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Civilians increasingly at risk in Afghanistan

02-03-2009 Press Briefing

Following a six-day visit to Afghanistan, the ICRC Director of Operations, Pierre Krähenbühl expressed his concern about the likelihood of civilians bearing the brunt of any intensification in the conflict. The following are his introductory remarks at a press conference in Kabul.

  © British Red Cross/A. Sweeting/v-p-af-e-01383h    
  Kunduz province, Khan Abad district. Food being distributed to people affected by the conflict.    

  © ICRC/L. Pochon/v-p-af-e-01344h    
  Kunar province, Tanar camp. A hand pump built by ICRC.    

  © ICRC/M. Kokic/v-p-af-e-00795h    
  Kandahar province, Mirwais hospital intensive care. A six-year-old boy hospitalized after handling an explosive device he found near his home.    

  ©ICRC/N. Danziger/v-p-af-e-01417h    
  Kabul, ICRC delegation. Family members speak with their detained relatives via video-conference calls.    

  ©ICRC/A. Noorani/v-p-af-e-01445h    
  Balkh province, Sholgara district, Hajji Kalan Olia village. Promotion of IHL principles among villagers.    
  Pierre Krähenbühl, ICRC' Director of Operations    

I have spent the last six days in Afghanistan and wish to share with you a summary of the ICRC’s most pressing concerns related to the conflict.

I will focus on the situation of civilians affected by the ongoing and intensifying hostilities, on the issue of detainees, and on an overview of the ICRC activities in the countr y.

Before coming to these specific points however, allow me to make a few general remarks:

  • I worked in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, notably during the battle for Kabul in 1994, which saw the different Mujahideen factions fight for control of the capital. I remember thinking at the time about what 14 years of war could mean for the people of Afghanistan in those terms. Now we are talking about 30 years.

  • These are 30 years of almost ceaseless violence, insecurity and loss. Beyond the statistics, there are the individual destinies and tragedies. Every injured person we speak about after a suicide attack or an aerial bombardment has a name, a family, a history.

  • I cannot sufficiently stress the unbearable levels of individual and collective suffering that Afghan men, women and children have had to endure over three decades, and that they continue to endure at levels that defy belief.

 Evolution of the conflict and civilians at risk  

This brings me to the critical issue of civilians at risk in the current conflict. For the past three years the ICRC has repeatedly drawn attention to the increasingly severe impact of the conflict on the civilian population.

Never, however, has our concern been as acute as it is now. The conflict is intensifying and affecting wider parts of Afghanistan. Civilian casualties are significantly higher than a year ago.

The daily lives of people living in areas where the fighting is taking place are being disrupted, be it becau se of air strikes, night-raids, suicide attacks, the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), or because of intimidation and the population being pressurized or co-opted by the different parties to this conflict.

Lives are also at risk because of the often difficult access to medical care in areas where health posts have been closed or destroyed.

This was a central issue during my visit. I raised the ICRC’s acute concerns about the protection of civilians with Generals McKiernan and Schloesser of the US armed forces and ISAF respectively. I emphasized in particular the constant obligation to make a distinction between those participating in hostilities and those who do not or, in the case of injured or captured fighters, who no longer directly participate in hostilities.

I found both interlocutors receptive to the ICRC’s observations and concerns.

I look forward to discussing these issues further in the context of my regular talks with the US Central Command (CENTCOM) in a few weeks. This is a valuable and important component of our work.

I also raised the ICRC’s concern about the impact of the conflict on civilians in a meeting with representatives of the armed opposition, specifically the Taliban. I raised the severe impact of the suicide attacks in the midst of crowds, and of the use of IEDs or rocket attacks which do not discriminate between civilians and military objectives. I underlined the need for measures that avoid exposing civilians to the effects of armed attack.

I found that these points could be discussed with the Taliban.

The ICRC has regularly increased its operations in conflict affected areas in recent months. This includes:

  • Enhanced support to key surgical hospitals, such as Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar

  • The'war wounded assis tance'programme

  • First aid posts in conflict areas, including most recently in Wardak

  • Support to the community-based first aid volunteers of the Afghan Red Crescent Society

  • Facilitating polio vaccination campaigns in conflict-affected areas

  • Emergency distributions of food and essential households materials to families displaced by fighting, most recently out of Herat

  • Efforts to improve the ICRC's presence in areas such as Kunduz, Maimana, Farah and, hopefully, Helmand.

In many meetings over the past days – and well as in the media – I heard repeated references to the upcoming deployment of additional international, mainly US troops, and to a strong potential for a further intensification of the conflict.

Unless much more is done in different ways by the different parties to the conflict, be they the Afghan National Forces, the International Military contingents or the armed opposition, to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law, the ICRC fears that the Afghan population will bear the brunt of the announced escalation, and that consequences for many will be dire in the extreme.


I wish to turn now to the issue of detainees. Ever since this stage of the Afghan conflict began, the ICRC has been visiting prisoners, whether in Guantanamo or Bagram. There have been 127 visits to Bagram since 2002, each lasting one week.

Over the years, the ICRC has very regularly raised issues concerning the treatment and conditions of detention. There has been progress in that field and a feeling that the US Armed Forces took into consideration, and showed openness to, several important ICRC recommendations.

For example, after several years of discussion, the US autho rities agreed to allow detainees to have contact with their families, through video-telephone calls and face-to-face visits.

Over 2,000 video-telephone conference calls took place in 2008. There were over 100 face-to-face visits last year. These have been very positive, something that was confirmed to me by several detainees that I spoke with at the Bagram Theatre Internment Facility (BTIF) three days ago.

I also wish to highlight the ICRC's visits to the field detention sites at Forward Operating Bases.

The most pressing issue remains that of the uncertainty faced by detainees and their families about the fate of the detainees. In my meetings at the BTIF and with General Schloesser, I emphasized that there is still a need for clarification of the status and future detention for people held at the BTIF. There is a need for the implementation of procedural safeguards, which aim to ensure transparency and fairness of the process for reviewing internment.

In other words, people held are entitled to know why they are held, to challenge the motives for their internment, and to have a periodic review of those motives.

I was grateful for the receptiveness shown by General Schloesser during this meeting and his commitment to ongoing dialogue with ICRC on these issues.

 The ICRC’s neutral and independent humanitarian action:  

Allow me to conclude with a few final comments on the ICRC’s operational approach. In 2003 the ICRC lost colleagues in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The Institution faced many questions at the time as to whether its neutrality and independence could still represent an added-value in the critical conflict zones of the early 21st century.

The neutrality of the ICRC is a tool for access to all parties in a conflict zone to ensure respect for our efforts to provide protection and assistance to affected populations.

At the end of this visit I am convinced more that ever of the importance of this approach. It allows the ICRC to resolve delicate humanitarian issues, such as:

  • Having a role in the evacuation of wounded: the ICRC supports the network of Afghan Red Crescent first-aid volunteers and has been setting up of first aid posts manned by ICRC staff

  • Support to the ARCS in the retrieval of mortal remains

  • Acting as a neutral intermediary role in hostage crises

  • Maintaining a dialogue on allegations of abuse towards civilians

The ICRC remains firmly committed to conducting operations that address some of the Afghan population’s most urgent needs.

I thank you for your attention.