• 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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Fast Forward: What would an expedited transition mean for Afghan civilians?

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

 

I’ve been in Jalalabad this week, in eastern Afghanistan, where people are very concerned about their safety and future.  One doctor told me, “When I leave in the morning, I am not sure I will see my son again.”  Civilians live in fear of roadside bombs, suicide attacks, targeted assassinations, and kidnappings.  Government officials are afraid to leave the provincial capital.  And they should be.  In December, the Attorney General was attacked, and just this week a judge was kidnapped and later killed by an armed group.

What comes next for these Afghans? And when?

I see a perfect storm brewing.  The Koran burnings, the tragic massacre of seventeen civilians in Kandahar and the increasing number of “green-on-blue” incidents have strengthened calls from within both the U.S. and Afghanistan for a swifter transition to Afghan-led security.  So while President Obama vows to stick to the timetable of late 2014, there’s talk that these events and deteriorating relations between the two governments will hasten the withdrawal of international forces.

A speedier transition may be encouraging to an American public now firmly opposed to continuing the war, but it could be detrimental for Afghan civilians, left under the protection of a security force that is not ready to keep them safe. Even if the timetable stands, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) may not be prepared or equipped for the daunting task in front of them.

By the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)’s own assessments, fewer than 45% of Afghan forces are “effective with advisors,” meaning that even with steady mentoring most Afghan troops and police are not able to do their job effectively. And as of last month only 1% of Afghan forces are considered capable of conducting security operations without ISAF’s assistance”—an alarming statistic given that Afghans are increasingly taking the lead in security operations including those unpopular and sometimes deadly night raids.

In Jalalabad, the people I met are not confident in the ability of Afghan forces to provide security. In fact, many see the ANSF as part of the problem.  One individual I spoke to working on development projects along the Afghan – Pakistani border told me that Afghan troops have engaged in theft and abused civilians near his projects.  He told me that people often don’t report these incidents out of fear of retribution.

But civilians are also killed or injured in incidents that don’t amount to a violation of the law.  According to the U.N., most civilian harm attributed to the ANSF is incidental.  Civilians may be caught in the crossfire of ground engagements with insurgents, or hurt during “escalation of force” incidents, whereby nervous Afghan forces escalate force in responding to a threat with lethal fire.

To better protect civilians, ISAF has recently put in place processes to track, investigate, analyze and respond to civilian casualties.  While international forces still harm civilians, their efforts have led to an overall decrease in civilian casualties caused by their operations.

In comparison, Afghan security ministries do not have any similar mechanisms to track, investigate, analyze or respond to civilian casualties.  As ISAF learned, establishing a civilian casualty tracking mechanism is critical to developing best practices and identifying problematic trends to be corrected through training.  In addition, a civilian casualty-tracking unit could also be a focal point for investigations into alleged abuse, and thus strengthen accountability within the ANSF.

Afghan security officials I meet with claim their forces do not and will not harm civilians because they understand local dynamics better than international forces.  This is dangerously naïve.  While Afghan forces are certainly better positioned to understand the situation around them, civilian casualties are an unfortunate—if not inevitable part of war—especially when militaries with less experience, training and equipment are waging battle.  Without processes in place and a mindset that prioritizes civilian protection, Afghan troops will likely act with less concern for civilians.

Recently, representatives from ISAF and the Afghan government have stated their commitment to establishing an Afghan system for tracking civilian casualties.  These are heartening words that must be met with action. It will take time to implement such a system and get buy-in from commanders. And for it to work, Afghans will need to own the process. As one insider told me, “it was hard enough to get NATO forces to be proactive about preventing and responding to civilian casualties.” Getting a less experienced military behind it may prove even more difficult.

Still, ensuring Afghan forces are prepared not to harm their own people during combat is necessary and urgent, as calls for a swifter security transition mount. Afghan officials should move now, this minute, to establish policies and procedures to prevent civilian casualties through tracking and investigations, correct for abuses and “make amends” if and when civilians are harmed.  The US and allied nations should do their part by providing technical assistance and prevailing on their counterparts in Afghan ministries to put these mechanisms in place.  But in the end, it’s the Afghan leadership – both military and political — that have obligations to the civilians they’re supposed to keep safe and those they harm. Taking on these responsibilities in a more meaningful way should start now.

 

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