• 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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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.

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AFGHANISTAN: U.S. Too Quick To Justify Afghan Deaths (The Huffington Post)

By Sarah Holewinski, Executive Director of CIVIC

Conclusions from the US investigation into the May 4th airstrikes in Afghanistan are leaking out. It appears that US personnel made mistakes–resulting in civilian deaths–by not sticking to their own stringent guidelines on the use of force. After eight years in Afghanistan, American forces finally have good rules in place to minimize civilian deaths, but didn’t stick to them when they counted the most, in the heat of battle.

So why are US officials still blaming the Taliban? Lt. Commander Christine Sidenstricker said in Kabul today, “The fact remains that civilians were killed because the Taliban deliberately caused it to happen. They forced civilians to remain in places they were attacking from.”

Let’s break this down to the nuts and bolts: Taliban tactics are egregious. They put civilians in harm’s way. They are violating international laws and everyone knows it. This makes the US military’s job a whole lot harder.

But regardless of what the other side does in war, the US military has responsibilities to avoid civilians and obey its targeting restrictions.

If you want to talk strategy instead of international law, avoiding civilian deaths is smart. Everyone knows that too. That’s why the US military put in place rigorous rules of engagement that ushered in several months of far fewer airstrike casualties. In Farah Province on May 4th, those rules could have saved lives. In one case, a plane given the OK to attack the Taliban didn’t confirm its target before dropping bombs. That might have given the Taliban time to flee and civilians time to enter the target zone. In another, buildings housing militants were struck, but the “imminent threat” required to green light for bombing wasn’t there.

The new US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, told the Senate this week: “In addition to the tragic loss of life, I am acutely aware of the negative repercussions resulting from civilian casualties.” He’s got it right: civilian deaths breed anger. But so do immediate denials of civilian harm in incidents like Farah. US Commanders need to understand this quickly. President Obama and Secretary Clinton appropriately expressed their regret for the Afghans burying their dead, but other US officials accused villagers and the Afghan Government of exaggerating the numbers killed.

And now to continue to downplay the US role even after the results of this investigation are made public, they’re literally adding insult to injury.

ISRAEL/GAZA: Will Israel Help Gaza’s Victims? (The Huffington Post)

By Sarah Holewinski, Executive Director of CIVIC

Ask any civilian who has lost a loved one, a limb, or a home in war and they’re likely to tell you they never received anything for their suffering. I’ve always found it shocking that international law doesn’t generally require warring parties to help the people they’ve harmed.

Take for example the family of 60-year old Fayiz Ad-Daya. He was killed along with twenty of his relatives on January 6, 2009, when an Israeli warplane roared over Gaza attempting to bomb a house nearby that allegedly contained a weapons cache. Fayiz’s family was killed instead, with victims ranging in age from four (granddaughter Kawkab) to sixty (Fayiz himself). An Israeli military official admitted it made a mistake in hitting the wrong house and said this “is bound to happen during intensive fighting.”

The Al-Daya family thus joins a long list of millions of civilians destroyed in war. Like so many before them, the surviving members will likely never receive a formal apology or compensation for their losses.

When a similar mistake was made by the US military in Afghanistan back in 2001, they didn’t pay any compensation either to a woman widowed by a missile intended for three miles east. Eight graves are lined up near her home, representing her husband and children. I’ve heard so many stories like this. And then a few years later, the US learned it had to do things differently: a compensation system now exists for “mistakes” and unintended casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. The system doesn’t work perfectly, but making amends to these civilians is the decent thing to do. It is befitting a nation like the US that prides itself on abiding by international laws that obligate respect for civilians (as Israel has claimed it does too).

Plenty of people have a bone to pick with Israel over this winter’s war with Hamas. And by bone I mean serious allegations linking Israeli Defense Forces to war crimes and violations of international laws governing armed conflict. All of the details have to be sorted out — the investigations, witness accounts, military records, photos and media reports. In the meantime, the UN estimates that three-quarters of the population still needs some form of aid. They’re talking about the basic stuff like food, water, shelter and healthcare.

So while the investigators press on and the applicable laws are figured out, here’s an idea: help these people.

Billions have been pledged from donor countries to help Gazans, but Israel has blocked all but a trickle from reaching across the closed borders. Hamas has played a role in the devastation too and Gazans are now being punished broadly (if not intentionally by Israel than certainly by default) for the acts of a few. Israel’s reticence comes from not wanting aid to go to people who will turn around and support Hamas; but who do they think they’re turning Gaza’s children toward by blocking life-saving aid?

If all that seems too daunting, start with the Al-Daya family.

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.

AFGHANISTAN: Who compensates those the Taliban hurts?

Posted by:  Erica G.

One of the most difficult challenges we faced this year in our Afghanistan work was how to get compensation to victims of Taliban or insurgent abuses. They are not only responsible for a greater proportion of civilian deaths (55% in 2009, according to the UN), but often because of insurgent tactics that have knowingly placed civilians at risk, including using them as human shields.

A UNAMA official based in a remote and heavily Taliban-controlled province called me a few days ago with a recent case he had been dealing with: insurgents had apprehended a man named Mustapha and whipped him with a cable in his genital region until all that was left was a bloody pulp. Although the circumstances of why he was targeted were not entirely clear, one factor influencing the severity of the punishment was that insurgents felt he was not entirely supporting their cause, raising issues of a war crime violation. The UNAMA official felt so stricken with the pain Mustapha was in (he could not even afford pain medication) that he gave him all the cash he had on hand. He called to ask me if there were not some government program or way to get compensation for this man?

In my next blog posting, I’ll discuss more broadly what help might be available for victims of insurgents…

AFGHANISTAN: A family’s story, but who will listen

Posted By:  Erica G.

WASHINGTON, DC – I received an email recently from a friend in Afghanistan who helps develop local girls’ schools. She got a call from the family of a community elder who had assisted her in establishing a school for 200 girls in Taliban-heavy Logar province. The family said a week before Special Forces had raided their home and detained several of the men from their family. A week later they were still holding the community elder and the family did not know what they could do. The only reason they had been given was suspected Taliban involvement. No specific allegations were made to rebut, and they had no idea where their relative was being held, and whether he would be released. They were terrified, worried, and outraged. Some of their property had also been taken and they had no way to get it back.

It’s impossible to tell from the details whether the detention was valid or not – given the community leader’s involvement with the international community in building girls schools (not exactly the hallmark of Taliban) it seems unlikely that he was affiliated with the Taliban. But given the lack of transparency y over these actions, it’s impossible for the family or any international partners working with them to find out who was involved, or why they were targeted, much less whether it was justified. The odds of them receiving any compensation or redress for their losses, much less an apology for what happened if they are deemed innocent, are even slimmer.

We at CIVIC have seen examples of international military forces being more responsive to civilian losses in recent months – statements by Secretary Gates saying that we have to get better on this, and several incidents in November, January, and February, where we saw immediate recognition of civilian loss and attempts to provide payment or support to affected communities afterwards. But when complaints like this one come in, it makes me question whether the changes have been made at a PR level, and not at the deep, institutional level that they need to happen on.  After all the progress we’ve made in getting recognition to this issue, I still have nowhere to tell this family to go, and little hope that anyone will listen if the family tries to raise the issue.

The Way Forward: More Troops Alone Will Not Win Back Afghans’ Confidence (from The Huffington Post)

Posted by:  Erica

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – This week I’ve had a lot of meetings at the Kabul headquarters for the NATO mission here, ISAF. Everyone in Kabul, but especially the military types, are humming about a new “comprehensive strategy” for Afghanistan.  A quick survey of the event coverage and op-ed sections of most US newspapers suggest a similar buzz is going on an ocean away. On Thursday, scholars Max Boot, Frederick Kagan, and Kimberly Kagan argued that more troops and a large-scale presence in Afghanistan was the only way to get accurate intelligence for targeting insurgents. “The only way to get the intelligence we need is from the residents, and they won’t provide it unless our troops stay in their villages to provide protection from Taliban retribution.”

Unfortunately in the past, placing troops closer to Afghan populations has not often led to greater protection. As a result, it has often produced more resentment and anger than trust and good intelligence.

A few months ago, I spoke with a community from Helmand province that had fled to Kabul to avoid repeated fighting. They said their community was targeted by the Taliban because of the proximity of nearby troops, and when the Taliban entered their village, rather than protecting them, the troops fired on them. “We don’t have any power to prevent the Taliban from fighting in our village and bringing this conflict to us,” one leader told me, “We blame the Taliban for [bringing] the fighting to our village, but we also blame ISAF that it doesn’t recognize who is the enemy and who is a civilian.”

To add insult to injury, following the bombardment, ISAF troops failed to reach out or help the community rebuild the lives that had been shattered by aerial bombardments and Taliban harassment. Every civilian who witnessed or heard about the treatment of this community walked away with the impression that international troops recklessly attacked a civilian community, and then ignored the deaths of their loved ones.

The folks I’ve met with at ISAF this week have been quick to point out new tactical directives designed to limit civilian losses. Equally encouraging, they pointed to efforts made to improve the tracking of civilian losses, and to promptly recognize and make amends for harm caused. In January 2009, for example, following three different instances where US Special Forces night raids led to civilian losses, US representatives promptly acknowledged the losses and provided condolence payments to those harmed.

This is a sea change from last summer, when the standard reaction to claims of civilian losses was immediate denial and no follow-up. But there’s still a long way to go from past conduct with regard to civilian losses and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s suggestion to the Security Council Friday, that the security of the Afghan people must be troops’ “primary goal.”

For a true strategic rethink, we’ll have to do more than dust up around the margins. More troops alone will not win back Afghans’ trust. We’re going to have to earn it. Part of that will be showing that potential civilian losses are a central concern when tactical decisions are made. And when losses do occur, we need to show that they matter, by responding promptly with apologies and condolences. More proactive responses by individual troop contributing countries, like the US, are a positive development. But in a coalition, we have to get better together. ISAF needs to take on more coordinated approach the issue of civilian losses in conflict and ensure that all international troops respond promptly with apologies and help when harm does happen. If it doesn’t, all the troops NATO can muster will not win back the one ally who really matters in this war — the Afghan people.