Along a sunburnt dirt road, amid the obscure mountain stretches surrounding Kabul, lies a small rural Afghan town called Kharabagh. Situated atop a rocky, angled slope, the village now serves as an unofficial refugee haven for about 30 families. Formerly of the Jalrez district in the Wardak province of Central Afghanistan, these families fled their previous residence after a new U.S. military compound was erected adjacent to their village. The base, built in February, not only encroached on the village's cemetery and school but inevitably attracted Taliban gunfire and harassment. After suffering the burden of U.S. military checkpoints, the terror of extremist combatants regularly stalking them, and mounting civilian casualties, it was no surprise that the villagers abandoned their homes. Since they took shelter with relatives and friends in Kharabagh, their hometown remains generally deserted, bullet-riddled, and overwhelmed by soldiers.
Patrick Duplat, a Refugees International staffer who visited the dispossessed villagers earlier this summer, sees the situation as a prime example of the humanitarian crisis in the Afghan war zone, especially as U.S. military offensives, particularly in Helmand province, have intensified during the Afghan election season. According to the United Nations, 1,013 civilians died in Afghanistan during the first half of this year, compared to 818 killed in the first six months of 2008 and 684 in the first six months of 2007.
"While the circumstances surrounding these events in Wardak province have already been investigated by the U.N. Refugee Agency," Duplat says, "the plight of the villagers fell on deaf ears when brought before the U.S. military. The American authorities in the area either did not believe the Afghans or dismissed the matter entirely, deeming it not an important issue." In the eyes of many human-rights advocates, such outcomes perpetuate an image of the United States military in Afghanistan as a disinterested occupying force, with little respect for the needs or culture of civilians.
Like many refugee and human-rights activists, Duplat has been pushing for an American conduct of war more focused on the basic rights and serious grievances of the civilian Afghan population. Their goals include protection of local Afghan property, cooperation with established regional human-rights agencies, and improved communication with area tribal leaders.
For those who share this view, recent developments in the Obama administration's strategy have been reassuring. Earlier this year, the administration orchestrated a clear break from past war policy, placing a new emphasis on protecting Afghan civilians, even going as far as to halt publication of Taliban and terrorist body counts in Afghanistan. In an Aug. 13 interview on NPR, Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn said that for the first time, the U.S. military is actively seeking the advice of academics and social scientists to acquire a cultural understanding of the Afghan battlefield: "We're trying to understand what are the ... factors that the people of Afghanistan are willing to sacrifice ? their lives, their time, their own talents and resources," he said.
But even with this departure from the Bush administration's body-count paradigm, the Obama administration is still beleaguered with the unavoidable civilian consequences of conflict escalation. In order to counteract the potentially devastating effects of boosting a hostile U.S. military presence, various advocates are proposing different policies. While Human Rights First focuses on reforming the Afghan detention system, Refugees International has repeatedly called for more consistent interaction between the U.S. military and United Nations human-rights missions. For example, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has been operating since 2002 and often still has trouble coordinating with American military forces stationed in the country. According to Duplat, problems have ranged from poor communication to outright dismissal.
"While this all-too-frequent breakdown in cooperation is hugely unfortunate, Obama's shift in policy and accountability is very positive," Duplat says. "Public display of concern [for civilians] plays a great part in shaping policy and making sure that the military and the population at large realize that civilian protection has in fact become the top priority."
Obama's shift to civilian protection, however, is viewed by some as chiefly cosmetic. While the overarching military strategy has undergone a very public change since Obama took office, the tactical significance is rather small. According to platoon leader James Moreland, who recently concluded a tour in Afghanistan with the 506th Infantry Regiment, the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations was little more than a blip on a news ticker.
"There was absolutely no noticeable change on the ground, whether it was in methods of civilian protection or carrying out an effective counterinsurgency," Moreland says.
Department of Defense spokesperson Lt. Col. Mark Wright disputes the notion that Bush-era policies on civilian protection remain dominant. "There is now a primary distinction between 'counterterrorism' and this administration's 'counterinsurgency,' which is far more nuanced than simply tracking down Taliban elements," Wright says. "However, the operations are still moving troops and security forces into civilian population areas to provide protection and preserve security 24/7, which essentially amounts to a tactical equivalence to past operations. Because of this, the change in policy is often practically invisible to the average soldier."
Wright continues, "We've all known from the start that the enemy forces can't have a proper insurgency without the support and aid of civilians and the local population, and we've always been providing military protection for provincial reconstruction teams and nongovernmental groups dedicated to building roads, mosques, and schools."
First Lt. Moreland says that in his experience, local Afghans are welcoming to U.S, forces and generally view the Taliban and terrorist fighters as something analogous to the mafia in an American city, as both criminal organizations have few qualms about bullying locals for information or ample amounts of "protection money." In order to most effectively work with sympathetic civilians, soldiers and marines have been required to undergo training programs designed to strengthen cultural awareness, provide a rudimentary education in the Pashto and Waziri languages, and teach methods of reducing civilian panic and risk in war-torn territory.
But for refugee advocates like Duplat, the jury is still out on civilian protections in Afghanistan. "There has been progress in the past year," he says. "I don't know if the word 'optimistic' applies, but the trend has been more positive. However, it's far too early for a complete assessment. We'll see how this plays out in time."