• 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.

  • Countries

  • 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

  • Media Content

AFGHANISTAN: Civilians caught in the middle

By Kristele Younes

When civilians die in war, the public is understandably outraged. In Afghanistan, in the past few months, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has come under heavy criticism from President Karzai for a series of incidents that have cost innocent lives. Fueled by the President’s statements, public anger is mounting, which ISAF will be the first to admit is not helpful to the international mission in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Taliban continue to indiscriminately kill scores of civilians, violating international laws and basic humanity.

War is perhaps never more tragic than when it takes the lives of the most innocent. All incidents of civilian casualties should appeal to our global consciousness. Indeed, even if some harm might be unavoidable because of the very nature of modern warfare, a lot can be done to prevent these tragedies and mitigate the pain caused to victims, their families, and their communities.

ISAF has publicly declared its commitment to minimizing civilian harm in Afghanistan in many statements issued by the highest levels of its chain of command. Indeed, protecting civilians in Afghanistan is not only a moral imperative, but a strategic one for coalition forces. But is enough being done?

In the past year, ISAF has strengthened its system to track each incidence of civilian casualties countrywide, and every incident is investigated either by the field unit or by a special team. This is a welcome step on several levels. First, it shows that ISAF recognizes the importance of keeping track of civilian harm. Second, it could enable the troops to understand what went wrong and prevent future harm. Third, it can help international forces make amends to those hurt by recognizing what civilian losses exist and where they are. But for this system to be truly effective, more needs to be done. Indeed, ISAF needs to be better at reaching out to different actors to gather increased situational awareness and, most importantly, troop-contributing nations must all adopt a uniformed way to compensate those they harm.

For all the system’s flaws, credit must be given to ISAF for its efforts, and statistics show that in the past year, the number of casualties caused by international troops has consistently gone down.  In the period of much talked about transition, though, it is essential that the international community and especially the Afghan government start paying much closer attention to the harm caused (or which could potentially be caused) by Afghan forces. The Afghan army lacks the basic mechanisms to record and investigate civilian harm, let alone compensate for it. ISAF must make it a top priority to help Afghans create trainings and programs parallel to its own. President Karzai must also move away from the war of rhetoric by acknowledging that Afghans have a responsibility in protecting their own civilians, and by ensuring that his armed forces make minimizing harm a top priority.

As for the anti-government forces, which according to the UN were responsible in May 2011 for over 80% of all civilian casualties, they have to wonder if their disregard for civilian harm is the best strategy in seeking national reconciliation and power-sharing. Certainly, Afghans deserve their suffering—and safety—to be a priority for whoever will end up governing them.

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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

One Minute Update: Ft. Leavenworth, Military Training

 

CIVIC Field Director Kristele Younes at Ft. Leavenworth

Last month you came with us to Afghanistan. Now we’re taking you to the US military base at Ft. Leavenworth with CIVIC’s new Field Director Kristele Younes. Kristele comes to CIVIC with extensive experience advocating for civilians from Pakistan and Iraq to Congo and Bosnia — though this was her first time in Kansas! At the US Army Command and General Staff College, Kristele and CIVIC’s Marla Keenan role played in a military planning scenario, or “war gaming” exercise. The goal was to train tomorrow’s military leaders to think holistically when planning combat operations. CIVIC was there to give them a better grasp of what civilians experience in war, how to better avoid them on the battlefield, and how to recognize and help those harmed in the crossfire. CIVIC believes this kind of training is critical to ensuring militaries understand the human cost of war.

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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: 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: 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.