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US mission in Afghanistan damaged by civilian harm: OSF

KABUL: American troops and their allies have been lambasted for underestimating the strategic costs to their missions resulting from civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, the Open Society Foundations said, the US and its partners had learnt invaluable lessons about the strategic impact of civilian harm and how to better protect civilians without sacrificing force protection.

But those lessons are in danger of being lost at serious strategic cost to the United States, according to a new report by US Army combat veteran Christopher Kolenda and the Open Society Foundations (OSF).

Washington still faced strategic risks due to civilian harm caused by the US military and partners in Iraq, Syria, and other conflicts, said OSF, an organisation that works to build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens.

Working with local communities in more than 100 countries around the globe, the Open Society Foundations support justice and human rights, freedom of expressionand access to public health and education.

“How we treat civilians is a force multiplier for usand a force-detractor for the enemy,” commented ex-US Marine Corps General John Allen. The report details how the US military dramatically cut civilian harm in Afghanistan and how the US military can ensure those lessons are transferred to current and future operations.

The pointed report — based on interviews with current and former US and Afghan officials — looks at analyses the near-fatal strategic impact of civilian harm in Afghanistan. Intelligence failures and predatory partners exacerbated the problem.

A close look at US operations and partner forces in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan revealed a failure to fully institutionalise these lessons, putting it at risk of repeating costly mistakes made in Afghanistan, the report alleged.

“I’m a believer in American exceptionalism,” former deputy assistant secretary of defense David Sedneywas quoted as saying, “But only if you keep proving it.”The report urged US officials to adopt a Uniform Policy on Civilian Protection that would cover civilian harm.

Reforms would address the impact of civilian casualties by partner forces, often engaged in their own counterinsurgency operations, lowering the risks to US credibility and helping advance US strategic interests.

“Civilian harm accelerated the insurgency and undermined the US and Afghan governments,” Kolenda said. “It was like burning a candle at both ends with a blow torch.”

The main objective behind the report is to improve understanding of civilian harm in Afghanistan and its strategic impact and to offer lessons on civilian protection for current and future conflicts.

The US military is committed to upholding the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and makes great efforts to protect civilians. The United States experience in Afghanistan demonstrated how civilian harm, even in accordance with LOAC, can cause irreversible damage to a US mission.

 

“We assess with high confidence that civilian harm by US, international, and Afghan forces contributed significantly to the growth of the Taliban, particularly during the crucial periods 2002-04, and 2006-08, and undermined the war effort by straining US-Afghan relations and weakening the legitimacy of the US mission and the Afghan government.”

The United States was urged to develop a uniform policy on civilian protection, create standing data collection and analysis capabilities, sharpen learning and accountability, improve decision-making tools, enhance training and leader development, and strengthen partner accountability.

The executive summary says civilian harm contributed significantly to the growth of the Taliban and undermined the war effort by weakening the legitimacy of the US mission and the Afghan government and straining US-Afghan relations.

America’s strategic interests were severely damaged by civilian harm caused by ISAF operations, predatory partners, and wrongful or overbroad targeting and detentions, often driven by intelligence failures and manipulation by local elites.

“Afghan National Security Forces-caused civilian harm is on the rise, and risks hardening support for the Taliban in contested areas while reducing cooperation with the Afghan government.”

The organisation blamed US forces for not sufficiently prioritizing civilian protection in ANSF development and strategic planning. (PAN)

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