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February 19, 2009

Afghan Civilian Casualties May Surge as Well


by Ali Gharib

U.S. President Barack Obama announced Tuesday that he is sending two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan, marking the start of what many believe will be an escalation that will ultimately see the U.S. forces there double.

There are some 36,000 U.S. troops already in Afghanistan, and the additional 17,000 alone represent a nearly 50 percent increase.

"[T]he situation in Afghanistan/Pakistan demands urgent attention and swift action," Obama said in a statement. "To meet urgent security needs, I approved a request from Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates to deploy a Marine Expeditionary Brigade later this spring and an Army Stryker Brigade and the enabling forces necessary to support them later this summer."

But an increased U.S. presence will likely result in more combat confrontations. That, in turn, leads to an increased risk to the civilian population of Afghanistan, human rights groups stress.

And those sorts of deaths, injuries and destruction of property have so far been demonstrably destructive to the U.S.-led international effort to stabilize Afghanistan and defeat the violent insurgency being waged by the Taliban and other militant groups.

Some modicum of harm to civilians is likely inevitable as long as massive numbers of foreign troops make war in Afghanistan, but there are steps that the international community can take to minimize the damage that this civilian toll will take on the war effort.

The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) says that one way to do this is by acknowledging the burden on civilians by, when appropriate, apologizing and compensating victims and their families.

In a report released Tuesday, CIVIC said that despite efforts already underway, the international community must do more to ensure that compensation reaches civilian victims of the conflict.

The recommendation is particularly acute as last year's death toll for the conflict shows a staggering increase in civilian casualties. The U.N. reported Tuesday that such deaths were up nearly 40 percent in 2008, to a total of 2,118 civilians killed. As a result, the popularity of the seven-year-old campaign is plummeting among Afghans.

A poll of Afghan public opinion released last week by ABC News, the BBC, and ARD said that a slight majority of Afghans view the U.S. unfavorably. In 2005, by comparison, the U.S. garnered an 83 percent favorable rating.

That news is daunting for Washington and its international allies as they continue to try to win over or, it seems, win back the affections of local populations. Winning "hearts and minds" is a central tenet of fighting a counter-insurgency war, as the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is doing there.

The report, "Losing the People: The Costs and Consequences of Civilian Suffering in Afghanistan", puts the outlook in stark terms: "The international coalition in Afghanistan is losing public support, one fallen civilian at a time," reads the first sentence.

As a baseline for all its recommendations, the report insists that "all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan take all possible steps to avoid civilian deaths, injuries and property damage."

But, as with any conflict, sometimes those occurrences are unavoidable. In those cases, said the report, the victims need to be adequately compensated in order to prevent them from turning against the international forces.

The mechanisms for such compensation already exist payment for a lost relative is usually between 1,000 and 2,000 dollars but the response of the international forces and community need to be drastically improved, the report noted.

"We just need to get better at programs that already exist, and make sure they're fully funded," said Erica Gaston, a fellow with CIVIC and primary author of the report, discussing her findings Tuesday at the New America Foundation in Washington.

Gaston was in Afghanistan for a year researching civilian casualties and compensation, and interviewed over 143 victims from as wide a range as could be found. For example, some interviewees were families of victims killed in 2001 at the outset of the U.S.-led invasion, while others were families of victims who had been killed as recently as last year.

Sarah Holewinski, the executive director of CIVIC, said that there were two reasons for meaningful compensation: "moral", in which the U.S. needs to live up to its rhetoric about "hearts and minds, humanity and compassion"; and "strategic", as the mission requires civilian populations to side with international forces.

As for specific improvements to the identification and compensation of victims, the CIVIC report recommends better cooperation of different international actors by "sharing databases, establishing mechanisms for civilian referral and identification or other measures that respect confidentiality concerns of both the actor and the civilian."

In addition to identifying victims, there are problems with the mechanisms for delivering compensation.

The first problem is that the international forces are loath to open themselves up to legal responsibility. In order to facilitate continued compensation, the report takes a diplomatic line that "where necessary, [ISAF and NATO forces should] admit responsibility, thought not necessarily legal fault, quickly and publicly."

No matter the quibbling over the differences between "responsibility" and "legal fault", the panelists Tuesday all emphasized the importance of "redress" for the Afghan victims.

"We did find in our interview that apologies are important," said Gaston, later emphasizing that compensation has become a part of an "unofficial judicial system" in Afghanistan. "Compensation and apologies are expected in Afghanistan... and we have the means of providing them."

Still, while the means exist for delivery in many places, they don't exist in all places. In particular, many of the civilian deaths that anger residents occur because of ISAF and NATO airstrikes that don't discriminate between civilians and military targets. Those airstrikes are often called in exactly because forces on the ground have trouble getting in.

"It is one of the most difficult [issues]," said Gaston, "to provide compensation in these areas."

She said that international forces sometimes give compensation through intermediaries -though she admits this invites corruption and also set up offices in city centers which people can travel to.

However, the report emphasized that a coherent, unified approach was needed for compensation in order to make it effective and streamline it so that benefits will be realized by the civilian victims of the conflict.

As of now, it said, different programs set up by different actors make up an ad hoc compensation network that sometimes fails to deliver for victims leaving their physical and emotional scars to fester and potentially turning them against international forces.

"You get the sense that the international community is trying to fly the plane and build the plane at the same time in this challenge," said Eric Schwartz, the executive director of the Connect U.S. Fund, which funded Gaston's work, and a former National Security Council official for humanitarian efforts.

"The issue is kind of complicated," he said, though he did praise Gates's comments about "making amends" from his confirmation hearings as Obama's Defense chief.

"This is largely about leadership," Gaston agreed. If "the tone is set at the top," she said, it could make a great impact on compensation and, therefore, the war effort.

(Inter Press Service)

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  • Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.

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