• 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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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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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

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.

GUEST BLOGGER: Killed for Failing to Stop his Car

Posted By: Rebecca W., working with CIVIC’s Erica in Afghanistan

Around 8am on February 27, 2007, Mohammad was driving to the Pakistan Embassy in Kandahar city to collect his visa. He traveled regularly to Pakistan to buy parts for his successful car business. On the road ahead, an ISAF armored vehicle had broken down. Mohammad failed to pull over, despite requests from ISAF soldiers that he should stop his car. The ISAF soldiers responded with lethal gunfire leaving Mohammad’s mother, wife and four small children without a son, husband, father, and provider.

Today, I interviewed Mohammad’s brother-in-law, Bilal, who has been supporting Mohammad’s family since February 2007. He told me how his sister had previously had a good life; her husband was a successful businessman and she had everything she needed. Now, Bilal told me, “if you take her two apples, she is excited. When she sees other families, with husbands and children happy together, she starts crying.
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GUEST BLOGGER: The Dangers of Assisting Civilians, Kandahar ACAP Field-Officer Captured by the Taliban

Posted By: Rebecca W., working with CIVIC’s Erica in Afghanistan

[Written 7/20/08] I went this morning to the Kandahar IOM/ACAP office (ACAP is the program created by the United States to help war victims and IOM is the agency that implements it across the country). I met the staff and talked with one field officer who travels around the southern provinces to find harmed civilians and verify information that has been submitted to the office. He has worked with ACAP for three years. He told me that his job was rewarding but also dangerous: a few months ago, he went into a remote village to survey an ACAP-funded construction project when he suddenly found himself surrounded by gun-wielding Taliban fighters. They accused him of supporting the international forces. As he was being taken away by the Taliban, a close friend saw him and negotiated his release – the only reason he is alive today. Such stories emphasize the difficulty in assisting civilians in this charged atmosphere, where humanitarian projects are frequently targeted by the Taliban and Afghan NGO workers are regularly kidnapped for their “foreign involvement.”