discuss the transition plan drawn up by US General Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Twenty-nine international and national aid agencies, including Oxfam, Afghanaid, and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, have released a new report – Nowhere to Turn – which urges NATO to do more to improve the training and monitoring of Afghan national security forces during the transition period.

Ashley Jackson, head of policy for Oxfam in Afghanistan, said:

“Transition of security responsibilities to Afghan forces faces enormous obstacles. There is a grave risk of widespread abuses by the national security forces, which can range from theft and extortion to torture and indiscriminate killing of civilians. NATO member states, who train, advise, fund, and arm those forces, share responsibility for making sure this does not happen, but so far, we have seen little action on the ground.”

The report notes that Afghan soldiers and police are poorly trained and command systems are weak. It says that there are no effective mechanisms for registering community complaints and that civilian deaths caused by Afghan forces are not adequately investigated or tracked. The report calls on NATO to rectify this as a key part of its transition strategy.  

Nader Nadery, Commissioner for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said: 

“Recent revelations of abuses by Iraqi security forces and militia – and the fact that we are already seeing abusive behavior by militias in Afghanistan – should be sounding a warning bell. There is still time to get the right controls in place in Afghanistan, but NATO must act now."

The agencies argue NATO should abandon dangerous schemes such as the so-called “community defense initiatives,” which involve supporting local militia groups to fight the Taliban.  

They say that the international forces must immediately stop arming these community militias. Recruits are barely vetted, receive little training, and are often accountable only to the local commanders. Far from helping to stabilize the country, they are likely to contribute to the growing instability.

2010 is already the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since 2001, with civilian casualties up 31 percent in the first six months alone. Security is rapidly deteriorating across the country with even the previously stable north reporting a 136 percent rise in civilian deaths.

Anti-government groups cause most Afghan civilian casualties. However, the report warns that while NATO forces have taken steps to reduce the direct harm their operations cause to civilians, their military tactics are continuing to put Afghan lives at risk. A key factor behind NATO’s reduction in direct civilian casualties is the decrease in the use of airstrikes since 2009. However, the agencies warn that there is a risk that such casualties may now increase as there has been a dramatic rise in airstrikes in recent months. 

“More civilians are being killed and injured than ever before, and Afghanistan is more insecure than at any time in the past nine years. We are concerned that, unless urgent steps are taken now, the violence will continue to escalate in 2011 and civilian suffering will only increase,” said Farhana Faruqi-Stocker of Afghanaid. 

Click here to download a copy of Nowhere to Turn

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