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Afghanistan: When Will the “Experts” Remember the Geneva Conventions?
Posted by Siun on February 23rd, 2009

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Last week, the National Security Network – which describes itself as “the progressive national security community” – released a statement on Afghanistan. Our friend Spencer Ackerman reported on it’s release in the Washington Independent.

According to Spencer’s article, Heather Hurlburt of NSN described the goals of the statement as an attempt to come up with a progressive consensus. After two weeks of consultations, the statement was released – apparently to the press and then to those of us in the “advocacy community.”

Hurlburt said that she wanted to work out a sense from the “expert community” of what was achievable and realistic for Afghanistan before taking the document to “progressive advocacy” organizations like Get Afghanistan Right to secure buy in. She conceded that there would be disagreements that probably can’t be fully resolved.

This timing certainly raises a whole bunch of questions about the NSN’s interest in engaging in a genuine discussion. It also makes me wonder why those of us who oppose escalation are considered “advocates” and “activists” yet those who advocate sending more troops – as NSN itself does – are instead “experts.”

As far as I can tell – and I would be very happy to hear otherwise from NSN — no Afghans were invited to participate in this process. I guess they are not “experts” either.

Along with the bumpiness of NSN’s process, the statement itself is quite far from what I would consider a “progressive” approach. Both Alex Thurston in his “Response to NSN on Afghanistan” at the Seminal and in Meteor Blade’s recent post at DailyKos raise a number of issues and are very worth reading.

As I read the NSN statement, one section in particular was very disturbing. Under “Principles: The ‘How’ and ‘For What?’” they recommend that the Obama administration:

Adopt a counter-insurgency strategy that reinforces, rather than works against, the principles above. Military decisions should be made with an eye to meeting Afghan security concerns; developing an Afghan security force capable of controlling territory and offering protection; and, as many Afghans and some military observers have advocated, phasing out tactics that have increased civilian casualties with questionable payoffs. (emph. added)

Phase out? Questionable payoffs?

In their introduction, the NSN says their goal is a statement that forms:

a baseline of what must be achieved for our national interests and our moral obligations – to our military, our citizens and the people of Afghanistan. (emph. added)

Yet instead of raising the need for US compliance with the Geneva Conventions requirement that civilians be protected – and in fact, despite the fact that even our commanders in Afghanistan have consistently identified – and promised to change those “tactics” because they lead to civilian casualties – the progressive “experts” simply recommend “phasing [them] out.”

This after US ground forces killed 53 civilians in January alone.

And this weekend we learn that we’ve killed another 13 Afghan civilians – including 6 women and 3 children in a “precision air strike.”

Of course, this is not the first such episode:

The United Nations says civilian deaths rose nearly 40 percent last year to 2,118, the most in any year since the 2001 invasion that drove the Taliban from power … 828 deaths were attributed to American, NATO and Afghan forces, mostly from airstrikes and village raids. Afghan officials fear the numbers will rise as more American troops deploy to the country.

Once again, our military leaders are now telling us they take this very seriously:

A U.S. military statement said the decision to dispatch a general to the western province of Herat to investigate shows how seriously the U.S. takes civilian casualties.

This investigation was launched only after Afghan officials raised a fuss – until then, the US forces had instead said that this air strike killed 15 militants. These stories are getting so frequent that when I read a headline from Afghanistan about “X number of militants killed” I always check the next day to see if there’s a new report that our forces once again had to revise their claim, send some officers to a village to apologize and deliver a condolence payment – and have a General in Kabul announce a new approach which this time will – really – decrease the number of civilian casualties.

It was after all just last week that U.S. General David McKiernan, the commander of both U.S. and NATO troops serving in Afghanistan, issued a joint statement with the Afghan Defense Minister announcing new Rules of Engagement under which operations would be coordinated with Afghan officials in an effort to avoid civilian casualties – yet the New York Times reports about this latest incident:

… Naqib Arween, an aide to the Herat provincial governor, said there was no coordination with Afghan security officials in the province about the operation on Tuesday. He said the bombardment struck nomads in tents in a mountainous region of the province, which borders Iran.

And this is not the only such report this weekend. At Quqnoos, an Afghan news site, we learn that residents of Logar “blocked the Kabul Logar Highway for six hours today” (see video above) and

protested against what they called irresponsible operations of international troops in the area.

According to protestors, the international troops, during search operation in Da now village, killed an innocent resident and took five others away with them.

The protestors were carrying death to America and foreign troop’s slogans, and the dead body of the man who was shot dead by troops last night…

This protest ended after a negotiation, and the release of arrested men by international troops this afternoon.

And once again General McKiernan might like to know:

… the Logar governor said the operation was launched without coordination with local authorities.

Also this weekend, an Afghan civilian was shot – but not killed – by allied forces in a convoy on Route 1 in Helmand Provice but the ISAF (US led NATO forces) assures us that:

ISAF deeply regrets any incident where civilians are injured. ISAF service members are trained to take every precaution they can to avoid incidents like this. Reparation will be made for damage caused.

ISAF is here to assist the government of Afghanistan in providing a better way of life for the Afghan people.

I almost wonder if the authors of the NSN statement also write those ISAF statements – or is this just standard “expert” language, language which ignores both our Geneva obligations and the suffering of the Afghan people.


Three Must Reads for the week:

Video: Quqnoos video of the demonstration at Logar against the killing of one civilian and arrest of 5 others. There is no English language version available.

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