KABUL, Afghanistan – The United Nations' chief in Afghanistan has called for international military forces to revise their agreement with the Afghan government to include practices that will better safeguard civilians.
"For the sustainability of our military presence, for the continued strong support of the Afghan people, it should be done as quickly as possible," Kai Eide told The Associated Press after making the appeal Wednesday at a news conference in the capital.
The United Nations has repeatedly criticized international forces for not doing enough to protect Afghan civilians during airstrikes, house searches and when detaining suspects. The censure reflects growing uneasiness among the country's citizens and politicians that an increase in U.S. troops next year could bring more civilian deaths.
"There is a need to revise the agreement that exists," Eide said. He said foreign troops should standardize practices to minimize airstrikes in populated areas, to make Afghan troops the first to enter during house searches, and to make more information available about detainees so that innocent people are not held for long periods on incorrect information.
"If the right provisions are in with regard to house searches, for instance, I believe we can avoid tragic mistakes that are being made today," Eide said, referring to incidents where confrontations resulted from soldiers not observing local cultural norms. Some reforms have already started, he noted, saying that airstrikes in particular have gotten more precise.
The U.N. said in September that 577 Afghan civilians had been killed this year by U.S., NATO and Afghan troops, a 21 percent jump from 2007.
However, the U.N. tally said Taliban fighters and other insurgents had killed even more civilians: at least 800 this year.
Military officials say they have policies in place that try to minimize civilian casualties, with specific instructions for more populated areas. Even so, an increased force could mean more civilian deaths, said Lt. Gen. J.B. Dutton, the deputy commander of NATO'S International Security Assistance Force.
"Statistically, if you create opportunities for military action, the chances of creating civilian casualties also exists. So, if you have more opportunities you might get more civilian casualties," Dutton said.
Eide said he had already discussed revising military agreements for more civilian protection with Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces, and Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak.
U.S. troops operate in Afghanistan under a bilateral agreement from 2003, while NATO forces act under a U.N. mandate and a "military technical agreement" established in the same year.