March 2012 : Afghan mother and her two children killed in an earlier US strike. (Photo: Pakistan Defense)
June 12, 2012
The war in Afghanistan may (or may not) be winding down by 2014, but the drumbeat of civilian casualties goes on in Libya, Afghanistan and worldwide drone attacks, especially in Yemen and in Pakistan.
Before we get to the latest news on the sage of Afghan deaths caused by US and NATO military action, listen to Marc Garlasco on his investigations into civilian casualties in Libya and Afghanistan. Garlasco served as chief of the UN unit in Afghanistan dedicated to monitoring and investigating civilian casualties in that war, and last year he worked in Libya tracking the results of the NATO bombing campaign on civilians. In a Washington Post op-ed, he describes futile efforts to get NATO to acknowledge and investigate incidents of dead civilians, even though the secretary-general of NATO "said in March that the operation in Libya caused no confirmed civilian casualties." By Garlasco’s own on-the-ground work, that isn’t true. He says:
In August 2011 laser-guided bombs dropped by NATO forces reduced three homes in Majer, Libya, to rubble. The strike killed 34, the largest loss of civilian lives from a NATO attack; 38 others were wounded. As the head of the U.N. investigating team for all NATO activity in Libya, I sifted through the debris and makeshift memorials in the small rural village near Misrata while interviewing survivors, trying to piece together what had happened. It didn’t make sense—NATO hit the homes and returned for a follow-up strike, killing the rescuers who were frantically digging for survivors minutes after the first bombs struck. A pilot using laser-guided bombs would have been able to see the rescuers at work.
Garlasco notes that overall civilian casualties in the Libya operations were relatively low, which makes it even more puzzling that NATO is being so uncooperative. At least nine incidents in which civilians died have been discovered, yet, he says, "NATO refused to discuss those incidents or provide gun-camera footage and questioned why the United Nations was investigating."
That’s in contrast to Afghanistan, notes Garlasco, where reluctantly the United States and NATO are at least willing to acknowledge killings, and often apologize and make amends. (That wasn’t true early in the conflict there.)
Last Wednesday, a US-ordered airstrike killed at least nineteen civilians. I blogged about it last week, noting President Karzai’s angry denunciations about the unchecked use of American air power to strike what was clearly a civilian home where, it appears, woman and children were visible to the US pilots and Special Forces on the ground. Reports the Guardian:
An inquiry into Wednesday’s attack in Lognar province found that it was the result of "a one-sided decision, and not co-ordinated with Afghan security forces," President Karzai’s spokesman Aimal Faiz said on Saturday.
In response, the hard-pressed Afghan government claimed to have won a pledge from the US command to halt such strikes, although there is reportedly enough wiggle room in the new policy that future civilian casualties such as those in Lognar are very possible. Reports the Times:
After a meeting on Saturday between Mr. Karzai, General Allen and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker of the United States to discuss the issue, aides to Mr. Karzai released a statement saying that General Allen had pledged to halt attacks altogether on residential areas and homes.
On Sunday, however, American officials said General Allen’s order did not necessarily go that far and sought to describe it in more nuanced terms, saying that NATO would continue to conduct operations against insurgents who use civilian dwellings for shelter.
That ain’t good enough. And it apparently violates part of the US-Afghan accord signed earlier this year that supposedly guarantees that US Special Forces actions will not proceed without the approval of Kabul. As the Post reports:
The United States and Afghanistan signed an agreement in April that put the Afghan government in charge of most such "special operations," a move designed to resolve some of the long-standing tensions.
Still, as Garlasco writes, things have improved somewhat in Afghanistan. He provides an example:
Last July, for example, our [UN] Gardez office alerted me that a night raid in Khost had killed a number of civilians. Alliance troops initially told me they had hit a Haqqani network commander and killed him, as well as a woman who had been targeting Western forces and at least four other "militants." The U.N. team on the ground said it had proof this was wrong and provided evidence that compelled the launch of a joint incident-assessment team. This ad hoc assembly of military professionals partnered with Afghan investigators on a thorough investigation. The U.N. liaison officer to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) called me later to confirm they had unfortunately killed civilians and thanked us for repudiating their initial claim. A colonel with the ISAF subsequently participated in a jirga in the village to apologize and offered amends for the dead. It is hard to believe NATO has not applied in Libya simple lessons gleaned from a decade in Afghanistan: investigate civilian casualties, acknowledge and make amends.
Lots of room for improvement, though. Lots.