Afghan airstrikes: good practices and challenges to protect civilians

Cover page of the policy brief Cover page of the policy brief © CIVIC

This article is a brief presentation of CIVIC’s policy brief ‘Afghan Airstrikes: Good Practices and Challenges to Protect Civilians’

The Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) released last August a policy brief assessing good practices and challenges in the context of aerial kinetic targeting in Afghanistan.

The use of aerial warfare in Afghanistan is sharply rising: The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has reported that in the first six months of 2020 the number of airstrikes conducted in Afghanistan was three times higher in comparison with those conducted in the first semester of 2019. Furthermore, according to UNAMA, 2019 has been the fifth year in a row that saw an increase in civilian casualties resulting from airstrikes, with 700 deaths and 345 injuries. While in 2019 72 percent of casualties were attributed to the International Military Forces (IMF), and 22 per cent to the Afghan Air Force (AAF), in the first six months of 2020 61 percent of casualties were caused by the AAF and 34 per cent by the IMF (totalling 308 civilian casualties).  The Afghan people, ‘outraged by the rise in civilian harm, have engaged in protests against airstrikes throughout the country.’ The sharp increase in aerial kinetic targeting is the result of the pause in negotiations between the United States and the Taliban following a Taliban attack in September 2019.

It is evident that the increase in the number of airstrikes conducted in the country also increases the potential for civilian harm. CIVIC gives the example of an airstrike conducted on the 21st of March 2020 in the Kunduz province, in which 11 civilians, ‘including one young man, seven children, and three women, were reportedly injured’. The target, according to local residents, was the house of a Taliban judge, but ‘his brother’s house’ was mistakenly hit instead. While the airstrike was not acknowledged by the Afghan Ministry of Defence (MOD), UNAMA confirmed the incident and number of casualties, attributing it to the AAF. In 2018, in the same province, a helicopter attack conducted by the AAF during an open-air ceremony caused, according to UNAMA, ‘at least 107 casualties (36 killed and 71 injured), including at least 87 children.’ While the attack was acknowledged by the government, the conclusions of the commission established to investigate the incidents were not made public. Similarly, while the MOD informed CIVIC that its 2018 Airstrike Policy was revised ‘and awaits the minister’s signature’, it has refused to inform the organization of its content.

CIVIC has conducted ‘in-depth and semi-structured interviews’ with ‘Afghan National Army (ANA) officers, ANA Special Operation Forces, civil society activists, local elders and family members of victims from Kunduz, Baghlan, and Nangarhar provinces’ in order to understand how airstrikes are coordinated by ground forces, how the policy on the protection of civilians is observed in the course of operations, and the main challenges for the AAF in the context of protection of civilians.

While CIVIC has found that the targeting process of the AAF takes into account the principles mandated by international humanitarian law on proportionality and distinction, assessment of collateral damage and rules of engagement, and that its technical air coordinators (TACs) are trained and deployed to mitigate risks to civilians in the targeting process, it has also found several challenges in the context of aerial operations that resulted in civilian harm.

The first, and significant challenge consists in the fact that the large majority of ANA officers are unaware of the national policy on the protection of civilians (Civilian Casualties Prevention and Mitigation Policies), or are not sufficiently trained in a manner that is conducive of its effective implementation. As noted by CIVIC, ‘dissemination of the policy and steps for its implementation are essential to influencing the behavior and mindset of forces on civilian protection.’

Another challenge consists in an ineffective coordination between ground and air forces, due to an insufficient number of trained TACs. Consequently, ANA battalions and companies (that typically engage in frontline fighting) are unable to communicate directly and in real-time with AAF pilots. ‘As a result, the pilot may hit the wrong target or ground forces may not receive urgent close air support.’

The use of paper map systems to give coordinates to air forces constitutes another challenge: many ANA officers reported to CIVIC that they have difficulties in individuating and communicating accurate coordinates. This is due to a lack of accurate training, and outdated maps ‘from the 1980s’. Furthermore, the ANA and the IMF use different maps.

The ANA and the Afghan Security Forces extensively relies on ‘human intelligence through informants, as well as village mullahs and elders, to identify enemy and civilian locations during operations.’ This is due, according to CIVIC, to a ‘lack of technical Intelligence Reconnaissance and Surveillance capacity.’ Another source of information used by the AAF for targeting is pilot observation, which, according to an air liaison officer interviewed by CIVIC, almost always differs from the information coming from the ground. This underlines the potential for source biases, and the need to cross-check information with different sources, in particular when urgent targeting decisions are made.

Another challenge comes from the inadequacy of the air platforms that are used by the AAF, such as the MD-530 Jengi helicopters, reportedly ‘too light for Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain and may contribute to civilian casualties.’

Concluding the policy brief, CIVIC underlines that the ‘Afghan government, with support from its international allies, can and must address these gaps to preserve civilian life and ease the longstanding suffering of Afghan civilians.’


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Author: Philippe H. M. Leroy Beaulieu

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