What to do About Civilian Casulties in Afghanistan?

Earlier this week, a new United Nations report showed a 40% increase in civilian causalities in Afghanistan. About 55% of those deaths are attributable to the Taliban, meaning that the United States and its NATO and Afghan allies were responsible for a large proportion of civilian deaths. Most (65%) of these allied-inflicted civilian deaths came from U.S. air strikes.

Stories like this, however, tell you what statistics cannot:

I could see all the dead and injured bodies. My son’s wife was horribly injured. And my daughter had been killed already. … She had been baking bread inside the house when the bomb hit. Due to the blast, she was thrown into the oven. Her body was totally burned. She was taken to hospital, but she died. … My son had injuries on his feet and the force of the blast had thrown him over the tree. Another daughter – she was blasted into so many pieces that we still have not been able to find her body. She was in too many parts. My neighbors came and helped to drag the bodies out of the house. It was terrible, terrible. Haji Nasib, lost nine family members and suffered significant property loss due to an […] air-strike in Wardak province.

This comes from the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) in a new report Losing the People: The Costs and Consequences of Civilian Suffering in Afghanistan. The report is a long but fascinating exposé of the haphazard way in which international forces compensate civilian victims of “collateral damage.” It finds that rarely — if at all — are compensatory payments made to victims or their families in a timely manner. Obviously, this does not endear local populations to international troops, which in turn harms international forces’ ability to win the “hearts and minds” of local Afghans. That said, in the instances where the United States government or one of its NATO allies does pay some form of compensation, victims and their families generally consider the payment as a gesture of condolence and apology.

The lesson here is that coordinating and institutionalizing mechanisms for civilian compensation is not only a humanitarian imperative, but can be a strategic tool in the counterinsurgency toolbox. It would behoove the Pentagon to take note.