• 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: 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.

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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


GUEST BLOG: ISAF’s New Afghanistan Cointerinsurgency Strategy: Attacking Medical Clinics??

Posted by Erica G from Kabul

Last Wednesday evening at 2pm, international forces raided a clinic in Wardak province run by one of the largest NGOs in Afghanistan, the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA). They forced entry into several rooms, tied up local staff and some family members of the patients, and ordered even bed-ridden patients out of their wards. International forces also reportedly ordered the clinic staff to report any patient suspected to be Taliban in the future.

Much of the international media coverage this week has focused on the latest NATO airstrike in Kunduz, which appears to have killed as many as 125 people, several dozen of whom were likely civilians. Some have framed the Kunduz strike as a test of Gen. McChrystal’s new population-focused counterinsurgency strategy. While concerning, the predominant focus on the Kunduz strike has eclipsed the far more serious chink in ISAF’s new population-friendly makeover that is illustrated by this raid on the SCA clinic.

For starters, this raises serious concerns under international law. The Geneva Conventions establish clear protections for hospitals and medical clinics (Article 19 of the Fourth Geneva Convention). These provisions have also risen to the level of customary international law, applicable even in a non-international armed conflict like Afghanistan.

While hospitals or clinics can lose their protected status, simply providing services to combatants — the purported reason for this raid — isn’t sufficient. (Another recent attack on a clinic in Paktika might more arguably be an example of how a clinic loses its protected status because militants were firing from the clinic.) That militants might be receiving medical treatment, and are easier to capture in such circumstances is not a good enough justification for targeting a medical clinic. Of course combatants are easier to capture when unarmed, wounded or ill, and surrounded by defenseless civilians. Protection of medical facilities was made an explicit rule under the laws of war for the very reason that attacking the enemy under these circumstances would otherwise be so tactically tempting, with the result of no medical services ever being provided in a conflict.

Even beyond the legalese though, this raid was simply out of line with the new strategy and counterinsurgency goals. In July, McChrystal issued strict restrictions on air strikes and nighttime raids because these incidents were causing such offense and resentment among the Afghan population that they were undermining overall tactical success. Nighttime raids, though often resulting in fewer deaths or injuries, can be equally or more insulting to Afghan communities and have generated enormous blowback for international forces.

With this new counterinsurgency framework in mind, this raid on SCA facilities is exactly the type of incident that international forces should have been focused on preventing. Wardak province, just west of the capital, Kabul, is one of the most volatile provinces in Afghanistan. Significant troops and resources have been deployed there in recent months to stabilize the situation, with little success. Travel through any part of the province generally requires body armor and armed escorts. There is little to no government presence, and only a handful of NGOs still operate in Wardak, even fewer with target-able assets like a medical clinic. Taliban have attacked medical clinics and staff across Afghanistan, particularly those affiliated with Western NGOs.

SCA staff are now threatening to leave, and if the clinic is closed, it would put the thousands of civilians served by that clinic in dire straits, and seriously undermine ISAF and Afghan government efforts to bring more public services to the province. Talk about a destabilizing effect. Rather than protecting the population, as McChrystal has argued the standard should be, in this incident international forces jeopardized the health of thousands, and alienated the surrounding community.

Perhaps even more worrying is that despite the likely fallout from this incident, ISAF does not even seem to be aware there is a problem. Unlike the headline-grabbing Kunduz strike, which sparked immediate apologies and pressure from ISAF’s very top to investigate and set things right, this incident passed without notice until SCA issued its own press release Monday. And when SCA did speak out, the military rejected out of hand most of SCA’s concerns.

Civilian protection should be about more than making good when high civilian casualty numbers hit the press. It should take into account all the ways that military activities impact civilian health, dignity, and well-being. This issue should be at the top of McChrystal’s desk in terms of what’s going wrong in implementing its counterinsurgency strategy. That it hasn’t been already raises huge flags as to how successful this new strategy will be.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/erica-gaston/isafs-new-afghanistan-coi_b_279218.html

GUEST BLOG: Fussing Over Numbers: Body Counts and Accountability (The Huffington Post)

Posted by Erica G from Kabul

Since the new UN estimates on civilians killed so far in 2009 were released on Friday, I’ve been getting questions on whether these numbers are helpful, or even accurate, in describing the conflict: What’s the value of the obsession with body counting?

In one sense, these numbers offer a measure of accountability for the human costs of the conflict. As I pointed out in my blog on Friday, in a month where the news has been dominated by competing press statements about attempts by both sides to the conflict to reduce civilian casualties, an estimate that 1000 people have already died so far this year is a stark reminder of how far these promises are from the past 6 month’s reality.

Nonetheless, there is a strong argument that we shouldn’t even be fussing about numbers when there is so much guesswork involved. In general, the UN has pretty accurate estimates, but it is a fair point that any estimates in Afghanistan should be treated with a wide margin of error. (The Globe & Mail published a great piece describing how access issues, local traditions, and sometimes deliberate misinformation by locals or local leaders, can make it impossible to find the “truth” in some of these investigations.)

Another critique raised by a friend of mine who is a human rights investigator is that these civilian casualty counts boil a thousand stories of loss into impersonal statistics, and obscure the real tragedy of these incidents. Once you digitize them, she would argue, no one bothers to ask about the names and faces behind those numbers.

A recent op-ed by Tom Hayden put a sharp point on this issue for me. He argued that the US Department of Defense should openly admit whether there is a standard number of civilian deaths that are considered acceptable for any given airstrike in Afghanistan (many confirmed that there was a “magic number” in Iraq), and what the decision-making process is for authorizing deaths that reach above a certain numerical threshold.

As a human rights advocate, this is the type of measure we tend to call for because it increases transparency over how these life and death calculations are made. Another common argument for releasing this type of information is that families have a ‘right to know.’ But thinking of my friend’s argument that numbers dehumanize a loss, I do wonder whether it’s something that really serves the victims and their families? Based on the interviews I’ve had with Afghan families who have lost a loved one, the last thing they’d want to hear is that their father, mother, or child was deemed expendable by a mean calculation made by an impersonal decision-maker a thousand miles away.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/erica-gaston/fussing-over-numbers-body_b_250316.html

AFGHANISTAN: New UN Report: More Than 1,000 Civilians Killed in 2009 (The Huffington Post)

Posted by Erica G from Kabul

The UN issued its mid-year review on civilian deaths this morning. More than 1000 Afghan civilians have been killed so far this year — 24% more than in the first part of 2008. Two key take-aways from the report:

1) Numbers of those killed by insurgent attacks are way up (59% of casualties). It’s not just the number of those killed; the overall number of IEDs and suicide attacks has jumped. Just think about what that does for perceptions of (in)stability in months leading up to Afghanistan’s Presidential and provincial elections.

2) While the percentage of civilians killed by ISAF and Afghan forces is down, the number itself is about the same: 308 killed in the first 6 months of 2008; 310 killed in the first 6 months of 2009. This despite the previous ISAF Commanding General’s December 2008 “Tactical Directive” that was supposed to significantly reduce civilian losses. Let’s hope McChrystal’s TD is more effective.

Put these two facts together and you’ve got the statistical grounding for Afghans’ intuitive mistrust of the way things are going. Your average Afghan doesn’t have to look at numbers to know that more civilians are dying each month and that neither the Afghan government nor international forces have been able to protect civilians from insurgents.

In a month where both sides have said they plan to reduce civilian casualties (see here and here), these numbers are a good reality check of how far there is to go.

AFGHANISTAN: Senators listen to victims stories

Posted by Erica G from Kabul

This past week in Afghanistan, three US Senators — Patrick Leahy (VT),  Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and Mark Warner (VA) – used one afternoon of a packed Congressional assessment visit to sit down with a Afghan family affected by the conflict.  They heard about the family’s experiences and help received through the Afghan Civilian Assistance Program (ACAP), a USAID-sponsored program that provides livelihood support, home reconstruction, job training, or other in-kind assistance to unintended victims of international forces. The Senators invited me along, as the former CIVIC fellow, to discuss broader victim assistance and compensation efforts in Afghanistan. We visited the survivors of a family who were targeted in a nighttime raid by Afghan and international forces in September 2008. During the raid, a grenade had been lobbed into one of the rooms of the home, killing all but the elderly grandfather and one 6-year-old son.

As many of you know from past CIVIC blogs, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with many of the ACAP beneficiaries in my year as a CIVIC fellow in Afghanistan. Each experience is unique and memorable in its own way, but I have to say that there was something special about this Congressional visit. The ACAP program was originally championed by Senator Leahy and his staff. Without his continual support, it might not still be in existence. Watching Senator Leahy himself greeting the family, I remembered the many families who told me to pass their gratitude and their thanks to the people who created and supported the ACAP program. And here was the man himself talking to one of the beneficiaries. I remembered the many war victims who asked me to share what had happened to them with those who had the power to make changes. Even if for only an hour, here were three Senators who listened and took their stories and their message to heart.

AFGHANISTAN: Who compensates those the Taliban hurts? (continued from below)

The UN reported that 1160 civilians were killed by Taliban or insurgent activities in 2008, and these are likely only an estimate given that in many Taliban-dominated areas, civilians are afraid to report individual targeting, threats, or other losses. If so many are affected by insurgent parties, what can be done to compensate and help them?

The most obvious question, of course, is what about the insurgents themselves? Although there are certainly examples of non-state actors in other conflicts providing compensation or victim assistance after a conflict incident, we haven’t seen much evidence of this in Afghanistan. One official told us of a Taliban group in the south paying 300,000 afghanis (about $6000) to those killed in conflict, but we were not able to verify this hearsay through any other sources. From using civilians as human shields to aggressively targeting and harassing those who cooperate with the government or the international community, it seems that insurgent tactics in recent years have trended more toward intimidation and fear than “winning hearts and minds” by providing compensation to victims of conflict.

If not the insurgents themselves, then who else could take responsibility for this population? Some of the different international militaries’ compensation and condolence payments, and also the USAID Afghan Civilian Assistance Program, will help victims of suicide attacks on international military convoys. They also typically will help those who are targeted by the Taliban (for example, drivers, translators, others) because they were assisting international military forces. But none of these programs would have helped Mustapha’s pain and suffering.

The Afghan government seems to be the best candidate for this, not only as a warring party but as the warring party with some responsibility for the wellbeing of all its citizens who are caught in the conflict. In fact, the Afghan government has two programs – an executive fund by President Karzai and a ministerial fund called the Martyrs’ and Disabled Fund – that should technically cover victims of pro-government (international military and Afghan government forces) and insurgent forces alike. In practice though, President Karzai’s fund has been used almost exclusively to address harm caused where international forces are involved (The one notable exception has been when it was given following a suicide attack targeting a crowd watching a dog fight in Kandahar province). The Martyrs & Disabled Fund – which provides a type of monthly pension program to the beneficiaries of those killed or to those disabled in any conflict-related incident – also fails to cover this need because significant issues in corruption and implementation prevent it from having much practical impact (for more, see Chapter 5 of CIVIC’s Afghanistan report).

CIVIC has been proposing a common compensation mechanism for Afghanistan. This compensation mechanism could take a lot of different forms, and one possibility is an all-encompassing fund or mechanism that would cover victims of any warring party involved – whether international military, Afghan forces or insurgent groups. Short of that, significant changes in the existing Afghan programs might be a way to get compensation to many of the civilians who are taking the brunt of increased insurgent activity.