The International Security Assistance Force – otherwise known as the American-led NATO force in Afghanistan – launched Operation Moshtarak in the Helmand province last week. The largest military operation in Afghanistan since the initial invasion in 2001, Operation Moshtarak is the debut of ISAF’s new “civilian-friendly” attitude.
NATO announced that their new strategy was to center on protecting civilians and building up local support rather than focusing predominately on pursuing insurgent militants without explicit consideration for the largely non-combatant populations in which they take refuge.
However, the strategy has proven messier to implement than the military’s rhetoric suggested. In Marjah, civilians have been used as human shields, while the economic and social infrastructure of the town has been riddled with bullets and laced with improvised explosive devices. The Associated Press reported that:
Shops were riddled with bullet holes. Grocery stores and fruit stalls had been left standing open, hastily deserted by their owners. White metal fences marked off areas that had not yet been cleared of bombs.
Avoiding negative impacts on civilians during a massive urban operation is impossible, it seems.
However, while an explicit effort to minimize civilian casualties is to be lauded, General McCrystal’s strategy seems to have wholly neglected the displacement of civilians that his operation has caused. For instance, General McCrystal rapidly apologized to President Karzai after a NATO airstrike today killed at least 27 civilians – most, if not all, of whom were women and children– but has been silent on the forced internal migration that the operation has caused.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that the number of displaced due to Operation Moshtarak has doubled over the past four days, reaching close to 25,000 people who have fled the conflict. Many are reported to have fled abruptly, without food or water.
The population of Marjah has halved — from 80,000 to 40,000 — according to OCHA. Those who remained in the town are stuck due to mines and the threat of being caught in the crossfire, according to the Afghan Red Crescent Society.
The internally displaced persons newly created by the operation have no camp to go to, and the innocent men, women, and children who have been fled the conflict in fear are streaming into a void of humanitarian assistance.
Add to this the uproar in the international humanitarian assistance community over General McCrystal’s “government in a box” theory, and suddenly the outlook for displaced civilians is grim.
McCrystal is increasingly involving the military in state-building endeavors, from building schools and distributing food to assisting in the creation of a local government. On the face of it, this strategy seems to be a good idea: the military is engaged in good works that could help win over the support of the local population. However, as Oxfam elucidates, “in some cases, military involvement in development activities is, paradoxically, putting Afghan lives further at risk as these projects quickly become targeted by anti-government elements.”
As a result, the United Nations is refusing to deliver aid in conjunction with the Helmand operation for fear of tainting their objectivity and independence in the delivery of humanitarian aid to a distressed population.
This twin effect of massive displacement and militarization of aid has led to a high cost to pay for the civilian population of Marjah as a result of Operation Moshtarak.
The rebuilding of schools, provision of humanitarian aid, and emergency medical attention should be left in the expert hands of neutral humanitarian aid organizations like OCHA, Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, and Oxfam.
So when the new NATO intention to prioritize respect for the civilian population and minimize civilian deaths, one has to ask why so little attention is being paid to the massive civilian displacement that has been the result of Operation Moshtarak. Refugees are civilian victims of war, and the loss of one’s home, livelihood, safety and sense of security due to war and displacement are a devastating cost to pay. If General McCrystal and NATO really want to respect the civilians of Afghanistan, then they should consider the massive displacement that results from such large operations.
NATO should also leave humanitarian assistance to the purview of neutral international aid organizations that have the experience and technical capacity to serve the local population without further endangering their safety. Aid should not be militarized; this only further endangers the safety and livelihoods of an already distressed population.