US military “poor” at investigating civilian deaths in Afghanistan

Members of a family who lost five relatives in a drone strike in Nuristan province on 5 December 2012 (Amnesty/Joanne Mariner)
Members of a family who lost five relatives in a drone strike
in Nuristan province on 5 December 2012 (Amnesty/Joanne Mariner)

The US military’s record for investigating war crimes and prosecuting suspected perpetrators in Afghanistan “is poor”, according to a new Amnesty International report.

The US appears to have made little effort to document or record what happened in nine of the 10 incidents that Amnesty believes “raise concerns about the unlawful use of force” and were investigated for their report. Eye-witnesses to these nine attacks say they have never spoken to US military investigators. That is despite one incident, a 2010 special forces raid, involving “abundant and compelling evidence of war crimes”.

Amnesty investigators are aware of only six cases in five years where members of the military have been “criminally prosecuted for unlawfully killing Afghan civilians”.

The report says US military’s “existing mechanisms for transparency are clearly insufficient”. There is no indication if investigations into these and other allegations of unlawful civilian death are opened and closed before the relatives of the victims or the general public are told.

The Amnesty report is also critical of the US military’s lack of transparency for failing to report “on its efforts to prevent and investigate civilian casualties”.

The Bureau has also found that a lack of official transparency “contributes to a vacuum of comprehensive and transparent casualty recording” around US and UK drone strikes in Afghanistan.

In addition, the Bureau found there is a significant lack of information around whether the US or UK carried out a particular strike. This has knock-on effects for determining who is responsible for civilian casualties.

Amnesty’s report is based  on interviews with 125 Afghan families who have first hand experience of around 16 attacks that resulted in civilian casualties.

The report recommends the US military should launch prompt and impartial investigations into reports of civilian casualties from US action. And the results of the investigations should be published. The report notes that recommendations to improve transparency and accountability have been made before “but have not been acted on”.

The researchers found investigations into alleged cases “of unlawful killings of civilians… almost never occur,” including when these allegations come from drone strikes. This is despite the US military saying they “take all allegations of misconduct by our personnel very seriously” and promising to investigate these cases fully.

The report describes “important structural flaws in the US military justice system that hinder the investigation and prosecution of crimes against civilians.”

The system relies on soldiers reporting incidents up the command chain, which they “have scant incentive” to do, the report claims. And the system requires commanders to push investigations forward – something they have little reason to do, Amnesty says, particularly when “the commander’s own conduct or judgement might be called into question”.

The report identified three scenarios as “especially hazardous” to civilians: night raids by special forces, air strikes including those by drones, and where civilians are fired at near checkpoints or convoys – known as “escalation of force incidents”.

Air strikes alone have killed thousands of civilians in Afghanistan, the report explains. The report says drones are being used more in Afghanistan, citing UN data that says 45 civilians died in 19 drone strikes in 2013. Separate research by the Center for Naval Analysis found drone strikes in Afghanistan are significantly more likely to cause civilian casualties than conventional air strikes.

Air and drone strikes have continued, despite requests from the Afghan government that they stop. However the report does identify evidence that Nato forces “are using smaller munitions than in the past”. The Bureau has also identified evidence the US has cut the explosive power of the missiles and bombs carried by its drones in Pakistan.

Reprinted from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Follow Jack Serle on Twitter here.

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