Mohammad Shoib / Reuters

Amnesty slams US over civilian deaths in Afghanistan

Rights group details 10 incidents that ended with deaths of at least 140 civilians, including at least 50 children

The human rights group Amnesty International sharply rebuked the U.S. military justice system on Monday, saying it had failed to hold American soldiers accountable for “unlawful killings and other abuses,” giving Afghan victims little chance of seeing justice.

Detailing its criticism in an extensive report titled “Left in the Dark,” Amnesty focused on civilian deaths caused by military operations in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2013 and said the “U.S. military’s investigative and prosecutorial practices fall far short of what is needed to ensure accountability for alleged crimes against civilians.”

The report, based on interviews with 125 Afghan victims, their family members and eyewitnesses to the attacks, detailed 10 different incidents that ended with the deaths of at least 140 civilians, including at least 50 children. Among the incidents was a late-night raid on a home in February 2010 in Paktia province that left two pregnant women, two criminal justice officials and a teenage girl dead. 

“Thousands of Afghans have been killed or injured by U.S. forces since the invasion, but the victims and their families have little chance of redress. The U.S. military justice system almost always fails to hold its soldiers accountable for unlawful killings and other abuses,” said Richard Bennett, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Director.

The report notes that over the last five years, there have been only six cases in which military members were prosecuted for unlawfully killing Afghan civilians. The most notable case is that of Army Sgt. Robert Bales, who admitted killing 16 Afghan civilians in 2012 and was sentenced to life in prison without parole last year. 

But the report took aim at a lack of timely and unbiased investigations, laying blame on the military justice system itself, saying it fails civilian victims of military crimes due do the “self-policing” nature of its “commander-driven” system. According to Amnesty, the commander plays a key role in initiating investigations and deciding when to terminate them.

“It is a system in which, in most cases, there are no real incentives to report crimes against Afghan civilians, or to push forward an investigation or prosecution or such crimes, and many disincentives to doing so,” the report said. 

But the Department of Defense said U.S. forces “go to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilians casualties.”

“In those instances in which civilians have been killed or injured, after-action reviews have been conducted to determine why, and to ensure that we are taking the most effective steps to minimize the risk of civilians being killed or injured in the future,” Defense Department spokeswoman Navy Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost said in a statement. 

“The United States has investigated U.S. military personnel and civilian personnel, including contractors, for civilian casualties that are alleged to be not incident to lawful military operations,” said Derrick-Frost. “Investigation results can and have previously led to both criminal convictions, as well as adverse administrative actions.”

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), also implicated in the report, responded by saying that it “investigates all credible reports of civilian deaths and injuries when tactical circumstances allow,” adding that it “takes steps to minimize the risk to civilians during military operations.” NATO, which will end its combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of this year, added that there had been a “significant reduction” in civilian casualties as a result of its operations. 

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) listed 1,564 civilian deaths and 3,289 civilian injuries from Jan. 1 to June 30. UNAMA attributed 74 percent of those casualties to anti-government elements. 

Indeed, the Amnesty report acknowledges that the “U.S. military has taken important steps to limit civilian deaths in military operations,” but says “it has not taken comparable steps to improve its system of bringing those suspected of unlawful killings to justice.” 

The recommendations made to the Defense Department by the rights group include making sure that a “prompt, thorough and impartial investigation is conducted” and that it involves interviews with Afghan witnesses. It also recommended publishing an annual report on civilian casualties similar to the report released by the Pentagon that includes comprehensive data on cases. 

“Leaving Afghan families in the dark about the full circumstances and legality of their relatives’ deaths should not be an option,” the report concludes. “If the cases are not brought forward, the military should inform the families and provide them with an explanation as to why. The conflict’s human cost should not be compounded by injustice.”

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