• 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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GUEST BLOG: Afghanistan: A Soldier’s Perspective

By Major Dennis Sugrue

It is an unfortunate reality of war that innocent civilians are harmed.  As a US Army Soldier, I recognize the importance of protecting civilians, especially during combat operations.  Despite our care, civilian casualties and property damage do occur.  I recall the great initiative that we took in Afghanistan to make amends and offer closure to harmed civilians and their families.

From 2006-2007, I deployed to northern Kunar Province, Afghanistan. This is a mountainous and exceptionally remote area.  It is accessible by a single road closed periodically due to rain storms.  Rain was infrequent, but came in torrents when it arrived.  As part of my duties, I interacted with Afghan civilians who had been injured or lost property due to military actions.  Victims would arrive at the gate of our base and, in most cases, I would meet with them.  I would listen to their claims, often over tea, and try to determine validity.  I would walk valid claims to our pay officer and often make monetary compensation in that same meeting.  In these sessions, I also tried to learn about their lives and offer them a glimpse into American life by exchanging stories.

To help these victims, the Army offered compensation or solatia payments. Compensation usually takes the form of monetary payment and medical treatment.  Monetary compensations for damaged property, lost livelihoods, or personal injury are somewhat common in Afghanistan.  These payments are consistent with cultural norms and important to economic stability, but they can fall short of “making things better.”  It was my experience that civilians injured in a warzone often want something far simpler and more valuable – closure.  They seek a human connection offering condolence.  A sincere apology does more to offer closure than any payment possibly could.  Solatia activities should have the ultimate goal to provide a sense of closure for the civilians who suffer losses in combat zones.

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HUFFINGTON POST: Driving Afghanistan: The Winding Road to an Afghan Takeover

By Sarah Holewinski

I wouldn’t drive a car without working brakes. And I need a wheel to steer, and a speedometer to tell me when I’m not following the speed limit.

Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will assume responsibility for the security and stability of their own country by 2014. But as a big moving vehicle ramping up to a high speed, it’s missing some of the major controls it needs to protect its own population and not cause even more harm. Continue reading

GUEST BLOG: Marla, CIVIC, and the idea that wouldn’t die

By Catherine Philp

Nine years ago in the bright Kabul spring, I met a young woman called Marla Ruzicka. She was hard to miss, with her wild blonde hair and animal pyjamas peeking out from the hem of her long kameez.

She was harder still to miss the morning she marched to the gates of the American Embassy with astonished, emboldened Afghan families by her side, to demand compensation and apologies for their loved ones lost in American military action. Continue reading

One Minute Update: Afghanistan

Afghan civilians seen through a US Army Humvee window. Photo courtesy of Chris Hondros

In one minute or less, we’ll give you an inside look at civilians in war and CIVIC’s work to help them. You can expect photographs, powerful stories and progress toward their well-being.

We’ll go to Afghanistan where CIVIC created and just delivered the first-ever trainings on addressing civilian harm to American, international and Afghan military officers. Our practical step-by-step training gives commanders and their troops every tool they need to investigate, assess and address civilian losses in villages across Afghanistan. Commanders told us this is exactly what their troops need to respectfully handle tragic incidents of civilian casualties. While nothing can replace a loved one or home, CIVIC’s work to train the military changes the outcome for war victims in real time. To date, we’ve reached over 20,000 troops.

Want to subscribe to CIVIC One Minute Updates? Click HERE to sign up!

AFGHANISTAN: Can a medal really save a life?

Posted by:  Marla B

Last week NATO commanders proposed a new idea: a medal for “courageous restraint” if troops avoid using force that could harm an Afghan civilian. Steps like this make it clear their heads and hearts are in the right place, given how important such avoidance is in Afghanistan right now–-both for humanitarian and strategic reasons.

I’m pleased to see consideration of civilians playing such a prominent role in military thinking; it’s certainly long over due there.

But can a medal for a soldier really save an Afghan life?

The first question that comes to mind is “shouldn’t soldiers already be showing ‘courageous restraint?’”  The answer is yes.  The requirements for receiving the medal track with what soldiers should already be doing on the battlefield to abide by international laws and stated NATO values.

So the next logical question is: Do medals really motivate our soldiers? Capt. Edward Graham’s company is part of the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment and he had a straightforward answer for the Associated Press: “Not a single one of these guys does it for the medals.”  Anyone who knows a soldier knows that to be true.

Then, medals aside, what can international forces do better to avoid and protect civilians in the battlespace?  There are two answers. Better training and improved escalation of force procedures–which, incidentally, top military brass are already talking about.

Analysis and process aren’t quite as flashy as a medal but they’ve often proved to be a lot more effective in saving lives. Better training, for example, will change the chain reaction of split second decisions every soldier has to make each time they are confronted with a perceived threat.

I believe and know from my time training U.S. troops that many of soldiers being deployed to Afghanistan already show ‘courageous restraint’. The danger and unknown variables they face each and every day make their job amongst the most difficult in the world.

The ones that don’t show such restraint don’t need an award to show them the way.  They need better tools and training to ensure their courage in serving actually translates into lives saved.

GUEST BLOG: A View of War Victims From Gardez, Afghanistan

Posted by Erica G from Kabul

I’ve been in Gardez the last week — a small provincial capitol about
two hours south of Kabul. Security is slightly better than this time
last year, when the community was still reeling from nightly
airstrikes in districts just outside of the city. But reports of
targeting and assassination by the Taliban, raids on homes by
international forces and the Afghan army, and sporadic gunfire
exchanges between one or more of the warring parties or criminals are
still common.

Even more concerning, the limited access of many aid workers and the
change in the conflict dynamics means that now as much as ever,
victims of conflict have no way to get help. The Afghan Civilian
Assistance Program is still up and running, and with new staff and
funding authorized they are working hard to reach as many civilians as
possible. But in 2009, the vast majority of civilian deaths have been
due to insurgent attacks, in particular insurgent attacks on Afghan
security forces or government officials. Attacks due to these causes
are not eligible for either ACAP assistance or the limited solatia and
condolence funds that General McChrystal and other US military
officials have been urging troops to use.

Al Qaeda recently announced that it would offer “condolences” for
innocent victims in Afghanistan and other locales. But when you speak
to locals here in Gardez they find the idea that Al Qaeda, the Taliban
or other insurgent groups would give them assistance to be laughable.

GUEST BLOG: Off target in Kunduz (Foreign Policy)

Posted by Erica G from Kabul

In the two months since Gen. Stanley McChrystal assumed ISAF command, we have seen a serious shift in thinking about civilian casualties and Afghan community concerns. This is most clearly embodied in the July Tactical Directive‘s much stricter guidelines on airstrikes and other uses of force that could risk civilian losses. The latest NATO airstrike in Kunduz — now believed to have killed as many as 125 people, at least two dozen of them civilians — raises questions of whether that thinking has gone far enough.

The first concern is whether enough was done to ensure that the new restrictions would be meaningfully implemented. The Tactical Directive, and accompanying guidance and statements by McChrystal, makes clear that all precautions should be taken to ensure an absolute minimum risk to nearby civilians before an airstrike can be ordered. Yet, the Washington Post reports that a single local intelligence source gave the OK that there were no civilians present at the site of the recent airstrike — information that now appears to be off the mark.

One would hope that the new seriousness about civilian casualties would lead commanders to double-check sources regarding potential civilian harm. In this case, though, the only other evidence the ISAF commander relied on was aerial footage showing thermal images of those at the scene: “numerous black dots… but without enough detail to confirm whether they were carrying weapons.”

Despite this minimal scrutiny of whether civilians were at the scene or not, the Post notes that this latest strike may not have technically violated the Tactical Directive because it only requires more than one source civilians for airstrikes in residential areas and this strike happened in an open area.

Black dots on a screen and one source claiming those dots are Taliban could describe many of the worst bombing mistakes that have happened in the last eight years. Afghan officials and investigators have repeatedly argued that many civilian casualty incidents have been based on poor information or faulty tips. Given this history, not setting a higher bar for due diligence before commanders can call in an airstrike seems a gaping hole in implementing the new tactical strategy.

The second concern is not so much about how to implement what’s in the Tactical Directive, but how to deal with the concerns left out of it. While the July Tactical Directive made leaps forward in addressing Afghan complaints about limiting airstrikes and offensive night raids (notwithstanding implementation concerns), it was curiously silent on equally loud cries for greater accountability.

For most of the last 8 years, incidents of civilian loss have been met with denials. Afghan families have been unable to get basic questions answered about what happened to their loved ones and why. To my knowledge, no serious disciplinary action has been taken with regard to any of the major incidents of civilian casualties; for example, not after 47 civilians were killed in a July 2008 strike on a wedding party in Nangarhar, nor following the death of approximately 80 civilians in Azizabad, Herat, in August 2008. U.N. Special Rapporteur Philip Alston noted that ISAF has no means of tracking the results of disparate national investigation and disciplinary procedures, much less for communicating any results to the affected communities.

This lack of transparency or accountability to those directly harmed by ISAF actions has created a commonly held Afghan perception that international forces kill Afghans with impunity, a view that only exacerbates local anger and resentment at international forces. In a particularly striking exchange, one tribal leader told me “We Afghans are like clay pigeons to U.S. forces. They shoot us for fun and then congratulate themselves. Nothing happens to them.”

Afghan community leaders and aid workers repeatedly ask me why ISAF didn’t check with local sources if they wanted to find out if a target was a Talib or not. They also ask why those who are misleading ISAF with false information are allowed to continue doing so without any seeming punishment or dismissal.

Following this week’s incident, General McChrystal has apologized publicly (including through translated statements via Afghan media), and made notable efforts to treat the reports of civilian deaths seriously and investigate them personally. The mood has clearly changed within ISAF regarding civilian casualties, but for that to have an impact on the ground more will clearly have to be done to implement the letter and the spirit of the Tactical Directive.

The investigation on the latest incident is still ongoing. The findings may indeed show that this latest strike did not violate international humanitarian law, nor even the latest Tactical Directive. But for the many Afghans who have seen the deaths of their loved ones and the destruction of their communities swept under the rug over the last eight years, much more has to be done to demonstrate accountability to Afghan concerns.

Erica Gaston is a human rights lawyer based in Kabul, Afghanistan, consulting on civilian casualties issues for the Open Society Institute.

http://afpak.foreignpolicy.com/blog/10642