Originally posted December 2009 

General Stanley A. McChrystal, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force and (ISAF) and US Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A), recently pledged a revised military strategy making the protection of “the Afghan people against the Taliban as the top priority.”[1] Still, August 2009 turned out to be one of the deadliest months for Afghan civilians “with 308 conflict-related deaths reported of which 281 (91%) were attributed to AOGs [Armed opposition groups] and 22 (7%) to PGFs [Pro-Government Forces].”[2] While it is easy to point fingers at the insurgency and their tactics of embedding themselves among the civilian population, deliberately intimidating communities, and targeting those considered pro-government or pro-international, it is dangerous for democracies to compare themselves to those they are fighting,[3] especially as the Taliban also have recently outlined civilian protection issues in their guidelines.[4]

The question, however, is, does McChrystal really know what he has promised, and is his understanding of protection the same as that of other international actors? Even though the International Committee of the Red Cross and other agencies have advocated a “working consensus” as to the meaning of protection,[5] the lack of a universally accepted definition allows different actors (e.g., state, humanitarian, political, military) to apply very different standards. Here, it might be worth revisiting the history of international military engagement in Afghanistan and the dangers a confused understanding of protection can create.

First, the US-led intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 was rationalized, at least partially, on “protection” grounds. In light of the post-9/11 intervention into Afghanistan, however, it was likely closer associated with “the broader concepts of political protection — through the deposing of abusive regimes, creation of newly accountable political structures and reconstruction of national law enforcement and security mechanisms”[6] than the humanitarian protection of civilians.

Second, the intervention focused more on minimizing American casualties and enhancing the prospects of military success than on protecting Afghan civilians. Coalition forces during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) chose to ally themselves with militias belonging to the loosely connected group called the Northern Alliance “who had been engaged in fierce inter-factional fighting after the defeat of the Soviet-backed government in 1992,”[7] which proved extremely costly to the longer-term political development of Afghanistan.[8] According to a tribal elder from Saripul, “the Americans did not think about the North. They just gave power back to the warlords.”[9] This continuous rule of strongmen has resulted in many Afghan civilians suffering, and has contributed to the re-emergence of the Taliban.

Third, the Afghan mission has never been a clear peacekeeping operation (PKO), even though ISAF is a self-described “coalition of the willing” with “peace-enforcement mandate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.”[10] Furthermore, “many military actors are not yet accustomed to identifying and protecting civilians in hostile environments as part of an international or third party intervention.”[11] For example, there has been a failure to acknowledge what it actually means for civilians to live in contested areas and be caught between multiple actors. This dilemma is illustrated by the comments of a tribal elder from Uruzgan, who stated in an interview: “There are now six governments — Provincial Reconstruction Teams, Hazara Militias, Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, district government, and the Taliban. We are caught in the middle of all of them. If you side with the government, then the Taliban will kill you. If you side with the Taliban, the government will take you or the bombs will fall.”[12]

Fourth, some of the actions of the international military have dually failed in the key task of restoring security in Afghanistan and establishing a competent, responsive government. A tribal elder from Uruzgan puts it bluntly “The US and its allies are not interested in bringing security to Afghanistan.”[13] There are two issues frequently raised by Afghan civilians: aerial bombardment and nighttime house searches linked to arbitrary arrest. A tailor from Zabul exclaims that “the Americans are ruling us in our homeland and the government is not capable to prevent wars and bombardments. If they cannot stop Americans from bombing us, how can they help us?”[14] Many Afghans are only too painfully aware of the prison at Bagram Air Force Base north of Kabul — the Guantánamo Bay of Afghanistan, where no law seems to apply.

Afghans have even begun to identify those who disturb them most. In Kandahar they speak of the “bearded Americans, who behave very badly, vs. the shaven Americans who only behave badly some of the time.” The reference here is to Special Forces operations that have a clear hunt-capture mission which (according to interviewees) appear to be conducted using all means necessary, including violating the Geneva Conventions (e.g., breaking and entering civilian houses, arbitrary arrests and detainment, and torture). It is clear for many Afghans that the “hunt, capture, or kill” counterterrorism stance of the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan focuses less on the protection of civilians in Afghanistan than on those in the US and other Western countries.

To date, responses to, and compensation for, civilian casualties and destruction of property has been ad hoc emergency assistance, and largely inadequate when compared to the scale of losses.[15] There is neither sufficient protection in areas of origin to prevent displacement, nor safe passage to areas of exile, nor protection in exile. Recently, however, an influential counter-insurgency specialist with prior military experience argued that the international community has a “moral obligation” in Afghanistan to the civilian population, especially in the Pashtun south, given that previous military activities have contributed to increasing insecurity.[16] This does suggest, particularly in light of the revised military strategy, that the concept of an ethical responsibility toward the protection of civilians — with more emphasis placed on adherence to obligations under international humanitarian law — is gaining momentum.

So far, Afghans remain skeptical of the sincerity of the promises made by international military actors, with one laborer from Uruzgan asserting: “The international military does not care about civilian casualties. If they hear shots fired in a village, they will bomb the entire village,”[17] and an elder from the same province providing the following anecdote: “A couple of weeks ago, international military forces raided a village, but didn’t find anything, still they had the village bombed and two women were killed.”[18] This would mean ceasing aerial bombardments (which have a high likelihood of killing innocent bystanders) and other aggressive hands-on military operations that are likely to alienate civilian communities further. It might be more important to revisit the meaning of civilian protection and focus on more robust peacekeeping than counter-terrorist activities. This would include either withdrawing or reigning in Special Forces operations that act in violation of international humanitarian law. The recommendations from Afghan civilians are simple: “We just want the war to stop. We don’t want them to disturb people and instead build and assist and help with roads, schools, hospitals etc.”[19] Are Western military forces listening?



[1]. “US ‘needs fresh Afghan strategy,’” BBC, August 31, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8230017.stm.


[2]. UNOCHA, 2009, “Monthly Humanitarian Update,” Issue 9, August 2009, http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWFiles2009.nsf/FilesByRWDocUnidFilename/MU….


[3]. Cf. Thomas Ruttig, “Hollow Excuses,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, September 12, 2009, http://aan-afghanistan.com/index.asp?id=318.


[4]. The latest Taliban layha (decree), which appeared in 2009, refers to protection several times. The six basic principles signed by Mullah Omar include two such references: [4] — “use advice, care, resolve and cleverness in your plans and operations”; and [6] — “safeguarding the people’s lives and property safe is the noble aim of our jihad.” Point Three of Article 41, which regulates suicide attacks, states: “during suicide attacks the best attempts have to be made to prevent the killing of and causing casualties amongst the common people.” See De Afghanistan Islami Emarat Dar-ul-Insha: De mujahedino lepara layha. (I would like to thank Thomas Ruttig for pointing this out.)


[5].” … all activities, aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the relevant bodies of law (i.e. human rights, humanitarian and refugee law). Human rights and humanitarian actors shall conduct these activities impartially and not on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, language or gender….” (1999), http://www.icva.ch/doc00000663.html, as cited in Droege, 2008.


[6]. James Darcey, “Political and humanitarian perspectives on the protection of civilians”, Prepared for the HPG Geneva Roundtable on Protection, January 22, 2007, p. 1.


[7]. Susanne Schmeidl, “The Emperor’s New Cloth: The Unravelling of Peacebuilding in Afghanistan,” Friedens-Warte – Journal of International Peace and Organizations, Nos. 1-2 (2007), pp. 69-86.


[8]. J. Alexander Thier, “Afghanistan,” in William J. Durch, ed., Twenty-First-Century Peace Operations (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace and The Henry L. Stimson Center), pp. 467-572.


[9]. Interview, Tribal elder, from Saripul, Spin Boldak, in Kandahar-city, 29 May 2009; cf. Philip Smucker, 2002, “Afghan War Crimes a Low Priority”, Christian Science Monitor, September 12, 2002; http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0912/p06s01-wosc.html.


[10]. The following nine UN Security Council Resolutions relate to ISAF: 1386, 1413, 1444, 1510, 1563, 1623, 1707, 1776 and 1833 (on September 23, 2008). In January 2002, a detailed Military Technical Agreement was developed between the ISAF Commander and the Afghan Transitional Authority in order to provide additional guidance for ISAF operations.


[11]. The Protection of Civilians during Peacekeeping Operations, Brussels: European Parliament, 2008. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/activities/committees/studies.do?language…, p.9; drawing on Victoria Holt, “The military and civilian protection: developing roles and capacities,” Respecting the Rules of Engagement: Trends and Issues in Military-Humanitarian Relations. Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) Report No. 21, March 2006, p. 53.


[12]. Interview, tribal elder from Khas Uruzgan, Uruzgan, in Kandahar-city, May 30, 2009.


[13]. Interview, tribal elder from Khas Uruzgan, Uruzgan, in Kandahar-city, May 30, 2009.


[14]. Focus Group Discussion, Taylor, from Shahr-e Safa, Zabul, in Kandahar-city, May 2009; For disappointment with Afghan government cf. Interview, Laborer, from Muaqur, Ghazni, in Zhari Dasht camp, Kandahar, May 2009 and Focus Group Discussion, Tribal elder, from Shiberghan, Jawzjan, in Zhari Dasht camp, Kandahar, May 2009.


[15]. CIVIC, 2009, Losing the People: the Costs and Consequences of Civilian Suffering in Afghanistan.


[16]. David Kilcullen, Defeating Global Terrorism: Counter-terrorism, Modern Warfare & Rule of Law in Countries of War, Wallace Wurth Memorial Lecture, John Niland Scientia Building, UNSW Kensington campus, Sydney, Australia, September 3, 2009.


[17]. Interview, Laborer, Khas Uruzgan, Uruzgan, in Spin Boldak, May 30, 2009.


[18]. Interview, Tribal elder, Khas Uruzgan, Uruzgan, in Kandahar-city, May 30, 2009.


[19]. Focus group discussion, Tribal elder, from Musa Qala, Helmand, in Kandahar-city, May 2009.