Nowhere to Turn

The Failure to Protect Civilians in Afghanistan

Publication date: 18 November 2010

2010 is the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since 2001. According to UNAMA Human Rights, there were 1,271 civilian deaths in the first six months of 2010 - an increase of 21% on the same period last year. Approximately 319,000 Afghans remain internally displaced, roughly one-third due to the current conflict. Social protection and access to basic services are eroding and the spreading insecurity has restricted the ability of aid agencies to reach those who need their assistance.

Security for the vast majority of Afghans is rapidly deteriorating. As 29 aid organizations working in Afghanistan, we are deeply concerned about the impact of the escalating conflict on civilians. It is likely that increased violence in 2011 will lead to more civilian casualties, continue to fuel displacement, cut off access to basic services and reduce the ability of aid agencies to reach those who need assistance most.

This paper does not attempt to address all aspects of the current conflict. It concentrates on those that negatively impact civilians, particularly in the context of transition to Afghan responsibility for security. While this paper primarily focuses on the actions and strategy of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), it is important to remember that armed opposition groups (AOG), who are stronger and control more territory than at any time since 2001, also have clear obligations under international humanitarian law (IHL) to protect civilians. As such, this paper will make reference to AOG actions and issue recommendations to AOG where applicable.

As world leaders meet in at the NATO summit Lisbon (19-20 November 2010), we strongly urge them, along with all parties to the conflict, to minimize the harm to civilians and reduce threats and disruptions to basic services and development and humanitarian activities across Afghanistan. In addition, ISAF should do much more to ensure that ANSF, as they take on greater re-sponsibility for security, fully respect human rights and the laws of war.

The insurgency continues to grow, violence is spreading and some analysts even fear a new civil war. Yet this failure to protect civilians from the escalating conflict, now and in coming months, is not inevitable. More can and must be done to minimize the harm to civilians, especially as ISAF begins to handover responsibility for security to the Afghan government.