In the early hours of 16 September, 2012, a group of women from different villages in Afghanistan’s eastern Laghman province set out to collect firewood. As they stopped to drink water by a small spring, US military planes appeared in the sky and started dropping bombs. Seven of the women were killed and another seven injured — four of them seriously.
The morning after, a NATO spokesperson told the media: “a large number of insurgents had been killed” in the airstrikes. The local villagers reacted furiously, taking the women’s bodies to the local district governor’s office and staging a protest against the killings. Realizing their mistake, NATO was quick to offer a public apology. In a press release the day after, the organization promised a thorough investigation into the killing of the women: “Coalition forces take civilian casualties seriously.” But the families saw no sign of an investigation after that.
Nobody outside of NATO knows if the promised investigation has been carried out or what it concluded. But it is clear that if there ever was an investigation, it did not involve any of the Afghan witnesses.
This spring, when Amnesty International researchers visited Afghanistan and talked to around 15 of the victims’ family members and witnesses, they learned that not a single person had been approached by US military investigators for their side of events. According to one villager who lost three members of his family: “The American commander apologized for killing women and asked whether we wanted compensation, but we said, ‘No, we will not sell the blood of our martyrs.’”
This is far from an isolated case. Amnesty International released a new report on Monday that documents the almost complete lack of justice surrounding the killing of civilians by US/NATO forces in Afghanistan.
We examined in detail 10 cases between 2009 and 2013 where mainly US forces were responsible for civilian deaths, mostly through air strikes or night raids. At least 140 civilians were killed in these incidents, including pregnant women and at least 50 children. We interviewed some 125 witnesses, victims and family members, including many who had never given testimony to anyone before. Some of the cases involve abundant and compelling evidence of war crimes — yet no one has ever been held responsible for them.
The killing of civilians has been one of the main sticking points in the relationship between Afghanistan and the West, and has bred enormous resentment from both the Afghan government and the general public.
It is true that international forces in Afghanistan have taken successful steps to reduce civilian casualties in recent years. In 2013, according to the UN, international forces were responsible for five per cent of all civilian deaths — while the Taliban and other armed groups for the overwhelming majority.
But those steps should have been matched by an effort to improve accountability for the killings that do still occur. In the period that our report focuses on, Amnesty International is only aware of six cases where US soldiers have been prosecuted for civilian deaths in Afghanistan.
Actual criminal investigations are quite rare. The air strike in Laghman fits a familiar pattern — once shamed into acknowledging civilian casualties, the US military or NATO would often announce that an investigation would be carried out, but would never release its results. Family members and the general public are left in the dark. Of the 125 witnesses we talked to, only two people had ever been interviewed by US military investigators.
At the heart of this problem is the deeply flawed US military justice system. Essentially a form of self-policing, the US military justice system largely relies on soldiers or commanders to report possible human rights violations themselves to trigger an investigation – but there are few incentives for them to do so, and they may risk ending up facing trial themselves for reporting abuses they had a role in. Since US troops are immune from prosecution in the Afghan court system, Afghans themselves have no way of lodging a criminal complaint. On those rare occasions when cases do make it to the prosecution stage, there are still serious concerns about the independence and transparency of the military courts – and the Afghan victims are rarely called upon to testify.
Our message to the US government is clear — all cases involving civilian casualties at the hands of US forces should be investigated, and, where appropriate, those found responsible should be brought to justice. Ensuring prompt and impartial investigations will require a fundamental reform of the US military justice system.
The current lack of justice is leaving a dangerous legacy of resentment and impunity behind in Afghanistan. Most of the victims and family members we spoke to said they were desperate for justice more than anything else — the United States must not keep ignoring their pleas to see justice delivered.
Richard Bennett is the Director of Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Program. Between 2004 and 2007 he served as head of the human rights unit of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
Note: This op-ed originally appeared on Foreign Policy’s South Asia channel.
Afghanistan: No justice for thousands of civilians killed in US/NATO operations (News story, 11 August 2014)Left in the dark: Failures of accountability for civilian casualties caused by international military operations in Afghanistan (Report, 11 August 2014)