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‘Air Power in Afghanistan’ – How NATO changed the rules, 2008-2014

A new report published today by London-based charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has shone new light on the reasons why civilian deaths from aerial bombing in Afghanistan have fallen by 81% between 2008 and 2014.

Air strikes have long been one of NATO’s most controversial tactics in Afghanistan. In “Air power in Afghanistan,” AOAV investigates the policies adopted by NATO since 2008 – the year when civilian deaths from air strikes peaked – through to 2014, when international forces withdrew from the country. It asks: how did NATO change the rules for its use of aerial explosive weapons in populated areas in Afghanistan? How did these changes help protect civilians during hostilities?

AOAV scrutinised three specific directives and policies implemented by NATO after 2008; the McChrystal Tactical Directive (2009), the Allen order (2012), and the Karzai decree (2013).

In each case, AOAV highlighted the facts and issues surrounding a particular air strike that triggered an urgent need for change.

AOAV found that NATO’s changes to the circumstances under which it sanctioned the use of air strikes in Afghanistan led to measurable improvements in civilian protection. In 2008 NATO’s air strikes were responsible for 28% of all violent civilian deaths in Afghanistan, according to the United Nations political mission there (UNAMA). By 2013 this had fallen dramatically to just 4%.

Collectively, the tightening of the rules provided a clear example of how changes in military operations can go beyond existing laws without jeopardising key military objectives.

The policies adopted by NATO in 2009, 2012 and 2013 were united by several key features. Most importantly, all three were focused principally on restricting the use of aerial explosive weapons in populated areas. Each new measure built on the last, but all three recognised the specific protection challenges raised by the use of such area effect weapons.

“Now that NATO forces have ended their military operation in Afghanistan, it is time to take stock,” said Iain Overton, AOAV’s Director of Policy. “NATO recognised that even with well-trained and well-equipped militaries, mistakes were still made in Afghanistan that meant far too many civilians were being killed by their bombs. It is clear that NATO was able to take practical measures that made a real difference to civilian protection without harming their mission.”

Key Findings:

  • 2008 was the deadliest year for Afghan civilian from air strikes. 552 civilians died. This dropped to 106 by the end of 2014.
  • The proportion of casualties who were civilians dropped too. In 2008 they made up 64% of the total number of deaths that year according to UNAMA. By 2013 that had become 18% of the total deaths that AOAV recorded from air strikes in Afghanistan.
  • The civilian death rate halved in the year following the adoption of the McChrystal Directives, the most substantial change to NATO practice, in 2009. The decline from 359 to 171 was the biggest single annual drop.
  • Despite NATO initiating its own civilian casualty tracking mechanism, not all NATO member states have strong policies for measuring the impact of their weapons on civilians. The UK government told AOAV that it does not record total figures for civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

“At the heart of all these changes was a recognition that the way bombs and missiles behave means you need to take extra care when using them in places where civilians are gathered,” said Robert Perkins, author of the report. “Explosive weapons can affect a wide area, and NATO progressively drew a sharp line in the sand that said that these weapons are doing far more harm than good when we use them in populated areas. Any future military operation has to start from this presumption.”

The full report can be downloaded here:

The infographic accompanying the report can be found here


To find out more about AOAV’s work on explosive weapons, go to AOAV’s report is based on desk-based open-source research. Explosive weapons project blast and fragmentation around a point of detonation. They include improvised explosive devices (IEDs), as well as manufactured ordnance like mortars, missiles, rockets and shells.

AOAV is a founding member of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), a coalition of NGOs working to prevent the suffering caused by explosive weapons.

This report is one of three reports published by AOAV looking at the issue of escalation of force in the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.  These three reports are:

Under Fire – scrutinising the rules that dictate how and where the Israel Defense Force (IDF) have used explosive weapons since 2005.

Air Power in Afghanistan – this investigates how NATO changed the rules for its use of aerial explosive weapons in populated areas in Afghanistan from 2008 through to 2014.

A Tale of Two Cities – AOAV investigated the conduct of British forces in Basra (2003) and American forces in Fallujah (2004) to see how the US and the UK’s respective rules of engagement affected the way their militaries used explosive weapons in populated areas.