NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer argues that civilian deaths caused by NATO combat activities are accidental and, therefore, in a different moral category than civilian deaths intentionally caused by Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants. But human rights activists say all sides in Afghanistan have a moral and legal responsibility to ensure that civilians aren't killed by the indiscriminate use of force.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai raised the issue in Kabul this month with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. NATO defense ministers discussed the issue again on June 15, when they met in Brussels with Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.
De Hoop Scheffer said after those talks that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are trying to increase civilian casualties in Afghanistan in a bid to undermine support for foreign troops in the country -- as well as support for Karzai's government.
"They are, of course, trying to [ensure] that we are losing the hearts and minds of the Afghan people," de Hoop Scheffer said. "We are still supported by a large majority [of Afghans]; I find that out every time I get there. But, of course, [the insurgents] are waging this indirect war against us by exploiting civilians -- by using them as human shields."
De Hoop Scheffer insisted that NATO forces follow their rules of engagement before launching attacks against suspected militants. However, NATO officials refuse to specify the full details of those rules of engagement -- saying disclosure of such information would aid militants.
In 2006, when NATO took command of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), de Hoop Scheffer reassured ISAF contributing countries that NATO's rules of engagement would be "robust" enough for troops to defend themselves. He also spoke of separate rules of engagement for Operation Enduring Freedom -- a separate U.S.-led mission to "actively hunt" Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.
"The ISAF forces -- NATO-ISAF forces -- are coming in. On the basis of a set of rules of engagement, they are fully allowed -- and the commanding officer will decide -- to confront spoilers," de Hoop Scheffer said. "The counterterrorism mandate that is 'actively hunt' is an [Operation Enduring Freedom] mandate. The mandate of ISAF, and the rules of engagement of ISAF, make it possible that when spoilers try to frustrate the mission of ISAF, NATO-ISAF will act. And how it will act, and when it will act exactly, I cannot decide from behind my desk in Brussels. Parliaments cannot decide from their seats. Governments cannot decide from their seats. That is why we have trust in our commanders on the ground."
Questioned further about NATO's rules of engagement, NATO spokesman James Appathurai told RFE/RL that NATO soldiers have the right to carry out preemptive strikes against suspected militants and their compounds if a NATO commander gives the order.
"NATO forces have the right and the responsibility to protect their mission. And that means, if they need to fight to protect themselves [or] if they need to fight to extend the authority of the Afghan government, they will do it," Appathurai said. "They have the right to do it and will do it. That includes the right -- and indeed, if the commander deems it necessary -- the responsibility to take preemptive action."
But Mike Shaikh, a researcher in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch (HRW), argued that NATO and the U.S.-led coalition have a responsibility to uphold the standards laid out in the Geneva Conventions, irrespective of their own rules of engagement.
"In terms of civilian casualties, NATO still has to abide by the laws of war [as set out in the Geneva Conventions]," Shaikh said. "Even if they have very loose rules of engagement, [that] does not preclude them from following the Geneva Conventions and using 'discriminating' and 'proportionate' force."
Most importantly, Shaikh said, when Afghan civilians are killed by NATO or U.S.-led combat operations, arguments from Brussels about rules of engagement or the Geneva Conventions feel irrelevant to those affected.
"If you are a father or a mother and you lose a son or a daughter, you don't care if that attack was legal -- if it was proportionate or indiscriminate. You care that your child is dead. And that's really the main issue here in Afghanistan," Shaikh said. "Unfortunately, there is a big [debate] between NATO and other parts of the international community over the numbers of civilian casualties. The numbers are terribly important. However, the Afghan population is more concerned about NATO killing civilians than the actual number. They want NATO to acknowledge that they have made mistakes. They want an apology and they want NATO to say, 'We are going to do it better.' That's really the issue."
Shaikh has been working in Afghanistan to create a reliable database of all conflict-related casualties in Afghanistan -- including deaths and injuries of Afghan forces, foreign troops, insurgents, and innocent civilians.
For 2006, he has documented nearly 1,200 civilian deaths. He said insurgents were responsible for 669 of those killings, while as many as 300 could been attributed to foreign military operations. Human Rights Watch has been unable to attribute a perpetrator to several hundred other deaths.
"Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the rising number of civilian casualties perpetrated by all parties in the conflict. Regardless of who is right or wrong, all parties in the conflict have a responsibility to follow the laws of war," Shaikh told RFE/RL. "The insurgents are intentionally targeting civilians. They have been intentionally assassinating officials who they claim are pro-government clerics. For NATO and coalition forces, there is no evidence to suggest that they [international forces] are intentionally targeting civilians; but there is evidence that suggests they have used indiscriminate and disproportionate force, which is as worrying as intentionally targeting civilians. It is also a violation of the laws of war [under the Geneva Conventions]."
Some nongovernmental groups -- like the Washington-based Campaign for Innocent Victims In Conflict -- have prodded NATO countries to pay compensation for civilian casualties. They argue that the lack of a single NATO compensation scheme is damaging efforts by foreign forces to win the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan people.
"What really hurts is the civilian casualties," Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, said. "At least when there are civilian casualties, there should be a mechanism for redressing those grievances. The civilian casualties and the apparent impunity of coalition and NATO forces -- and also I should add, of private security contractors -- is a big issue in the minds of Afghans. So if [compensation] can help address that, then that would [help] to some extent. But of course, it would be more important to eliminate civilian casualties."
NATO's de Hoop Scheffer rejected allegations that any civilian casualties in Afghanistan have been the result of "indiscriminant force" by NATO.
"The International Security Assistance Force -- NATO-led ISAF -- does not indiscriminately kill people," de Hoop Scheffer said. "That's what the Taliban does. Roadside bombs. Suicide bombers. They make, by far, the most innocent civilian casualties in Afghanistan."
But those arguments might hold little sway over ordinary Afghans angry about air strikes like the one that killed seven children in Paktika Province this week.
Political analysts in Kabul say arguments by the U.S. military that Al-Qaeda used those children as "human shields" have little impact on Afghan public opinion. And they say Afghanistan's central government comes under increased public pressure every time another innocent civilian is killed.