Civilian Casualties and Injuries in Afghanistan up 24% in the past six months.

August 2, 2009

An alert reader sent me a UN press release and photos and interviews of injured Afghan civilians today. The links are at the right hand side of this page. Portion of the press release reads:
“The International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) has called for a dramatic new response to civilian casualties and injuries in Afghanistan today after the United Nations (UN) reported a 24% increase in civilian casualties in the past six months. The causalities were caused by both Taliban insurgency and NATO-ISAF actions.
ICOS is calling on the International Community and NATO-ISAF, to immediately respond to the release of the UN report with a new three part policy response that aims to “Avoid, Aid and Compensate” civilian casualties and injuries.”

The detailed report goes on to say of the period 1 January 2009 through 30 June 2009 that “the armed conflict intensified significantlythroughout Afghanistan in 2008 and in the first six months of 2009, with a corresponding rise in civilian casualties and a significant
erosion of humanitarian space. UNAMA Human Rights recorded 1013 civilian casualties for the period 1 January to 30 June 2009. This represents a 24% increase in casualties from the same period in 2008 when 818 civilians died. Most of the deaths continued to occur in the
South, South East, East, West and Central regions of the country. According to UNAMA’s figures 595 (59%) of these deaths were caused by AGEs (Afghan guerrilla elements) and 310 (30.5%) by international and national Afghan forces (PGF). The remaining 108 (10.5%) could not be attributed to any ofthe parties to the conflict.”

I do have to question why ICOS didn’t call on the Taliban to respond to the release of the report with a three part policy as well. After all, the UN report did say that most of the casualties were caused by AGE actions, and the Taliban is the principle AGE.

My own experience in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 tells me that US forces make serious efforts to avoid causing civilian casualties and when we do, we are generally quick to offer medical aid and compensation. I am pretty sure that NATO and ISAF are taking similar precautions and measures as well. Still, if it’s your family member who is killed injured, our good intentions are likely small consolation.

Many experts believe that we will lose popular support for our efforts in Afghanistan amongst the locals, and thereby the war, because of civilians casualties and should be more careful, use less firepower, less air power. Still, this is a little like the “cap and trade” debate. Just as it matters little if the US caps green house gasses if the developing world doesn’t, it matters little if the Taliban, without air power and relatively little firepower, still continue to kill more of their own people (or at least other Aghans) than NATO and ISAF do.

Of course history tells us that local support, though nice, is not essential. There was precious little support for the Union Army in Georgia in 1864, but the United States won that war decisively, corralling Confederate states back into the Union and abolishing slavery. Likewise, after killing 800,000 German civilians with air power in World War II, Allied occupying forces were not greeted with flowers by the surviving German population, but they occupied with little if any violent resistance and saw that Germany was reborn as a flourishing democracy and a solid ally.

Still, like Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, I have a Christian soul that tells me the right thing to do is be careful with the lives of non-combatants. And as Luttrell’s own experience in Afghanistan shows, most Afghan people, like people everywhere, return kindness with kindness, even kindness towards Navy SEALs. (See link at right.)


Responsibility to Protect

July 22, 2009

There are discussions emerging in United Nations and academic circles about “responsibility to protect,” variously abbreviated as “RtoP” or “R2P.” As recently as July 15, 2009, United Nations Secretary Ban Ki Moon spoke at length of R2P, citing the United Nations 2005 World Summit Outcome Document and further elaborating that:

“First, Governments unanimously affirmed the primary and continuing legal obligations of States to protect their populations — whether citizens or not — from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and from their incitement. They declared — and this is the bedrock of RtoP — that “we accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it”. . . It would be neither sound morality, nor wise policy, to limit the world’s options to watching the slaughter of innocents or to send in the marines. The magnitude of these four crimes and violations demands early, preventive steps — and these steps should require neither unanimity in the Security Council nor pictures of unfolding atrocities that shock the conscience of the world. . . It is Member States’ acceptance of their responsibility to respond in a timely and decisive manner, in accordance with the United Nations Charter, to help protect populations from the four listed crimes and violations. The response could involve any of the whole range of UN tools, whether pacific measures under Chapter VI of the Charter, coercive ones under Chapter VII, and/or collaboration with regional and sub regional arrangements under Chapter VIII. The key lies in an early and flexible response, tailored to the specific needs of each situation.”

The discussions are not uncontroversial. The literature recommends foreign military intervention in the internal affairs of another state only as a last resort, and after gaining Security Council or General Assembly approval, but it recommends it nonetheless. The 2005 World Summit Outcome Document speaks about an individual state’s responsibility to protect its population from these crimes, and to include preventing incitement of these crimes, so President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is forbidden from inciting Iranians to commit genocide against each other, but as written, he is free to incite Iranians to commit genocide against the Jewish population of Israel. Likewise, Kim Jong Il, the North Korean dictator, is abjured from committing and inciting genocide against his fellow citizens of North Korea, but can freely speak of turning Seoul into a lake of fire. More insidiously, “protection from incitement” can rapidly devolve into limiting freedom of the press and freedom of individual expression.

What is the U.S. military’s history in R2P scenarios? Non-combatant evacuation operations (NEOs) come to mind. During the Korean conflict, U.S. forces, did, on occasion, intervene to protect civilians from what they believed would be certain death at the hands of communist forces. The single largest incident that I can find details of is the evacuation of approximately 100,000 Korean refugees from Hungnam Province in North Korea. In the aftermath of the war in Vietnam the United States gave refuge to thousands of our Vietnamese civilian government and military partners and their family members. Likewise, today we offer refuge to Iraqi citizens whose service as interpreters for our armed forces made them and their families unsafe in their own homeland. But the United States, except for Yugoslavia in 1999, has never invaded another nation for the stated purpose of preventing or stopping genocide or ethnic cleansing, though Senator George McGovern suggested we do just that during the killing spree in Cambodia, and Senator Robert Dole argued for intervention in Bosnia for the same reason. Some in Congress argued that the UN should have lifted its arms embargo of Yugoslavia so weapons could be delivered to Bosnians so they could defend themselves against Serb paramilitaries. (The Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the massacre at Srebrenica and the crisis in Darfur were all preceded by disarmament of civilian populations, limiting their ability to defend themselves against government or government-sponsored forces. See links titled “The Fall of Srebrenica” and “Gun Ban and Genocide, The Disarming Facts”.)

The US-led NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia and the eventual occupation of Kosovo after the withdrawal of Serbian military and police has been judged by some to be an effective humanitarian intervention. But some critics claim that we were slow to fill the vacuum left by the Serb authorities and allowed the Albanian majority to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of its Serb minority under the noses of over 30,000 NATO soldiers.

The United States Senate did ratify the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and in doing so agreed “that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” The question remains, do we possess the political will and other national resources to fulfill this very ambition treaty commitment, and is it a vital national interest to do so? Comments are welcome.


Bryan Groves

Civilian Casualties and Humanitarian Space, Gettysburg, Europe and Afghanistan

July 8, 2009

During the 4th of July weekend I visited the National Archives in Washington D.C. with my family. The Archives was celebrating its 65th Anniversary, and among the special displays was a 13 x 13 foot map of the Gettysburg Battlefied, which included the town of Gettysburg, as well as a short story about the only civilian casualty of the battle, Jennie Wade, who died when a stray bullet found her in the midst of baking bread in her sister’s kitchen on July 3, 1863.  One civilian death in three days of fighting as opposed to 3,155 Union and 2,592 Confederate Soldiers killed in action. (Later counts suggest the Confederates lost over 3,900 killed at Gettysburg.)

After Gettysburg, the Union Army pursued the fleeing Confederates, taking with them their logistics and medical support and leaving behind on the field of battle a very large portion of the over 27,000 wounded from both armies. Care and feeding of the wounded fell to church groups and sanitary societies as the town of Gettysburg became a de facto hospital. These church groups and sanitary societies in a sense were the precursors to the non-governmental humanitarian organizations (NGHOs) and government humanitarian aid agencies we meet today in Iraq and Afghanistan.  These humanitarian agencies did not occupy the same space of the armies in contact, but quickly filled the vacuum left in their wake.

Leap ahead eighty plus years to the conclusion of WWII, and some sources state that Allied bombing of German cities killed over 800,000 civilians.  Almost all of this killing of civilians was done from ten to twenty thousand feet with few if any  Allied ground forces within a quick march of the cities. I am sure there were some charitable organizations that did their best to render aid to the German civilian populace during the war and afterwards, but other than the Red Cross, I can’t name any of them. I can tell from reading the 4th Convention that these organizations were sharing what is now know as “humanitarian space” with Allied (and perhaps Axis) military, as the Convention makes provisions for military forces to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance by these organizations.

Now jump forward to today in Afghanistan.  Civilian casualties have been very low compared to WWII Germany (or Poland, Italy, Russia, the Balkans, take your pick), but high compared to Gettysburg (see New York Times link).  The NGHO community has grown considerably and is now focused far more on delivering humanitarian assistance to civilians displaced by war or simply in need of assistance because of underdevelopment.  

Why do I bring any of this up?

First, I bring it up because I am puzzled about the relationship between civilian casualties and any lasting peace that may follow from an armed conflict.  I understand the Tito and his partisans regularly murdered German soldiers in order to provoke retribution against the larger civilian population, as this generally resulted in lots of recruits for the partisans. It seems as if  Taliban forces are attempting the same tactic, drawing coalition forces into battles that they know will generate civilian casualties that will generate international and local outrage against the United States and NATO and hopefully result in new Taliban recruits. If they can’t get the coalition to generate the needed civilian casualties, they have on occassion used their grenades to augment our bombs to produce the desired effects. These tactics have changed how NATO and the US is fighting in Afghanistan, restricting the spaces we are willing to fight the Taliban in. (See link on this page to General Stanley McChrystal’s interview with Time Magazine on the fight in Afghanistan, to include efforts US forces are taking to minimize civilian casualties.)  I wonder if a relatively small number of civilian casualties can spur insurgent recruitment and resistence, why did a much larger number (800,000) civilian casualties not cause  Germans civilians to join the “werewolves” in great numbers and fight against Allied land forces during the last days of the Third Reich and during the ensuing occupation?  How do we exhaust a population without killing it? How best to save the village without burning it?

Second, how can we minimize the number of non-combatants killed in modern war? How can we get closer to those Gettysburg ratios, and is it possible, especially in an era of irregular warfare. (In retrospect, Napoleon in France would be a better study than Gettysburg. I welcome any historians of Napoleonic warfare to tell me how the French did it (and lost) in Spain.  See link “Francisco Goya’s “The Third of May” ” at the right of this page for some discussion of the Spanish guerilla war against Napoleon’t troops.)

Third, I wanted to emphasize that the presence of NGHOs and aid agencies from other governments is a relatively new phenomenon in war, but one that is increasingly important in the way we fight wars and maintain peace. It appears to me that in the nineteenth century,  the humanitarian community and the military rarely crossed paths or occuppied the same real estate. Today the interchange is constant.  As a result, the United States Department of Defense, the American Council for Voluntary International Action (InterAction) and the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) have published Guidelines for Relations Between U.S. Armed Forces and Non-Governmental Humanitarian Organizations in Hostile or Potentially Hostile Environments. (See links section for a copy of this document.)  At the same time, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) produced a similar document specifically for operations between NATO forces and NGHOs in Afghanistan. (See attached link.) Although this document is similar to the DoD/InterAction/USIP document, there are some differences that some say are substantial.  Though the information between the documents is not totally consistent, for simplicity’s sake, I would hope Soldiers and NGHO staff alike are content to carry just one set of guidelines in their cargo pockets. (For those in Afghanistan, the ISAF/UNAMA guidelines.) God willing, these guidelines will minimize civilian casualties and maximize delivery of assistance while allowing us to win a lasting peace. Comments are welcome.


Bryan Groves