International humanitarian law places restrictions on the military operations of all parties to an armed conflict. State armed forces and opposition armed groups are prohibited from: intentionally targeting civilians or civilian objects; conducting attacks that do not discriminate between civilians and combatants or are anticipated to cause civilian loss that is disproportionate to the military gain; conducting attacks or threats primarily intended to spread terror amidst the civilian population; and attacking military targets using perfidious methods. In all attacks they must take all feasible steps to minimize harm to civilians. When conducting offensive operations, insurgent forces should choose areas to launch attacks that are not in proximity of civilian areas, and try to avoid operations in crowded civilian areas. Afghan government and international forces should, to the extent feasible, avoid locating their bases and operations within or near densely populated areas.
Human Rights Watch makes the following specific recommendations:
To the Taliban, Hezb-e Islami, Jaish al Muslemin, Jalaluddin Haqqanis forces, and other opposition armed groups:
- Cease all intentional attacks on civilians and civilian objects. Commanders and other leaders of the Taliban and other insurgent groups should ensure that civilians are never targeted for attack. Under international humanitarian law, armed forces can only target military objectives, enemy combatants, or civilians directly participating in hostilities. Persons immune from attack include Afghan civilian government officials and employees, humanitarian aid and development workers, school teachers, journalists, doctors, and other non-combatant civil servants. Civilian objects such as schools, hospitals, and homes must not be attacked unless currently being used for military purposes.
- Cease all attacks that cause indiscriminate or disproportionate harm to civilians or civilian objects. Insurgent forces attacking military targets must take all feasible steps to minimize harm to civilians. No attack should be carried out that uses means and methods of war that do not discriminate between civilians and combatants or are expected to cause excessive civilian harm. The Taliban and other armed groups should avoid any attacks in crowded civilian areas, such as busy roads, village or city streets, bazaars, or other public gathering places, given the likely unlawfulness of such operations.
- Cease attacks or threats that are primarily meant to spread terror among civilians. The Taliban and other armed groups should not make threats or launch attacks intended to spread terror among the civilian population, which is illegal under the laws of war. They should not make threats of violence to civilians, such as the delivery of night letters, or take other actions intended to terrorize civilians.
- Stop feigning civilian status during attacks. Members of the Taliban and other insurgent groups should not pretend to be civilians to gain military advantage while carrying out attacks. Feigning civilian status puts civilians at heightened risk of attack during hostilities. Anti-government forces who seek to carry out attacks on military targets can use ruses of war, including camouflage, decoys, mock operations, and misinformation, but they must not present themselves as civilians.
- Affirm commitments to follow international humanitarian law. Anti-government forces should publicly affirm their commitment to follow established rules of the laws of war, including prohibitions against targeting civilians, using indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, attacking with the primary intent to cause terror among civilians, and feigning civilian status to gain a military advantage. These are rules which Afghan forces invoked to criticize Soviet forces during the 1980s and US and coalition forces during the 2001 war.
To the Afghan government and allied international forces, including US, NATO, and coalition military forces:
- Review policies and protocols for basing, patrolling, and convoys, to minimize harm to the civilian population. Government and international forces are at heightened risk of attack by anti-government forces, and should therefore seek to distance their forces from civilians and civilian objects to the extent feasible. Ensuring the protection of the civilian population does require that military forces at times place themselves in the vicinity of populated civilian areas. However, these forces where possible should take precautions to minimize harm to civilian life, for instance, by locating bases, checkpoints, or temporary posts at heightened distances from civilian areas.
- Review rules of engagement and operating procedures for how forces respond to real or perceived suicide attackers. Government and allied forces need to improve their policies for identifying and warning civilians, to avoid mistaken shootings of civilians who are erroneously believed to be suicide attackers. Some suggested actions:
—Take further steps to better mark checkpoints and convoy vehicles with lights and large signs in Dari and Pashto.
—Have interpreters available at all checkpoints at all times.
—Provide soldiers at checkpoints with basic knowledge of Dari and Pashto commands and hand signals to ensure better communication with civilians.
—Strengthen public service campaigns to inform Afghan civilians about proper behavior at checkpoints and around convoys. Civilians should be informed of the basic guidelines to avoid danger.
To the government of Pakistan:
- Properly investigate and prosecute insurgents located in Pakistan who have been implicated in serious violations of international humanitarian law.
- End support, including providing safe haven, to insurgent forces operating out of Pakistan who are responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law. Pakistani authorities should ensure that no Pakistani government authorities, whether at a federal, province, or local level, are providing sanctuary or support to insurgents responsible for attacks violating the laws of war.
To political, religious, and civil society leaders in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere, including leaders who provide political or practical support to Afghan insurgent forces:
- Speak out against intentional attacks on civilians, and attacks that are carried out indiscriminately, cause disproportionate harm to civilians, or use perfidious means. Political, religious and civil society leaders, tribal elders, and local government officialswhatever their views on the insurgency in Afghanistanshould denounce illegal methods of warfare used by Afghan insurgent forces. Illegal methods include assassinations, executions, and attacks on all civilians, including civilian government employees and aid workers, and attacks on civilian objects such as clinics and schools.