In Afghanistan’s unfinished war, civilians pay the price
By JOSH SMITH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 18, 2014
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — Mohammad Wazir is 12. Or maybe 13. He doesn’t know for sure.
One thing is certain: Growing up in rural Helmand province, Mohammad has seen more war than anyone should, let alone a young boy.
So when a firefight broke out between the Taliban and Afghan forces in July, Mohammad knew the drill: He and his family fled. When they returned, however, they found that the Taliban had turned their farm into a fighting position, complete with foxholes dug inside the home.
A curious Mohammad jumped into one of the holes, and his world exploded.
The insurgents had planted a bomb. When it went off, shrapnel sliced through his legs.
Mohammad’s brother found him bleeding and unconscious. The family rushed him to an Afghan National Army base for first aid, and then on to a hospital in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, an hour and a half drive along dangerous roads to the south.
Mohammad is among the growing number of noncombatants paying the price for the continuing insecurity in Afghanistan. After more than a decade of international military involvement, the NATO-led coalition is departing, but that hasn’t coincided with a drop in violence. With NATO combat troops leaving by the end of the year, civilian casualties are up 15 percent from last year, according to the United Nations. The rising tide of civilian deaths and injuries may become one of the lasting legacies of the unfinished war in Afghanistan.
NATO troops will be leaving behind thousands of Afghans like Mohammad, maimed by a war over which they had little control, condemned to suffer long after foreign forces depart.
When I met Mohammad, he had put his crutches aside and was sitting in a compound in Lashkar Gah, surrounded by other Afghans displaced by fierce fighting that consumed Sangin district for much of the summer and into the fall.
A young man with just the first wisps of a mustache cradled a Kalashnikov rifle as he guarded the compound’s door. Seated cross-legged on a well-worn carpet inside, the men and boys sipped cups of green tea sweetened with candy lemon drops as they told their stories.
Shamsullah Sarayee, an Alokozay tribal leader from Sangin, had arranged the gathering. Just a month earlier, four members of his family, including two children, had been killed when their van hit a roadside bomb. Four more family members in the vehicle were injured.
Gul Janan, an older man of unknown age, lost much of his left leg when he returned home only to step on a mine planted in his living room. Without hesitation, he showed the purplish stump that protruded a few inches below his knee.
A lean, weathered man with a wavy white beard, Mohammed Dawoud was shot twice in the arm and once in the torso when a firefight broke out on his farm. “I couldn’t get out of the way of the bullets,” he said. “What was I to do? I was not safe in my own field. We are not safe anywhere.”
According to the U.N., the number of civilian casualties caused by violence in Afghanistan is at an all-time high. In the first eight months of 2014, 2,312 civilians were killed and 4,533 injured, a 15 percent increase over the same period last year, Jan Kubis, the U.N. representative in Afghanistan, told the U.N. Security Council in September. The first six months of the year saw a 24 percent increase.
EMERGENCY, an Italy-based medical aid organization, says it is treating “staggering” numbers of patients with war wounds at its Kabul surgical center — more than 10 per day in July.
“The situation is getting worse day by day,” EMERGENCY officials said in a statement. “Our hospitals are full and our ambulances keep going back and forth, ferrying the injured from the various first aid posts scattered around the country.”
Among the hardest hit in the latest escalation of violence are women, as well as children like Mohammad. In its last comprehensive report, released in July, the U.N. found that the “devastating” levels of violence during the first half of the year had left 295 children dead and 776 injured, a 34 percent spike over the same period in 2013.
Mohammad was relatively lucky. He’ll walk again.
As we talked, the flies buzzed around the scabs that peeked out on both sides of the cast encasing one of his skinny legs. That didn’t stop a shy, half-smile from creeping onto his face as he talked of his dreams for the future.
“I want to go to school to be a doctor,” he said, “and help people like they helped me.”
But as the insurgency drags on, more children are dying violently. And with them their dreams.
Adorned with row upon row of campaign ribbons, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal sat before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington. It was June 2, 2009, and the general, a longtime veteran of the American special operations community, had been tapped by President Barack Obama to be the top commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
“Although I expect stiff fighting ahead, the measure of effectiveness will not be enemy killed,” he said, looking up from his notes and peering at the lawmakers through his wire-rim glasses for emphasis. “It will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence.”
During McChrystal’s tenure as ISAF commander, civilian deaths caused by coalition forces reached a crisis point. Seeing it as a threat to the international effort, McChrystal imposed new rules that led to a 28 percent reduction in such casualties caused by American, NATO and Afghan forces, according to the U.N.
Those rules weren’t always popular with ISAF troops, especially those who felt they had lost comrades because of the restrictions placed on airstrikes and other tactics that could threaten civilians.
But the combination of new policies and a significant reduction in foreign forces’ involvement in combat operations has led to a further decrease in the number of civilians killed or injured by foreign troops. The U.N. says international forces accounted for just 1 percent of the most recent casualties, a decline attributed largely to the reduction in airstrikes.
As bitter fighting continues between insurgents and Afghan forces, however, the growing number of civilians in hospital beds and morgues is casting doubt on the Afghan government’s ability to protect its citizens, even as Afghan national security forces prepare to take charge of all of the country’s security.
Five years after that Senate confirmation hearing, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Townsend paused when asked how ISAF’s work here measured against McChrystal’s definition of success.
Gazing out the open door of a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter on its way to the air field in the eastern city of Jalalabad, Townsend studied the vast area of Afghanistan for which he’s responsible as commander of ISAF’s Regional Command-East.
“I disagree a bit with the premise of the question, because that’s not really how I define success,” he said over the chopper’s intercom. “Our goals are a competent and confident ANSF.”
Civilian casualties aren’t something he officially tracks in his capacity as a commander in one of the most violent regions of Afghanistan, Townsend said. “What we’re trying to shoot for is an ANSF that can secure the country.”
But aren’t rising civilian casualties a measure of the Afghan forces’ ability to secure their country?
“That probably has something to say about their competency, yes,” he acknowledged. “But in no country in the world can security forces protect all civilians all the time. It does call into question their abilities; but at the same time, I think they can do it.”
A poster in a conference room at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad outlines the coalition’s view of “what winning looks like.” It’s a lengthy list that includes goals such as eliminating the country as an al-Qaida safe haven, encouraging a constructive relationship between the Afghan and Pakistani militaries, and creating a security force “capable of protecting and securing a legitimate Afghan government.”
There’s no mention of protecting and securing Afghan citizens, although the list does envision an “endstate” with “conditions set for the Afghan people to exploit the decade of opportunity/transformation” that ISAF believes it has provided.
“Protecting the population is the bedrock of [counterinsurgency] policy, and according to the best measures we have, the population is not being protected,” said Graeme Smith, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul. “The sad reality is that this war continues to intensify and is poised to take a heavy toll on the civilian population.”
A sensitive history
Civilian casualties caused by coalition forces — as well as by U.S. forces who sometimes operated outside of ISAF, such as special operations troops on counterterrorism missions — were a hot-button issue throughout the international military intervention.
In a report released in August, Amnesty International detailed 10 cases in which it says airstrikes, night raids and drone attacks against civilians were not fully investigated by ISAF, if at all. The human-rights watchdog singled out two cases in which it said the military is not urgently investigating evidence that strongly suggests war crimes were committed — including kidnapping, torture and execution.
“It’s an issue that creates a lot of resentment,” said Joanne Mariner, one of the report’s authors. “Special forces especially have a particularly bad track record that they’re leaving for Afghanistan.”
One of the most egregious cases cited by Mariner involved allegations that U.S. special operations troops and their Afghan allies were involved in the torture and murder of local residents.
In a secret 2009 cable published by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, State Department officials warned that civilian casualties, among other controversial issues, including night raids, would be a barrier to better Afghan-U.S. relations until they were addressed.
Now, even critics such as Mariner say the coalition made strides since then by implementing policies to reduce noncombatant casualties, and by establishing more appropriate compensation.
In 2008, ISAF established a Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell, “the first large-scale tracking of data on civilian harm by a warring party,” according to a report by the Center for Civilians in Conflict. That later became part of a Civilian Casualty Mitigation Team.
According to the report, as of January the CCMT had been downsized, while the remaining members of the team focused on helping the Afghan forces with their mitigation policies. ISAF says it still tracks the number of civilians injured or killed around the country and that its numbers “are consistent” with those released by the U.N.
Former President Hamid Karzai was quick to call attention to incidents in which civilians were hurt by coalition forces. Although the number of coalition-related casualties has dwindled, however, Karzai’s concerns over such incidents did not disappear. Citing concern over potential atrocities, for example, he refused to sign an agreement with the United States laying out the terms for a continued U.S. presence last year, in part because it gave future U.S. troops in Afghanistan immunity from local prosecution. His successor, Ashraf Ghani, signed it the day after his Sept. 29 inauguration.
Now, though, the decline in casualties caused by the coalition has been more than offset by a major increase in casualties attributed to the range of anti-government insurgent groups, the largest among them being the Taliban.
The U.N. said nearly 75 percent of noncombatant casualties in the first half of 2013 were directly caused by anti-government groups, including 147 attacks claimed by the Taliban that killed 234 civilians and left 319 injured.
Human-rights officials say the focus now is on getting the Taliban and other groups to change their tactics to protect civilians.
For their part, the Taliban reject the U.N.’s estimates as “propaganda of the enemy.”
“As we have seen clearly during attacks by foreign forces and the Afghan soldiers, they have killed many women and children,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said during a phone interview. “Still, we are paying real attention to reducing civilian casualties.”
When asked about the accounts from Sangin of improvised bombs and mines being left in houses, Mujahid said he “totally rejects” the idea that Taliban fighters could be responsible, though he would look into the allegations.
So far, however, human-rights advocates say the Taliban’s actions haven’t matched their rhetoric. With the presidential election controversy fading, rights advocates are hoping that all sides will try to focus on shielding noncombatants from the violence.
“Reducing civilian casualties across the board is a key measure in improving the security situation for Afghans around the country,” Georgette Gagnon, the U.N.’s top human rights officer in Afghanistan, said in an interview. “All parties should view this as the priority in improving the security situation.”
A plea for help
There is some good news. In Sangin, for example, residents who had fled the fighting said they generally trust the government forces and have received medical and other care when needed.
But if residents have come to look to the ANSF for help, they also see the local forces as lacking equipment and training. Because of this, the people I spoke to favored maintaining the flow of international aid.
At FOB Fenty in Jalalabad, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Rob Connell is a Special Forces soldier tasked with commanding the advisers who help the area’s police forces.
He said Afghan forces have become better than ever at securing government centers and other centralized areas, as evidenced by the failure of insurgent efforts to disrupt the election. But they “still have problems” securing the population itself, he said.
“It’s a little like the Wild West of the 1860s or whenever out here,” Connell told me. “District centers and towns are kind of like Fort Apache, and officials expect residents to go to those locations if they have trouble.”
Still, he said, ANSF leaders are trying to expand their reach. “They have the will and the intent, but it will take some time.”
Back in Helmand, Sarayee, the tribal leader from Sangin, looked mournful when I asked if I could take his photograph. He agreed, but only after asking if it would help his people.
“Pictures and photographs cannot help us,” he said. “We are screaming, but no one pays attention.”
Elyas Dayee and Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.