• About CIVIC

    CIVIC is a Washington-based non-profit organization that believes the civilians injured and the families of those killed should be recognized and helped by the warring parties involved.

    On this blog, you will find stories from our travels around the world as we meet with civilians and military, aid organizations and government in our quest to get war victims the help they need.

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  • Contributors

    Sarah, Executive Director

    Marla B, Managing Director

    Kristele, Field Director

    Liz, Chief Communications Officer

    Trevor, CIVIC's fellow based in Afghanistan

    Chris, CIVIC's fellow based in Pakistan

    Jon, CIVIC's US military consultant

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In Libya, a legacy up for debate

By Sarah Holewinski

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Gaddafi is gone and NATO’s command center in Naples is closed, but on the legacy of the intervention in Libya, the debate has just begun. Allegations of civilians harmed are haunting NATO as nations opposed to the intervention—namely Russia, China and South Africa—point fingers about civilian casualties and sling phrases like “human right abuses” and “impunity” across the United Nations chamber like more precision guided munitions. The US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice took to Twitter, calling Russia’s actions “a cheap stunt.” Her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, publicly wondered if Rice’s Stanford education shouldn’t make her more eloquent.

In this dispute, the Libyan civilians who died—and the ones who lived—are an afterthought to their political utility. And for Russia, China and South Africa they serve as needed ammunition against a bigger target: the very decision to go into Libya.

Various human rights groups—including Human Rights Watch and my own—have presented evidence of civilian harm to NATO and called on the Alliance to conduct an investigation. The logic goes that NATO has an obligation to carry through on its UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians, beyond the official end of combat operations, by addressing unintended civilian losses. The best way to do that is by conducting investigations. Unfortunately, NATO has reacted defensively—at one point hyperbolically claiming that there were no “confirmed” civilian casualties whatsoever.  This may be true only because NATO refuses to investigate, and thus, confirm them.

In a military operation of this magnitude, civilian harm was a likelihood the UN must have grappled with when authorizing the mandate. It’s also a reality NATO is familiar with. NATO forces in Afghanistan conduct reviews and investigations of civilian casualties increasingly frequently, thanks to pressure to learn from mistakes. Surely those lessons learned could have been shared between theaters; the reason they weren’t remains a mystery.

Regardless, calls for NATO to investigate civilian harm don’t mean the same thing as accusing NATO of overstepping its mandate or violating international law, as Russia, China and South Africa are claiming. Evidence suggests a relatively small number of casualties when compared to similar air operations in the past, and thus far there is no documented evidence of legal violations committed by NATO.

Any nation has the right to ask the UN to review a mandated operation, but to do so here seems redundant since the UN Human Rights Committee already established a Commission of Inquiry to impartially analyze the conduct of all sides, not just NATO. Making one-sided allegations before that investigation is complete is wrong and risks crippling what should be a real process of accountability for any civilian harm caused by any party.

Civilians don’t deserve to be used as political cover to push a non-interventionist agenda. During and after the NATO intervention, we talked to Libyan survivors across the country—some who were able to escape to safer areas, some who lost family members to Gaddafi and others who were harmed by rebel and NATO operations. The overwhelming majority praised the Alliance for ridding their country of Gaddafi, regardless of the losses they suffered.  But they also wanted recognition for what they’d been through. That’s what they deserve.

In denying any civilian harm and refusing to investigate credible evidence to the contrary, NATO risks tarnishing a historic mandate, one that saved a lot of lives. And they’ve given their political enemies exactly the fodder they were looking for.

For its part, NATO still has a chance to set all this right. The Alliance can start by examining the evidence of civilian harm. It should immediately send an expert team to Libya to match targeting protocols with outcomes, assess damaged property and remaining munitions, interview civilian survivors and, when appropriate, make amends to Libyans with provable losses.  A lessons-learned review must include data from Libyan soil— whether the death toll was one or one hundred. Looking to the future, which is in NATO’s best interest to do, an office for civilian harm mitigation should be created in Brussels, to ensure military and civilian leaders pay attention to and plan for civilian casualties before the first plane ever leaves the base.

Civilian harm should never be ignored, but neither should it be politicized in a way that diverts attention from real recognition for civilian survivors. They deserve fewer accusations, less lip service to accountability, and more humble, honest efforts to piece together the ways a military intervention has, good or bad, affected the people it was meant to help.

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A Tale of Two Narratives in Afghanistan

Trevor Keck is CIVIC’s field fellow, based in Kabul, Afghanistan.  He is assessing Afghan National Security Force preparedness to protect civilians after NATO and its allies withdraw.

“Transition” is the word on the tip of everyone’s lips in Afghanistan these days—a catchphrase I’ve heard employed more than any other since arriving in Kabul about two weeks ago.  Why “Transition?” Because in less than three years time, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are expected to assume responsibility for securing the country and protecting the population.  To prepare for the security transition, US and international military forces have concentrated their efforts on securing southern Afghanistan—the so-called “heartland” of the insurgency—whilst intensifying efforts to train and equip the ANSF.

The message from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)—the U.S. led security force in Afghanistan—is that security is improving as a result of these efforts.  Last spring, a Pentagon report concluded that President Obama’s strategy had produced “tangible progress” in Afghanistan. More recently, David Rodriguez, former Commander of ISAF Joint Command, wrote “there are indisputable gains everywhere we have focused our efforts.” Talk of progress and security gains has been pervasive in my early Kabul meetings.

But that message stands in stark contrast to what I’m hearing from international and humanitarian organizations.  In its mid-year report released in July 2011, the U.N. political mission in Afghanistan reported that “civilians experienced a downward spiral of protection” during the first half of 2011 with civilian casualties higher than at any other time since 2001. Indeed, nearly 1,500 civilians were killed during the first half of 2011, an increase of 15% from the same period during 2010.  More recently, the U.N. confirmed significant civilian casualties last month largely due to the twin suicide attacks in Kabul and Mazar al Sharif.

ISAF’s rosy assessment of the situation in Afghanistan is also at odds with the most recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which noted that “security gains” have been undercut by “corruption, incompetent governance and Taliban fighters operating from neighboring Pakistan.” The NIE also suggests that the Afghan government “may not be able to survive as the U.S. steadily pulls out its troops and reduces military and civilian assistance.”

To be clear, the Taliban and other armed groups are responsible for the majority of civilian casualties in Afghanistan  – roughly 80%, according to the U.N.  Despite pledges to avoid killing civilians, armed groups have continued to resort to indiscriminate tactics, including improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks, which combined are responsible for nearly 50% of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, according to the U.N. For the past two years, armed groups have also increasingly resorted to assassinations, targeting public officials and others who cooperate with ISAF and the Afghan government.

Meanwhile, as civilian casualties caused by armed groups have spiked over the past few years, the number of civilians killed or injured by international military forces has gradually declined, largely due to the policies ISAF has put in place to mitigate civilian harm.  That being said, Afghans want and expect ISAF and the ANSF to improve efforts to protect them from all acts of violence, regardless of which warring party is ultimately responsible.

Afghans I have met since arriving are very worried about the future.  One former government official I spoke with voiced his concern that Afghanistan could slide back into civil war after the bulk of international military forces depart at the end of 2014.  Like many others in the country, he isn’t confident that the ANSF will be able to provide security on their own, and he’s concerned about the proliferation of weapons and armed groups.

Why such disparate narratives and assessments of the security situation?  One reason could be that ISAF is using different metrics than international and nongovernmental organizations. Counterinsurgent forces tend to examine territory held and the quantity of indigenous security forces trained and equipped to measure progress.  And as noted, ISAF has taken very concrete steps to mitigate civilian harm, resulting in fewer civilians killed or injured by international military forces.  Meanwhile, the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations are analyzing overall levels of violence and civilian casualties – which have increased over the past several years.

Another reason may be that ISAF is setting a tone for its departure.  With the U.S. elections less than a year away, the Obama Administration would like to reassure a war weary public that it has turned the Afghan war around.  While not ill – intentioned, the U.S. and its allies may simply be focused on highlighting what they have achieved, including reduced levels of civilian casualties caused by international military forces as well as reinvigorated efforts to improve the “quality” of Afghan security forces.  But the problem still remains – while ISAF has improved its own civilian casualty statistics, the number of civilians harmed or killed in Afghanistan is increasing. Indeed, if “security gains” are to be measured by fewer civilian casualties, then security is deteriorating in Afghanistan.

As international military forces prepare for withdrawal, they should be clear-eyed about the toll the war is taking on civilians and what needs to be done to better protect ordinary Afghans.  Over the next six months, I will be taking this message to ISAF on behalf of CIVIC.   More specifically, I will be assessing the efficacy of the mechanisms ISAF has put in place to mitigate civilian harm as well as urging the Afghan government to take concrete steps to better protect civilians. I hope we’ll soon be able to agree that security is improving in Afghanistan.

-Trevor