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Afghanistan: The Civilians are still paying the price of an endless war

In the Global Peace Index 2019 Report, Afghanistan is indicated as the less peaceful country in the world. It was 1978 when, after a communist coup, the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan and the mujahideen resistance movement was formed. Since then, the country has in fact been in a permanent state of war.

From 1989 the civil war continued between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance until eighteen years ago, when the US of America opted for military intervention and launched what was called the “Enduring Freedom Operation”. Quite unexpectedly, it turned out to be United States’ longest war, which is still carrying on to this day. In recent times, war has reached a stalemate. This is partly due to a loss of interest by the International actors, which are involved militarily and economically, and partly because the public opinion no longer understands the reasons why this war is still going on. At first, US involvement was mainly motivated by the will to overthrow the Taliban regime, who protected Bin Laden- identified as responsible for the 9/11 horror - and refused to hand him over. Other keywords were also in use at the time, such as: avert the use of Afghanistan as operations’ base for terrorist groups, stop women’s oppression and rebuild the war-torn country. To this day, however, none of those missions has been fulfilled. In 2014 the US announced its intention to return military and political responsibility to the Afghans. The Resolute Support Mission formally began and NATO’s presence in Afghanistan is now limited to training and assisting the national security forces, which seem to be worse-armed and worse-trained than the Taliban. As a result, the Taliban keep on seizing up territory and present themselves as an effective alternative to the Afghan government, with whom they refuse to negotiate. For this reason, the US pursued the peace talks during this past year, only to interrupt them at the beginning of September.

The Afghan political class, with its inefficiency, corruption and internal divisions, is partly responsible for the present situation. After the 2014 fraudulent elections, both competing political leaders obtained new roles, created in order to avoid a civil war and to stop violence. However, this has done nothing but undermine the credibility of the institutions, strengthening the Taliban cause. The 28th of September 2019, Afghans exercised their democratic right to vote, under the threat of Taliban attacks, in an atmosphere of widespread disillusionment for the election of a president that controls less than half of the Afghan territory.

Amid the chaos and the struggles for power, the civilians, in blood, are still paying the heaviest price. Two generations have already been born amongst landmines, bombings, shootings, explosive devices and suicide attacks. These latter techniques were originally used by Taliban in order to overcome the technological and quantitative differences between the conflicting parties, and to gain the attention of the international press, proving their endurance, and enforcing their “law of fear”. Unfortunately, since Daesh entered the scene in the last few years, the situation has deteriorated even further. Deliberate attacks are now directed on targets that have always been a taboo, even for the Taliban, such as schools, gymnasiums, mosques and NGO headquarters.

In the first six months of 2019 the documented Anti-Government attacks that deliberately targeted civilians were 985. Tragically, civilian casualties are also originated from the Pro-Government front (International and Afghan soldiers). According to UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan), from January to June 2019, the civilian deaths caused by the Pro-Government Forces (717) are, for the first time, greater than those caused by the Taliban (423) and by Daesh (89) combined, and are mainly caused by aerial attacks. The number of collateral victims caused by the bombings has always been very high, but since the withdrawal of the NATO troops, the airstrikes have increased their inaccuracy. A glaring case was the attack on MSF hospital by the US in 2015. Yet, to this day, it still happens that American strikes intended for enemies end up killing civilians celebrating a wedding, or workers in the countryside.

In these cases, the usual claim is that the Taliban hide amongst civilians, but this cannot be an excuse for killing and injuring innocent people in such numbers. It may actually be considered a war crime, even if the Anti-Government actors frequently use residential houses or other civilian targets as shields, violating the fundamental principle of distinction between the combatants and civilians and between the military and civilian targets.

The failure to comply with International Humanitarian Law by one side does not relieve the opponent of following the criteria set to balance the military necessity with the protection of human rights. In particular, the aforementioned principle of distinction between civilians and combatants (a customary rule, encoded in the Articles 48 and 52 of I Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions) states that only fighters may be directly targeted, while any direct attack against a civilian or civilian objects is not only a violation of IHL, but also a grave breach.

When a strike is made against a lawful military target and civilian casualties are impossible to avoid, the principle of proportionality (Article 51 of API) demands that the least amount of harm is caused to civilians and that the “collateral damage” needs be proportional to the military advantage. In any case, for the principle of precautions in attacks (Article 57 of API), the parties must seek to avoid-or at least minimize- civilian harm, taking all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of attack.

Written by: Chiara Zannelli

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