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2010 | Rebeca J. Barber – The Proportionality Equation: Balancing Military Objectives with Civilian Lives in the Armed Conflict in Afghanistan

As of December 2009, international military forces have been responsible for approximately 15000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The majority of these casualties occurred during airstrikes called in for the purpose of defending Afghan or coalition forces who came into contact with insurgents on the ground. Such airstrikes, often involving the use of ‘area-effect weapons’ that do not distinguish between civilians and combatants, in circumstances in which neither the aircrew nor military commanders are able to verify the presence or absence of civilians on the ground, seem to turn the basic principle of protection of non-combatants in areas of armed conflict on its head.  

This article considers the application of international humanitarian law to military operations in Afghanistan, with a focus on US airstrikes that have resulted in high numbers of civilian casualties. The article begins with an overview of international military operations in Afghanistan, followed by a discussion of the impact of the conflict on the civilian population — measured, for the purpose of this article, in civilian casualties. Then, it provides an assessment of the applicable rules of international humanitarian law and a detailed analysis of two operations in Afghanistan carried out in circumstances in which scant regard seems to have been paid to the presence of civilians in the target area, and which resulted in significant civilian casualties. The article contends that, on the basis of available information, the operations in Azizabad in 2008 and in Bala Baluk District in May 2009 appear to have violated the rules of proportionality and precautions in the choice of means and methods of attack. Specifically, it considers that in both circumstances a reasonable commander ought to have expected civilians to be present in the area and to have weighed the loss of civilian life that could be reasonably expected against the military advantage to be gained by defending friendly forces.  

The article concludes with a discussion of individual and/or state accountability for violations of international humanitarian law in Afghanistan, and stresses the importance of thorough, independent and transparent investigations into suspected violations. As a matter of customary international law, States are responsible for all acts committed in violations of the laws of armed conflict by persons forming part of its forces. State responsibility may exist in addition to or in the absence of individual criminal liability for violations of international humanitarian law and must entail full reparation for the loss or injury caused.