In a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Wednesday, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pledged to do more to prevent civilian deaths from military operations. Mr. Gates's vow comes on the heels of a new UN report saying that the number of civilian casualties jumped by 39 percent in 2008, fueling controversy about the West's role in the country.
"While no military has ever done more to prevent civilian casualties, it is also clear that we have to work even harder," Gates told reporters.
Nearly 1,500 civilians have been killed by either the Taliban or NATO and US forces so far this year, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Tuesday. More than half of those deaths are attributed to the Taliban. And US Air Force data suggests that its bombing accuracy is actually improving.
But the UN findings come at a time of rising public criticism after a series of US and NATO aerial bombing raids killed large numbers of Afghan civilians. "Civilian casualties is becoming the main issue in the relationship between the West and Afghanistan," says Nasrullah Stanikzai, lecturer at the Faculty of Law at Kabul University. If the trend of high levels of casualties continues, he says, it could drive a permanent wedge between Afghans and the US.
Combatants killed at least 330 civilians in August alone, UN Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville said. "That's the highest number of civilian deaths to occur in a single month since the end of major hostilities and the ousting of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001."
While the Taliban is responsible for more civilian deaths (55 percent of the total) than NATO, according to the UN, the actions of international forces and allies have sparked the most intense criticism from Afghans. The number of civilians killed by pro-government forces jumped by 21 percent this year, and air strikes were responsible for two-thirds of these, the UN reported. Last month up to 96 civilians were killed in the western province of Herat, sparking protests around the country. Earlier in the summer, American ordnance hit a wedding party in eastern Afghanistan, killing 47 civilians. In both cases US officials denied that such a large number of civilians were killed.
These two high-profile attacks are bringing anti-American sentiment to an all-time high, says Professor Stanikzai. "Afghans by and large still support the troops, but after these recent incidents more people are starting to change their minds."
While there has been no recent poll, a November 2007 study by Environics found that 52 percent of Afghans want the troops out within the next three to five years, and only 40 percent say that the West and the Afghan government will win the war. The approval rating of the US role in Afghanistan dipped from 68 percent in 2005 to 42 percent in 2007, according to data collected by Charney Research.
Barnett Rubin, a senior fellow at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, says that "Afghans are losing hope that the US or any other part of the international community has either the intention or capacity to rescue them" from their difficult situation.
The issue is also causing tension between Western forces and the Afghan government. President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly called for closer cooperation between the US, NATO, and Afghan forces. Afghan lawmakers are pushing for an agreement between international militaries and the Afghan government. "We want all international forces to be under Afghan government control and submit to Afghan law," says Hussein Sancharaki, spokesman of the National Front of Afghanistan, the main political opposition group.
But Stanikzai says this is unrealistic. "I don't think the US will submit to the authority of the Afghan government," he says. "They are concerned that if they do so, their ability to operate will be diminished and terrorism will flourish."
In the wake of last month's Herat Province attack, NATO announced that it was renewing its rules of engagement by reemphasizing existing protocols for house searches, use of aerial force, and cooperation with Afghan forces. NATO's top commander, Gen. David McKiernan, said that all house raids will be conducted with Afghan troops in the lead and only with the permission of the homeowners. NATO forces will also limit the size and weight of ordnance and bolster the communications between aerial crews and Afghan commanders on the ground.
After civilian casualties skyrocketed last year – foreign air strikes killed three times as many civilians in 2007 than in 2006 – NATO instituted the new rules of engagement and the rate of civilian deaths slowed considerably. However, the US, which mostly operates under a separate command structure from NATO, has looser rules of engagement and is responsible for a larger share of the civilian killings, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. An official with the US military's Public Affairs Office in Afghanistan said that he has not heard of any plans to revise the rules of engagement as NATO has done.
Human Rights Watch also said that higher numbers of civilian casualties resulted from increased use of American air power as opposed to ground troops. The deadliest aerial assaults are the result of unplanned "strikes of opportunity," the report states. "We found that civilian casualties rarely occur during planned airstrikes on suspected Taliban targets." Rather, most casualties occurred during unplanned "strikes ... carried out in support of ground troops ... after they came under insurgent attack."
In tonnage terms, the amount of bombs US forces are dropping is at an all-time high, and data suggest that American firepower is also becoming more accurate. In June and July, the US dropped roughly as much ordnance as in all of 2006, according to the US Air Force, but with fewer civilian casualties.
During Gates's visit, his spokesman announced that the US and the Afghan government will be creating a permanent joint investigative group to probe any incidents involving civilian casualties.
Some say the growing anger over civilian casualties is misplaced. The Taliban targets civilians and is responsible for more deaths than international forces. Yet tragic mistakes by Western militaries receive most of the attention, says a senior NATO official who asks not to be named when speaking about security issues. "This is a problem of perception – people should also understand the tremendous progress that is being made," he says.
But others say that the high civilian casualty rate helps the Taliban. "We are poor farmers. We had absolutely no opinion about America five years ago," says Sherafadeen Sadozay, who lost three children and his wife to an aerial attack in the Urozgan Province. "But now we don't think America is here to help us. If the Taliban will bring peace, we will support them."