Tag Archive | "Afghanistan"

Hospital Taliban Fire

25 Dead, 1 Apology, No Clear Answers: Has the U.S. Committed a War Crime?

Hospital Taliban Fire
Fires burn in the MSF emergency trauma hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, after it was hit and partially destroyed by aerial attacks on October 3, 2015.

In the wake of the Taliban’s takeover over the Afghan city of Kunduz last week, United States and Afghan military forces have waged a fight to reclaim control of the city. On Saturday, September 3rd, the U.S. bombed a Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders medical facility in Kunduz. The facility, the only facility of its kind in that region of Afghanistan, regularly served thousands of patients for free. Médecins Sans Frontières has called for an independent investigation into what they have deemed a “war crime.” This tragedy has led many in the general public to wonder: What qualifies as a war crime?

The International Criminal Court lists the definition of a war crime as, “grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in international armed conflict and in conflicts “not of an international character” listed in the Rome Statute, when they are committed as part of a plan or policy or on a large scale.” It goes on to list prohibited acts, which include: “intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historical monuments or hospitals.” The Geneva Conventions protect war victims and make up the foundation of international humanitarian law.

If a war crime includes intentionally attacking hospitals, the question becomes: Did the United States intentionally hit the medical facility in Kunduz? The response from U.S. officials has included a variety of conflicting explanations. Initially, the U.S. military said Taliban fighters were directly firing on U.S. service members in the vicinity of the hospital and a hospital may have been struck. There were also reports that Taliban members had taken up positions within the hospital and were using it as a firing position.  The next explanation, from General John Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, stated that Afghan forces had called for air support from the U.S. military, admitted that the hospital had in fact been struck accidentally and was “a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command.”

With conflicting explanations and a multitude of unclear facts, determining whether this was in fact a war crime requires a clear understanding of the factual happenings on the ground and the decisions leading up to the strike on the hospital. Médecins Sans Frontières has called for an independent investigation of the attack, saying that an independent investigation would help ensure “maximum transparency and accountability.” It is currently advocating for the first ever use of the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission. The Commission was established by the Protocols to the Geneva Conventions and serves to investigate grave breaches and serious violations of international humanitarian law. It has never before been called upon to investigate. Meanwhile, President Obama has apologized to Médecins Sans Frontières and assured it that the U.S. is conducting a joint investigation with NATO and the Afghan government.

Until we know whether or not the attack on the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital was truly an accident and whether or not there were Taliban fighters using the hospital as a launching ground for attacks, there cannot be a definitive answer as to whether these attacks qualify as “war crimes” under international humanitarian law. If the answer becomes clear, it will only lead to more questions. What next? How do we prevent this from happening again? How will the U.S. respond to Médecins Sans Frontières, the families of those ten adults, three children, and twelve Médecins Sans Frontières staff who were killed? Only time, and a truly transparent investigation, will tell.

Julie Marling is a 3L at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and is the Training and Cite and Source Editor on the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

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A mortar attack Akcakale, Turkey, on the border with Syria, killed a woman, her three children and a relative.  (NY Times)

Critical Analysis: Drug Trade in Afghanistan

A mortar attack Akcakale, Turkey, on the border with Syria, killed a woman, her three children and a relative. (NY Times)

There is a reason that poppies are the main cash crop of Afghanistan.  Money.  Money is a powerful motivator for struggling farmers in one of the poorest countries in the world. Farmers who are desperate for money to feed their families turn to poppy cultivation despite awareness of the risks associated. The people are poor and feel they have no choice when growing wheat pays $0.40/kilogram while the price of dried opium pays $254/kilogram, according to a 2012 Opium Risk Assessment Survey by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

During the 1990s, the world’s illicit opium production shifted from Southeast Asia to Afghanistan.  Today, Afghanistan is responsible for producing about 90 percent of the world’s supply of illicit opium.  Taliban insurgents annually receive about $125 million from the opium farmers and traders. When the government threatens crops, peasant farmers turn to the Taliban for protection and willingly pay “taxes” in order to safeguard their meager livelihoods. The Taliban takes this money to finance the insurgency.  The Taliban is not the only group that benefits; corrupt government officials at every level take advantage of the disorder and chaos via bribes and making deals for government protection.

American soldiers in Afghanistan ignore the vast fields of poppies in order to avoid pushing the farmers closer to the Taliban.  Instead, the American government pays the Afghan government $250 for every hectare that Afghan officials destroy.  Unfortunately, the Afghan government does not make equitable decisions about which fields are eradicated.  Allies are ignored while personal enemies and those that are not tied into the local power structure become the focus.  This leads to more drug production and stronger support for insurgents.

The State Department’s Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, William R. Brownfield, recently said during an interview, “… if you do not address the drug issue you will not succeed in the other security, stability, democracy, prosperity objectives you are aiming for.”  Policy makers in America believe that winning the war on opium is a precursor to winning the war against the Taliban.  It has been argued that it is time to turn this conventional wisdom upside down.  According to author Jonathan Marshall, “Fighting drugs is not a precondition for security.  On the contrary, security is a necessary condition for curbing drugs.”  Agronomists David Mansfield and Adam Pain have summarized years of local research and found that evidence supports the theory that the growth of the opium poppy economy is the effect, not the cause of state and development failure in Afghanistan.

The recent history lessons of Lebanon and Burma may have a few suggestions for Afghanistan’s current drug problem.  If the warring parties first reach a political agreement then the rebuilding of political institutions and domestic security can begin.  This will likely require power sharing with the Taliban rather than a total surrender by them and participation and support from regional powers such as Iran and Pakistan.  Solving the drug war will involve more inclusion, compromise, and coexistence than all the vested parties have previously demonstrated. The wide reaching effects of the drug trade in Afghanistan require a shared responsibility for solving the problem.

Sarah Emery is a 2L and the Business Editor of the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

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Afghan Border Police and U.S. Marines board a CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter near Combat Outpost Torbert. (The Atlantic)

Critical Analysis: NATO Drawdown is Eclipsed by Evolving Taliban Strategy


Afghan Border Police and U.S. Marines board a CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter near Combat Outpost Torbert.
(The Atlantic)

Two years ago the Taliban held large strips of Afghanistan predominately in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.  In response, NATO padded their forces with an additional 33,000 Marines and Army soldiers to combat the Taliban in these areas.  The last of these “surge” troops left Afghanistan September 21 after accomplishing their objective of reversing the Taliban momentum in the south and shrinking Taliban strongholds.  Now the question is what strategy NATO and the Afghan government will use to combat a more agile and clandestine Taliban.

The landscape left behind by the surge troops is best exemplified by the recent Taliban attack on Fort Bastion – the high profile airbase where the United Kingdom’s Prince Harry is stationed.  The attack was perpetrated by 19 Taliban soldiers dressed in U.S. Army uniforms.  Two U.S. Marines were killed and six U.S. Marine fighter jets were destroyed, rendering the squadron combat ineffective, a designation that particular squadron has not received since the Marine defense of Wake Island in 1941.

These types of “green on blue” attacks, in which Afghan soldiers work alone or in concert with the Taliban to attack NATO forces, are giving NATO officials pause following the drawdown of troops.  NATO had hoped that Afghan forces would be capable of standing in for surge troops by now.  Unfortunately, with green on blue attacks on the rise, NATO is instead creating distance between themselves and the Afghan forces.  On September 17th, U.S. Army Lieutenant General James Terry, the second highest ranking officer in Afghanistan, announced that NATO troops will no longer patrol alongside their Afghani counterparts as standard practice.   

Lieutenant General Terry also announced a new initiative in the way Afghan troops are vetted prior to enlistment as a way of combating these insider attacks.  However, this plan comes weeks after statements by Afghan officials regarding their lack of resources for screening new recruits.  These officials claim they lack basic items like computers for creating a database of new recruits.  This all adds up to a slowdown in training and deploying the troops meant to replace NATO surge forces.

At a time when NATO had been hoping to celebrate a milestone in the development of Afghani independence, they are instead scrambling to formulate strategy and policy.  Resources need to be allocated to military recruiters in order to weed out Taliban sympathizers.  The vetting process has to take place for all new recruits as well as the 350,000 soldiers already inducted in to the military.  Only then will Afghan soldiers be able to take their posts alongside coalition forces, replacing their surge predecessors.  And this all has to take place before the Taliban can regain their foothold, rendering the two-year surge useless.

Tom Dunlop is a 2L at Denver University Law and a Staff Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

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Sources: CNN, BBC, Dawn.com

News Post: NATO military accident leads to Pakistan’s likely withdrawal from Bonn Conference

Sources: CNN, BBC, Dawn.com

Sources: CNN, BBC, Dawn.com

Over the weekend continued disputes on the Kunar border led to the accidental deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in their military outpost and Pakistan’s boycott of the Bonn conference.  This was not the first of such accidents involving NATO or the United States near Kunar (Afghanistan), which borders Pakistan.  Past incidents include a disputed military action in 2008 where Pakistan claimed that 11 soldiers were killed in a bombing attempt aimed at Taliban insurgents.

This is an area rife with conflict.  Accidents commonly occur due to the lack of available intelligence and the difficulty of surveillance in the mountainous region.  It is occupied by both the Pakistan and Afghan military, but it is also a common spot for Al Qaeda, Haqqani and Hezbi groups to travel between borders.  As one Afghan analyst stated, it is “the perfect storm” for the disputes and military accidents to occur. This complicated structure leading to accidents has increasingly led to issues between NATO, the U.S., Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

These continued attacks have led to Pakistan’s boycott of the Bonn conference and could potentially lead to problems with the withdrawal of American troops from Pakistan beginning next year.  At this time, Pakistan is claiming that the NATO attacks were unprovoked and that NATO’s claims that this was a response to defend troops under fire are untrue.  As a result, Pakistan is protesting the upcoming Bonn Conference and Pakistan’s participation seems unlikely at this time.

However, while Pakistan is currently boycotting the Bonn conference and its leaders are reluctant to attend the Bonn conference, Afghan officials and NATO are urging Pakistan to reconsider.  The Bonn conference is meant to help facilitate and eliminate conflicts such as this. Afghanistan and other nations are hopeful that Pakistan will reconsider the boycott.  However, at this time it appears that Pakistan will not be involved in the Bonn Conference.

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Sources: CNN, U.S. State Department, The Chronicle of Higher Education

News Post: Afghan Rape Victim can be Pardoned if she Marries her Attacker

Sources: CNN, U.S. State Department, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Sources: CNN, U.S. State Department, The Chronicle of Higher Education

An Afghan woman, 21 year-old Gulnaz, was sentenced to twelve years in prison for adultery because she was raped by a man who was married to her cousin.  In Afghanistan, a rape victim can be charged with and convicted of adultery if the rapist is married at the time of the attack.

The rape took place two years ago, and Gulnaz conceived a child as a result of the attack.  The authorities are allowing Gulnaz to raise her young daughter in prison.  Gulnaz has agreed to marry her attacker in order to legitimize her daughter and be released from prison early.

In addition to adultery, Gulnaz is also serving time for “failing to report the rape in a timely manner,” which carries a separate penalty that requires additional jail time under the Afghan criminal code.

Gulnaz had few options after she discovered that she was impregnated by her attacker.  Michele Goodwin of The Chronicle explains, “Had Gulnaz remained silent, she might have brought dishonor on her family for an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.  That could have resulted in murder—an illegal, but nonetheless customary practice in dealing with women who “dishonor” their families.”

A spokesman for the Afghan Attorney General, Rahmatullah Naziri, told CNN that Gulnaz’s sentence was reduced to three years, leaving one year left for her to serve before she will be released and allowed to marry her attacker.

The barbaric nature of Gulnaz’s options after her rape and pregnancy have not been lost on the international community. Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai received a petition on Sunday calling for the immediate release of Gulnaz.  Nearly 5,000 people had signed the petition in just 48 hours, yet Karzai has not acknowledged the petition.

The U.S. State Department acknowledged Gulnaz’s awful predicament, and made a statement last Thursday:

“Gulnaz’s situation is one no woman should have to face. Our heartfelt condolences go out to Gulnaz and her young daughter.  The Law for the Elimination of Violence Against Women was a major advancement for the rights of women in Afghanistan; but without full training and implementation, situations such as this one will continue to occur. We expect Afghan prosecutors to properly apply the law while also upholding Gulnaz’s rights.”

The effectiveness of The Law for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in the face of such a blatant and violent attack on an Afghan woman remains to be seen.

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Sources: UNAMA Report, Human Rights Watch, NY Times, Wash Post

News Post: Torture and Cruel Treatment in Afghan Prisons

In response to a startling 84-page report by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA), discussions about Afghan prison conditions once again appear throughout international headlines. Unlike Abu Ghraib, however, these documented accounts of torture, inhumane prison conditions and a complete lack of due process were found across and throughout detention centers in Afghanistan. Given the ongoing nature of the conflict, such conditions may not come as a surprise and may even be expected by some. But, both international law and national Afghan law expressly prohibit such abuses. For numerous reasons the accounts of beatings, electric shock, stress positions, sexual abuse, and twisting and wrenching of genitals is of great international concern. First and foremost, the affected detainees are human beings and have been subjected to treatment that we, the international community, have prohibited as a matter of law. Second, the widespread and systematic nature of the torture and cruel and inhumane treatment may have serious implications for international military forces like the United States. Third, where the UNAMA report constitutes “credible evidence” of serious human rights abuses, the Leahy Amendment could be invoked to halt U.S. funding of Afghan security forces.

Sources: UNAMA Report, Human Rights Watch, NY Times, Wash Post

Sources: UNAMA Report, Human Rights Watch, NY Times, Wash Post

The UNAMA featured news report summarizes the findings of the larger report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The largest share of blame is placed on two Afghan security institutions: 1) the National Directorate of Security (NDS), which is the national security and intelligence arm of the government; and 2) the Afghan National Police (ANP), which handles criminal and conflict-related offenses. Although torture and abuse was more common among the NDS detainees, ANP prisoners were also subject to serious human rights violations. Prior to arriving at NDP and ANP holding facilities, many of the detainees were in custody of international military forces before being transferred. The UNAMA news report emphasizes that these transfers could implicate military officials in violations of the Convention against Torture. Other serious concerns mentioned in this abridged version of the report include Afghan prosecutors’ over-reliance on confessions, and the outright lack of defenses counsel—only 1 of 324 detainees interviewed had an attorney.

Alissa J. Rubin of the New York Times also speaks to the gravity of the UNAMA report by highlighting the words of a detainee, “even stones confess here.” An underlying question in Rubin’s article is whether American officials or the military were aware of their Afghan counterparts’ conduct. In specific, if such officials “benefited from information obtained from suspects who had been tortured,” they may be complicit in such conduct. Although the report was just released, NATO and state officials have already taken action. Many detainee transfers have been temporarily halted and plans are in place for a monitoring program and modern interrogation training.

Authors of the Washington Post article, Afghan Detainees Tortured in Prison, U.N. Says, also question the extent of U.S. knowledge about the situation inside Afghan prisons. This article reflects upon new and additional difficulties the U.S. military will now face in the much-awaited withdrawal from Afghanistan. For example, the U.S. continues to capture and detain suspected insurgents in a detention center near Bagram air base. This facility alone holds more than 2,500 prisoners, and is expected to expand its capacity to as many as 5,500. But, the recent decision to halt detainee transfers last month may place increased pressure on the Bagram facility. In order to address these issues, a U.S.-led coalition began a “six-phase plan to reform the detention system.”

In sum, the UNAMA report leaves no doubt about the prevalence of widespread and systematic torture and abuse of detainees in Afghan prisons. Prisoners are also subjected to arbitrary detention practices and lack due process guarantees. Although many of the detainees are “suspected of being Taliban fighters, suicide attack facilitators, producers of improvised explosive devises, and others implicated in crimes associated with the armed conflict,” international legal protections must be upheld. In specific, the International Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment prohibits the torture cited in the UNAMA report, even during a time of war or exceptional circumstances. Additionally, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees due process rights to protect against arbitrary detention, in addition to assuring fair, speedy and consistent judicial proceedings. The international community must hold Afghan institutions such as the NDS and ANP responsible for the widespread and systematic violations of international law. Lastly, to the extent that the U.S. and other international forces were complicit in such violations, they too must face criminal charges.

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Sources: CNN, Sydney Morning Herald, NY Times, The Guardian, MSNBC, The Australian, Tengri News

News Post: Australia’s Combat Rule for Gender Equality

Sources: CNN, Sydney Morning Herald, NY Times, The Guardian, MSNBC, The Australian, Tengri News

Sources: CNN, Sydney Morning Herald, NY Times, The Guardian, MSNBC, The Australian, Tengri News

Australia decided last Tuesday, September 27, that its women in the military can work in any combat job, including fighting in the commando units at the front-line.  Australia’s Defense Minister Stephen Smith confirmed that Australia would implement the changes in military regulations over a five-year period, with a focus on the physical and psychological capacities of each individual rather than one’s gender.  The changes will affect the army most directly, as opposed to other branches of Australia’s Defence Force (ADF) where woman already serve in combat roles. In comparison to the rest of the world, the Australian military already deploys a significant number of women in the ADF.  The military sent more than 2,000 female troops to fight in Iraq and it currently makes up the largest contingent of female troops deployed by any non-NATO member fighting in Afghanistan. Australia joins the ranks of the very few countries that currently afford women equal opportunities in the military.

The Pentagon did not issue an official reaction to this news, although U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made statements insinuating that the U.S. military may see similar changes in the near future.  Panetta stated that, “I am committed to removing all of the barriers that would prevent Americans from serving their country and from rising to the highest level of responsibility that their talents and capabilities warrant. These are men and women who put their lives on the line in the defense of this country, and that’s what should matter the most.” Other recent changes in the U.S. military include the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” as well as the April 2011 announcement that the U.S. will permit women in the Navy to hold jobs on nuclear submarines. Additionally, there is pressure from outside the government to further decrease gender barriers in the U.S. military, illuminated by the recommendation by a commission for diversity in the armed forces that the U.S. consider allowing women to serve on the front lines.

While the U.S. bars women from engaging in direct combat on the ground, American women are participating in combat situations due to the change in warfare tactics as elucidated by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are currently teams in the U.S. Marines consisting entirely of female troops in order that they may interact with local communities, and specifically local women, in ways that may be culturally unacceptable for male soldiers. As such, more than 140 female troops have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon.  Additionally, a 2008 poll found that 85% of U.S. female service members have been deployed to a combat zone or drew extra pay for serving in dangerous and hostile areas.

Australian Defense Minister, Stephen Smith stated that “what you do in the forces should be determined by your physical and intellectual capability, not simply on the basis of sex,“ and Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is in full support of the changes in regulation.  Once Australia implements this change, there will be no barriers or restrictions on women in the military.  The military is currently working to determine the requisite physical tests it will employ for each job in the ADF. Among the changes, qualified women will now be able to lead infantry units or work as snipers and commandos, as well as have the opportunity to command the entire military.

No one expects opposition from overseas allies, including U.S and Afghan troops, currently serving with Australian soldiers. Conversely, there are those groups and individuals that staunchly oppose equality for women in the military.  The Australia Defense Association (ADA) is one such lobbyist group that opposed this decision. The ADA’s Executive Director, Neil James, argues that there are physical differences between men and women that make women more vulnerable in combat situations. James gave the warning that “on the battlefield, academic gender equity theory doesn’t apply.” Additionally, retired Major-General Jim Molan cautioned that “society must be prepared to bear the consequences of women serving in front-line combat roles . . . and if society wants that, then society can have it – and bear the consequences.

Other countries that currently allow women to serve on the front lines include Canada, Germany, South Korea, France, Spain, Denmark, New Zealand, and Israel. The U.S. allows women to serve on the front-line, yet not in direct ground combat.  Australia’s decision means that men in combat roles from countries that do not allow women on the front lines will be fighting alongside women from countries such as Australia.  Additionally, due to the changing style of warfare, it appears that nations worldwide are deploying women in their militaries into front-line combat zones regardless of their nation’s policies.  While the United States has not yet taken the step to give women equal opportunity in the military, Australia’s announcement is something that certainly gives the U.S., as well as countries around the world, some policy considerations for the near future.

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University of Denver Sturm College of Law