The planned troop surge in Afghanistan could see more Afghans suffering in the conflict unless international military forces prioritize the safety of civilians in all their operations, say leading aid agencies.
As NATO celebrates its 60th anniversary, 11 international aid agencies including Oxfam, ActionAid, CARE Afghanistan and Save the Children UK released a new report, called "Caught in the Conflict," which says NATO and other international military forces must transform the way their soldiers operate in Afghanistan.
In 2008, there were 2,100 civilian casualties, a 30 percent increase on the previous year. Although 55 percent of civilian deaths were caused by militants, there are serious concerns about fatalities caused by air strikes from pro-government forces, which increased by 70 percent to 552.
Matt Waldman, head of policy for Oxfam International on Afghanistan, said: "The troop surge will fail to achieve greater overall security and stability unless the military prioritize the protection of Afghan civilians.
"Despite taking steps to reduce civilian casualties, and repeated calls for restraint, too many military operations by foreign troops involve excessive force, loss of life and damage to property. This is causing anger, fear and resentment among Afghans, and is steadily eroding popular support for the international presence."
The aid agencies are asking for NATO and other military forces in Afghanistan to do far more to reduce civilian casualties, for example by tightening the rules on air strikes, ensuring night raids do not involve excessive force, and subjecting Special Forces operations to rigorous oversight.
Although civilian casualties are rising, the report finds no standardized system of investigation and compensation for Afghan civilians seeking redress for incidents involving loss of life, injury or damage to property caused by military operations.
Palwasha Abed, Protection Officer for Save the Children UK in Afghanistan, said: "The systems for compensating civilians are insufficient, fragmented and inaccessible to most Afghans. There must be a unified national system which ensures that when civilians are harmed during conflict, there is a full investigation where people are held to account and redress is available."
The aid agencies also criticized two programs recently established in the country. The new community defense and tribal empowerment initiatives – the Afghan Social Outreach Program and the Afghan Public Protection Forces – could put Afghan lives at risk, they said. The Afghan Social Outreach Program (ASOP) establishes district councils and part of their role is to inform on the militant activities. The Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF) creates and arms local militias.
Lex Kassenberg, Country Director of CARE in Afghanistan said: "The Afghan Social Outreach Program and the Afghan Public Protection Force are a distraction from essential reforms in security and governance. Currently, an average of three Afghans are executed every four days by insurgents for having any link to the government. In this environment, these programs put Afghans at even greater risk."
The aid agencies are calling for the APPF initiative to be abandoned and for the ASOP to be suspended and reviewed.
The report warns the military are blurring the distinction between aid workers and soldiers by doing extensive humanitarian and assistance work for counter-insurgency purposes, and by using unmarked white vehicles, which are conventionally only used by the UN and aid agencies. This undermines local perceptions of the independence and impartiality of aid agencies and therefore increases the risk to aid workers, and threatens to reduce the areas in which they can safely work.
The agencies also warn that the increasing distortion of humanitarian and development assistance for military aims could undermine long-term stability.
Agencies say that the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), the military-led security and reconstruction teams, continue to receive massive amounts of funding: the annual PRT budget for the United States—over $200 million—exceeds the Afghan national budgets for health and education combined. The agencies recommend a phase-out of militarized aid and a substantial increase in development and humanitarian funding for civilian institutions and organizations.
Gyan Bahadur Adhikari, ActionAid’s Country Director in Afghanistan said: "The approach to security and reconstruction in Afghanistan has so far been piecemeal and insufficient—there has been no overall strategy in Afghanistan. But any new strategy has to be devised with the understanding that military solutions alone cannot bring peace and stability to Afghanistan."
Instead of focusing on such military approaches, the report recommends a comprehensive, long-term strategy for Afghanistan which includes greater support for rural development, measures to improve aid effectiveness and an enhanced response to the urgent humanitarian needs in the country.