Foreign Donors Should Press to Minimize Civilian Harm, Bring Abusers to Justice
(New York) – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani should denounce remarks by the chief of the army offering soldiers protection from punishment for war crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. Ghani, who is commander-in-chief of the Afghan armed forces, should recommit the country’s security forces to respect the laws of war and put commanders on notice that suggesting otherwise will subject them to disciplinary measures.
The June 14 statement by Afghanistan’s army chief suggesting that the laws of armed conflict do not apply to government troops is just the latest in a series of such statements by senior Afghan military and civilian officials. Disavowing the laws of war encourages abuses by all parties to the conflict and places civilians at greater risk of harm.
“President Ghani should state clearly that abiding by the laws of war is a legal requirement, not a policy option,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “Commanders who reject the laws of war not only unnecessarily risk the lives of civilians and their own troops, but also make themselves subject to prosecution for war crimes.”
On June 14, 2015, Afghan National Army Chief Gen. Qadam Shah Shahim told troops during a visit to the 209th Shaheen Corps in the northern province of Badakhshan that they “no longer have any restrictions to use artillery against the enemy.” He told them: “You have no restrictions on night raids against specific enemy targets. You will no longer be sent to prison for your sacrifices. You will not be interrogated.” Other senior officials have previously issued instructions not to take prisoners and to execute those in custody, acts that are war crimes.
Government mechanisms for bringing military personnel to justice for violations are inadequate. For instance, on December 31, 2014, a rocket fired by an army unit in Sangin district of southern Helmand province fell on a wedding party, killing 27 civilians and injuring 70 others, including 24 children. Military investigators only questioned two soldiers about this incident and have not publicly released the investigation findings.
Senior Afghan officials besides Shahim have previously advocated potential war crimes. On August 7, 2014, Kandahar police chief Gen. Raziq announced that his troops had orders not to take any Taliban prisoners. “It is my command to all soldiers not to let them live anymore, to eliminate them in any possible way,” he told reporters during a media briefing. On August 13, 2014, the Baghlan provincial police chief Gen. Aminullah Amarkhail announced a similar summary execution policy, stating that: "We have told our soldiers, in order to prevent the release of Taliban from prisons and the judicial systems, that they should be killed and must be punished for what they have done.” That same month, Abdul Khaliq Maroof, governor of Hesarak district in southeastern Nangarhar province, was even more direct: "I tell all commanders, no matter where they find the Taliban, they should not be brought in alive.” Take-no-prisoner orders by military officers raise the risk of killings of Afghan civilians in combat zones.
Concerns about captured insurgents being released and returning to the battlefield date back to the administration of former President Hamid Karzai. Shahim’s comments coincide with both a serious intensification of the conflict as well as reports of Taliban atrocities and potential war crimes against Afghan soldiers. The Taliban claimed responsibility for a June 22 attack on the Afghan parliament in Kabul and have made battlefield gains in the northern province of Kunduz. In April, Taliban insurgents in Badakhshan province allegedly beheaded 28 captured Afghan soldiers.
All parties to the armed conflict in Afghanistan are obligated to abide by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war. The laws of war place restrictions on the methods and means of combat, including the requirement to discriminate between civilians and combatants and otherwise minimize civilian harm. The law also requires the humane treatment of all persons in custody, including civilians and captured combatants. Violations by one party to the conflict do not justify or excuse violations by the other side.
Serious violations of the laws of war committed with criminal intent are war crimes. Commanders who order or otherwise assist, facilitate, aid, or abet the commission of a war crime may be criminally liable. States have an obligation to investigate and appropriately prosecute alleged war crimes by members of their forces.
Foreign donors who fund Afghan military operations have yet to publicly criticize statements by senior Afghan officials advocating possible war crimes. Afghanistan’s international donors, particularly the United States, have spent more than a decade and billions of dollars to underwrite and train Afghan security forces. On January 1 NATO launched its Resolute Support mission, which will provide advice and assistance to Afghan military at least until the end of 2015. In March the US pledged to continue providing approximately $4 billion annually for the Afghan military until the end of 2017.
“Foreign donors assisting the Afghan military should make it clear that their support depends on minimizing harm to civilians and holding violators to account,” Kine said. “Afghanistan’s donors need to press the military to end abuses or they may find themselves complicit in future atrocities.”