The news this week is particularly bad and worth highlighting not only for what it says about threats to civilians today, but how it might imply different strategies for civilian protection. Taken together, these stories suggest that there is an enormous protection gap where hubris once offered military intervention and promises of state-building as fail-proof tools for increasing the security of civilians. This blog entry summarizes the news and examines one embodiment of the militarized hubris, in the form of Eliot Abrams.
First, violence against civilians is on the rise in Afghanistan. Today the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) issued its 2014 Mid-Year Report on Protection of Children in Armed Conflict, reporting that between 1 January and 30 June 2014, they documented significant increases:
“4,853 civilian casualties, (1,564 civilian deaths and 3,289 injured) recording a 17 per cent increase in civilian deaths, and a 28 per cent increase in civilians injured for a 24 per cent overall increase in civilian casualties compared to the first six months of 2013.” (1)
Increasingly, fighting between government and anti-government elements is contributing to civilians’ deaths, versus IEDs, the previous and now second-leading cause. Responsibility for the violence brakes down thus: 74% anti-government forces, 9% pro-government, 1% international forces, and 12% fighting between pro-and anti-government forces (responsibility not discernible). In short, civilians are at increased risk of death and wounding because the ground combat is increasing. One result is significant increases this year over 2013 in casualties amongst children (more than doubled) and women (61% increase).
(Source: UNAMA report, page 5)
Second, more evidence to the fact that civilians in Iraq are bereft of choices for protection. As well-publicized with grisly photos released on June 15, the militant group ISIS claimed to have executed 1,700 people; expert examinations of the images touted as evidence of this horrendous act counted at least 170 bodies.
Then today, the New York Times delivered five paragraphs tersely summarizing recent incidents of mass killing in government-controlled areas. 50 bodies blindfolded, bound and shot discovered in Babil Province, south of Baghdad. Apparently killed July 8, not yet identified, but likely to be Sunni. Further two incidents of mass killing while in the custody of the Iraqi police: June 23, in Hillah, 70 Sunni prisoners killed while being transported south by police. June 18, Diyala Province, 44 Sunni prisoners killed in Baquba.
But the lessons of war-mongering are hard-learned. They tend to divide sides into isolationism or hawkery—when focused other forms of engagement might be more beneficial.Yesterday, the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued a call to European governments to join the U.S. in stopping their citizens from traveling to Syria to join the fight, as the battleground there has become a “cradle of violent extremism.”
Does this statement or the threat of ISIS in Iraq suggest to the Obama administration that it might want to strenuously re-focus its policies in Syria? Perhaps, participating in the feeding frenzy of militarism to overthrow a government, even one as tarnished and violent as Syria’s, is not advisable. There are differences between the various rebel groups, but with echoes of blowback from the U.S. support for Mujahedin to fight against the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan years ago, militarized chaos favors radicals. With multiple nations and individual donors backing their favorites in the battle, there is enormous diplomatic work to be done to forge international consensus, including all the major players (yes, Iran, too).
There is not going to be a good ending; but bringing about some stability and compromise between the government and the moderate opposition is the only remaining realistic option if one is concerned with stability, civilian protection or the possibility of stemming terrorism. The strongest analysis that I’ve seen comes from the European Council for Foreign Relations, see their reports on the war economy that is sustaining the conflict and the still-relevant regional analysis of the conflict drivers.
But perhaps one reason that the U.S. might unwilling to undertake such a policy or is avoiding taking any strong position, is that a strong diplomatic push would require taking on the US hawks, whose voices remain inordinately loud considering their records. So, while ECFR might be offering solid anlaysis, the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations provides a platform for war-mongering ideologues like Eliott Abrams, whose credibility on the civilian protection front might be considered tarnished by some for his career-long embrace of strongmen loyal to the US, peppered with a little pressure here and there to clean up the bloody edges of their records (see, for instance, Guatemala in the 80s when US was the prime supporter of a genocidal regime). Review the below statement, in a recent piece touting a messiah complex, “How the U.S. Can Still Help Save Syria–and Iraq,” urging increasing arms to Syrian rebels, and criticizing the Obama administration’s failure to bomb Syria to pieces. Abrams suggests the U.S. should enforce international norms:
“Less tangibly but of equal importance, America’s willingness to enforce the norms of international conduct has been undermined, as has American moral leadership.”
Mightn’t U.S. embrace of torture, overthrow of governments in Iraq and Libya, massive illegal data collection, spying on key allies, and international extrajudicial execution program (i.e. drones) have played a bit of a role in undermining U.S. credibility on enforcing international norms…? Possibly?
Nope, the answer is, as ever, amp up the military and security apparatus: “if we are serious about toppling Assad, defeating Iran in a proxy war, and building a rebel group stronger than the jihadi groups, we must establish a large, serious, coordinated and multi-national programme to train and equip those rebels.” I am curious if he has extensive amnesia (see condition attributed to Bosnian Serb strong-man, Ratko Mladic), because my memory and the recent news suggest that the Iraq invasion, for instance, didn’t go so well.
Further, he argues: “The Obama administration should clarify that we seek only a nuclear deal with Iran, have no illusions about or intentions to negotiate a broad rapprochement with the Islamic Republic, and will help those nations that are resisting Iranian misconduct.”
But even he, earlier in his career, found a way to deal with Iran; he was, after all, among those convicted for lying to Congress about the Iran Contra Arms deal. One might further question, for instance, not only Iran’s pursuit of its interests in the region but also how the U.S. “ally” Saudi Arabia is pursing its interests. Amazing in a long article on Syria and the hateful Iranian regime, Abrams makes no mention of what our “close ally” might be pursuing in the region or allowing its citizens to support, and if U.S. interests might be for stability rather than choosing sides between these players whose power struggle is exacerbating all the regional conflicts.
So, it might be best for ideologues like Abrams, who are intent on living in a fantasy world crafted by Hollywood where the “good guys” (always American) rage into action and bring about a perfect ending, to stick to fictional outlets.
For those who wish to work for civilian protection and ending atrocities, there is another imperative: to strongly and unequivocally separate themselves from this breed of militarism.