NATO officials confirmed to this reporter that they routinely destroy Afghan homes, businesses and other structures that may be linked to the Taliban, but they refuse to provide any statistics as to how many have been destroyed. The Washington Post and The New York Times indicate that the practice is widespread and they have confirmed that whole villages have been leveled. (These field reports are referenced at the end of this article.) In June, 2010, the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights, Richard Falk publicly condemned the Israeli Government for its destruction of Palestinian homes. In contrast, the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, and the U.N.’s Special Representative in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, have been deplorably silent regarding similar actions by UN-supported NATO forces in Afghanistan.
This is what we know. NATO soldiers in Afghanistan operates under the acronym “ISAF” ISAF troops have the authority to destroy any structure in Afghanistan which they believe is being used to store weapons or narcotics, or which may be booby-trapped with explosives. The standard seems to be that any home can be destroyed with artillery or air strikes as long as there is some suspicion regarding it. The rationale for the destructions is that searching potentially booby-trapped homes is too dangerous a task.
There are at least six problems with this ISAF policy:
1. Under the Annex to the Hague Convention, Chapter 1, Article 23(g), Occupying Powers cannot destroy enemy property unless it is “imperatively demanded by the necessities of war.” Pursuant to the Geneva Convention of 1949 (Geneva IV), Section 111, Article 53, occupying powers are prohibited from destroying any civilian personal property unless it is “absolutely necessary.” International occupational law is dominated by the requirement of military necessity and suspicions do not constitute such necessity; nor do tips from informants. Homes cannot be destroyed just because they might possibly pose a risk to troops searching the home. If the ISAF policy was lawful, its officials would be citing the Hague and Geneva IV language and would be detailing how international standards are being met. The fact that they do not, speaks volumes.
In the past, ISAF officials have denied that they are an occupying power in Afghanistan, pointing to the existence of the democratically elected Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. While ISAF officials pay lip service to the illusion of the Afghan Government’s “sovereignty,” they have repeatedly confirmed that President Karzai lacks the authority to issue them orders, including an order to end the night raids by special operations troops. The NATO/Karzai Lisbon Agreement of 2010, states that control of Afghanistan will be turned over to President Karzai by 2014. Thus, it is undisputed that NATO is an occupying power.
One of the shameful consequences of NATO’s irresponsible refusal to publicly accept its occupying power status is that NATO/ISAF officials can claim that they are not required to comply with Articles 50, 55 and 59 of Section III of the Geneva IV Convention. Those articles obligate NATO to educate all war orphans and feed the civilian population (which it is not doing - 1/3 of the Afghan population is malnourished according to the U.N.’s Food Programme); and NATO is obligated to assign sufficient forces to protect the Afghan population (which it has not done). The requirement of an occupying power to ensure public safety is also a mandate of the Annex to the Hague regulations (See Article 43).
2. ISAF claims it only destroys “abandoned” homes, but it does not define the term. For example, if the occupants have gone to visit a relative, apparently ISAF personnel can consider the home to be abandoned.
3. ISAF claims that it does not bomb a home without first using a loud speaker to tell occupants to leave. The problem is that occupants, especially children, may be too scared to leave. Elderly or hearing impaired occupants might not even hear the announcement. It is not known how many civilian casualties have occurred as a result.
4. ISAF will not admit to the scope of the destructions. There may be hundreds or even thousands of homes that have been destroyed. ISAF refuses to release the apparently embarrassing statistics. In contrast, Israel is condemned if it destroys a single Palestinian home.
5. ISAF vaguely claims that it compensates homeowners, but those statements are suspect. The ISAF Internet website makes no mention of a claims process. How is the Afghan homeowner to know that he or she can even file a claim? There is no transparency. ISAF has refused to release its claims rules or statistics. It may be that 10,000 homes have been destroyed, but only 200 claims filed, with only 50 having been paid. The statistics may very well reveal that the claims process is a farce. In such a situation, the ISAF destructions are almost certainly fueling the insurgency.
6. Finally, ISAF has no verification process for its suspicions. For example, the Israeli Defense Forces know whether explosives were actually in a home they destroy because their armored bulldozers set off the charges. ISAF, by contrast, uses air strikes and artillery to destroy homes, therefore it never knows whether it made a mistake. It may be that 95% of the ISAF home destructions have been unjustified. Such reckless destructions would only be aiding Taliban recruitment.
Regarding all of this, the United Nations is nowhere to be seen. Its arbitrary outrage regarding home destructions remains focused solely against Israel. Serbian officials, who lack influential supporters on the Security Council, are not permitted to violate the Rules of War, but NATO officials can do so with impunity. The same silence emanates from the International Committee of the Red Cross’ President Jakob Kellenberger and his 15-member ICRC Assembly.
Despite a century of efforts to fashion international laws regarding the conduct of warfare, might always manages to triumph over the rule of law and “victors” always seem to decide what is justice. Obeying the rules of war is not simply a moral imperative; it almost always makes good military sense. The irony in Afghanistan is that these seemingly arbitrary and unnecessary home destructions may be fueling the insurgency. If that is the case, NATO may also be destroying its own exit strategy.
Additional Sources of Information:
New York Times: “NATO is Razing Booby-Trapped Afghan Homes” November 16, 2010.
Washington Post: “U.S. Operations in Kandahar Push Out Taliban” October 25, 2010.
www.globalpost.com: "Bulldozing through Kandahar" (Ben Gilbert) November 9, 2010.
.Note: This reporter contacted NATO’s Headquarters in Kabul and submitted ten questions to its press office regarding the destruction of Afghan homes. He received a somewhat vague response which did not address most of the questions. The response was marked “FOUO” (for official use only) and no specific permission was given to print the response, so it was not included.
Kabul Press would welcome a substantive ISAF response to this article and would print such in its entirely.