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2008 | HRW - Troops in Contact: Airstrikes and Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan

Although Taliban and other insurgent forces continue to be responsible for the majority of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, civilian deaths from United States (U.S.) and NATO airstrikes nearly tripled from 2006 to 2007. The harm and destruction caused by unplanned airstrikes in “troops in contact” situations have resulted in controversy over the use of airpower, and intense criticism of international military forces by Afghan political leaders and the general public.  

This report examines a total of 9 U.S. and NATO airstrikes, including instances of alleged shielding by Taliban forces, seeking to (iunderstand how and why civilians were killed or injured, and (ii) avoid such deaths in future operationsThe cases described raise concerns as to whether the attacking forces acted in accordance with their obligation under international humanitarian law to exercise “constant care to spare the civilian population” and take “all feasible precautions” to minimize loss of civilian life. Among others, the report considers NATO’s bombing in the Chora district during the three-day battle from 16 June to 19 June 2007. 

The report argues that factors that contribute to civilian casualties in unplanned airstrikes are the U.S. reliance on Special Operation Forces, the difference in the rules of engagement (ROE) used by NATO and US in defensive operations, and the lack of adequate intelligence. Accordingly, it recommends international military forces to adopt measures to reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties in troops in contact situations, adopt consistent ROE, carry out investigations on collateral damages, accept responsibility for civilian deaths and injuries as soon as possible, and provide timely and adequate compensation to victims. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch encourages the government of Afghanistan to improve coordination between international personnel and Afghan forces and to create a governmental body entrusted with the investigation of civilian casualties in cooperation with an independent group of experts.