Defence officials are refusing to compensate the families of hundreds of Afghans killed, wounded or left homeless in fighting involving British troops.
Despite pledges to reduce collateral damage in Afghanistan, the number of legal claims lodged by Afghan civilians against the British government has grown more than five-fold during the past 12 months to almost 1,300, suggesting a dramatic increase in the number of innocent victims.
Yet of the 1,289 claims filed, just 397 have been settled, new government figures reveal. In addition, less than £150,000 in compensation has been paid to civilians injured or killed during fighting involving British soldiers in Helmand province. The UK government is currently spending almost £400,000 a day on military operations in the country.
Last night, human rights groups condemned the stance of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) on compensating innocent victims as 'scandalous', claiming the majority of alleged victims are being denied payments.
The Observer has also learnt that Britain is refusing to support an international compensation scheme set up to help Afghan civilians caught up in the conflict.
Sarah Holewinski, of the international monitoring group Human Rights Watch (HRW), said: 'The UK has no systematic way of compensating civilians when they're harmed. This means some Afghans get help while others don't. The calculus behind who gets paid and who doesn't is known only to the MoD and the commanders on the ground.
'For all the money being put into military operations, it's scandalous they are not offering some of those affected even a modicum of support.'
The death toll of Afghan civilians remains one of the most contentious aspects of the conflict. The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, on whose mandate 8,000 British troops are currently fighting the Taliban, has said that no civilian casualty is acceptable. Yet a new report compiled by a former senior Pentagon official will this week reveal a sharp upsurge in Afghan civilian casualties over the past two months.
The HRW report reveals new casualty data based on military records, hospital admissions and on-the-ground testimonies. It says that civilian deaths from US- or Nato-led operations almost doubled during last year to at least 434, with another 200 killed in the crossfire during fighting between Taliban fighters and international forces.
So far this year, at least 173 innocent Afghans have been killed in Nato and US operations. Of these, 119 died during US air strikes, a number involving British troops, and 54 from fighting on the ground. Civilian casualties for the whole of 2006 were 230.
'We have huge concerns, especially over the number of casualties from air strikes,' said Marc Garlasco, a former air strike commander for the Pentagon who left after becoming disillusioned with the number of innocent victims in Afghanistan and who is the author of this week's HRW report. He said the casualty figures must be viewed as extremely conservative with the total representing the 'bare minimum'.
The figures will be of deep concern to the MoD because British troops in Helmand routinely call in US air strikes when they come under fire. They will also pose fresh questions for Nato, under whose banner the British are fighting in southern Afghanistan. Last year, the international security body promised to review military tactics in the country following warnings from Afghan politicians that the number of civilian deaths risked provoking a major backlash.
Contained in the report are internal US Air Force figures that reveal that 300 tons of bombs were dropped on Afghanistan during June and July alone - the same as the amount dropped on the country during the whole of 2006.
The growing frequency of US air strikes coincides with a spate of recent reports detailing civilian casualties, including a US air strike in Nangarhar province last month that killed 47 guests attending a wedding party.
Meanwhile, human rights groups have condemned support for Nato's humanitarian relief fund, created in 2006 to help civilians affected by the fighting.
So far, just nine countries out of 26, including Estonia, Iceland and the US, have voluntarily contributed funds.
In addition, The Observer has learnt that Britain is refusing to donate funds to a separate US humanitarian aid programme that provides long-term assistance for civilians caught up in the fighting. 'We've tried to get the UK to donate to this program; again, a no-go,' said Holewinski.
According to the HRW report, 837 innocent Afghans have been killed by Nato- or US-led operations since 2006. Of these, 556 were killed by US air strikes, many during American counter-terrorism operations, which have a less rigid set of rules of engagement compared to Nato operations.
However, analysts point to the difficulties in distinguishing civilians from combatants, the use of human shields by the Taliban and also the fact that the insurgency has killed more than twice as many civilians as the international forces have.
An MoD spokesman said: 'The UK provides compensation to individuals for events in which UK troops are involved. The UK military carry out detailed planning and use precision weapons when targeting enemy strongholds. Sadly, even with all these measures, there is still a risk of civilian casualties: particularly given Taliban preference for basing themselves in public buildings.'
Concern also surrounds the size of payments given by the British to Afghan civilian victims, with relatively modest payments calculated on the local cost of living. Last month, the MoD paid almost £3m to an Iraqi family for the death of a civilian in custody in Basra five years ago.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008