The South Asia Channel

Karzai’s game

A family of sixteen Afghans is killed by an improvised explosive device. A hospital is attacked by a suicide bomber. An innocent eight-year old girl is told to carry a package which detonates just outside a military base. While all of this terror and destruction is wrought by the Taliban on Afghans, where is President ...


A family of sixteen Afghans is killed by an improvised explosive device. A hospital is attacked by a suicide bomber. An innocent eight-year old girl is told to carry a package which detonates just outside a military base. While all of this terror and destruction is wrought by the Taliban on Afghans, where is President Hamid Karzai? Missing in action.

Karzai is a smart man; he didn’t simply forget to condemn these horrors. In fact, he seems hyperaware of civilian casualties within his borders. When international forces cause harm, the Afghan president passionately decries their actions. In May, after NATO mistakenly killed fourteen civilians, Karzai said "…[if] they still continue to bomb our homes, then their presence will change from a force that fights terrorism to a force against the Afghan people and an occupying force." What President Karzai didn’t mention is that so far this year, the Taliban killed four civilians for every one that NATO killed.

As his country hovers just above extreme insecurity and on the edge of an all out civil war, Karzai’s refusal to condemn Afghans for killing other Afghans highlights his shortcomings as a head of state. His public excuse for overlooking insurgent atrocities is that the Afghan people expect attacks from the Taliban. This may be true, but can he genuinely believe an Afghan mother’s loss is somehow less tragic if the Taliban pulled the trigger? Or that she feels comforted to know that it was expected?

The laws that govern conduct in war aren’t subject to interpretation for political gain. All warring parties are held to the same standards of civilian protection. The Taliban’s record in this area is abysmal. What’s even worse is that that’s the way they seem to want it. The Taliban know they’ll score points in the propaganda war if they can goad international and Afghan forces into attacking civilian homes, so they hide out in them. They know civilians will be scared to return to work in the pomegranate orchards if the trees are peppered with bombs. These are tactics specifically designed to exploit the people President Karzai took an oath to protect, and yet he remains silent.

True, international forces are still causing civilian casualties. The president has every right and a duty to call on NATO to curb deadly airstrikes, night raids and other tactics that insult and anger the population. But his statements of concern about harm caused by foreigners are blatantly one-sided. They also miss the point: International forces are, as we speak, leaving Afghanistan.

This week and last, NATO handed over control of Bamiyan and Lashkar Gah to Afghanistan’s security forces — the first of seven areas to be transferred to Karzai’s care. While the United States and NATO are training these forces to shoot straight and read, the Afghans haven’t been given the tools they need to avoid civilians and deal with the civilian losses they are likely to cause.

The Afghan National Security Forces will be operating in small towns, where civilians live and work, and combating a foe with a track record of putting innocents in the middle of the fighting. International forces learned the hard way that battling the Taliban in this environment is no easy task, and they changed their tactics accordingly. For instance, former International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal issued directives to make sure pilots had eyes on a target before firing and to curb deaths due to airstrikes. And McChrystal and other military leaders, after realizing the crippling impact of civilian anger to their mission, offered compensation for some civilian losses.

President Karzai, on the other hand, has prioritized criticizing NATO airstrikes over ensuring his own forces are prepared to protect and secure Afghanistan. It seems that when Afghans — whether the Taliban or national forces — are behind the mortar block, the president is unwilling to act to save lives. 

Consider that Afghan forces have none of the civilian protection mechanisms the United States and NATO put in place. As Afghan soldiers take over combat operations, they don’t have a way to track the civilian harm they’ve caused, so they can’t — and likely won’t — take responsibility for it. If they carry out night raids in Helmand and kill a woman blocking the door, they have no system for investigating that incident and compensating the family for its loss of a main caretaker. And knowing that even the most disciplined armies sometimes have problems maintaining order, Afghan soldiers who abuse authority are unlikely to face punishment.  

NATO has a responsibility to hand over combat operations in good faith, which means leaving Afghan forces with the benefit of lessons learned and the right skills to do the job. Allied nations should be doing more to set up data tracking, investigations and compensation systems for the Afghans, so civilians don’t bear the brunt of yet another military force relearning basic protection at their expense.

But it’s Karzai who is ultimately responsible for the conduct of his troops and for condemning harm that comes to Afghan  civilians, no matter who causes it. When being sworn in for his second term, Karzai pledged "…to learn from the mistakes and shortcomings of the past eight years. It is through this self-evaluation that we can better respond to the aspirations and expectations of our people." Two years later, Karzai is practicing more self-protection than self-evaluation. His failure to provide Afghan forces what they need to protect Afghans and to speak out about Taliban behavior may help him walk a political tightrope, but it places him firmly on the wrong side of history. 

Sarah Holewinski is executive director of Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), a Washington-based group advocating for civilian victims of armed conflict.

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