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J. De Maio (ICRC). Afghanistan, a real war, despite everything!

(BRUSSELS2) Jacques de Maio is responsible at the International Committee of the Red Cross for the Afghanistan – Pakistan – India and Nepal region. He was in Brussels recently. And, naturally, the conversation that we had, for a good hour, revolved around the situation in Afghanistan, and in neighboring Pakistan. Uplifting…

A testimony to be compared to that of Vendrell, the former special representative of the EU in the region (Read: F. Vendrell: the Europeans must review the strategy in Afghanistan)

How do you qualify what is happening in Afghanistan.

'Let's be clear, it's a war. More precisely an “internal armed conflict with an international dimension”. It is difficult to understand this in certain capitals. But that's the reality. On the one hand, we have a government, supported by an international coalition, facing armed opposition movements. That we say that we are in an international operation aimed at security, at the reconstruction of the country, is a political qualification, valid for the press, the voters. For the ICRC, this should not mask the reality of war.

How do you prove it?

— We are the only organization to be deployed in regions where no international humanitarian actor is present and to have a dialogue with the armed opposition. And what we see is war. More than reconstruction, with projects whose stated objective is to win “hearts and minds”, and therefore to promote the establishment of government throughout the country.

Are you talking about armed opposition?

- Yes. We clearly see this opposition as a party to the conflict. It is clear that it does not meet the standards of the classic rebel movement, in uniform, which administers part of the territory. But it is sufficiently structured for us to have a dialogue with it, on the way in which it conducts the conflict, and on the humanitarian space. The opposition, however, is not limited to the Taliban. It is a complex nebula, with local and international movements.

You seem quite negative on the reconstruction missions carried out by the coalition. Are they useful, however, for the population?

— It is not a question of being positive or negative, but simply of distinguishing things: the operations carried out within the framework of the Cimic or provincial reconstruction teams (PRT) arise from a politico-military logic. While there is no doubt that some – not all – represent a relevant social, economic, medical and humanitarian impact depending on the case, they cannot claim to have a “humanitarian” mission.

Indeed, for the ICRC, humanitarian action is an independent assessment of needs, and an impartial response to the needs observed. The objectives and methods of implementing the PRTs make them unacceptable to the opposition, who interpret them as the disguised imposition of a model of society that they reject.

It is essential to preserve a clear distinction between humanitarian and politico-military, since the confusion of genres results in an increasingly deadly rejection of real humanitarian action on the ground, perceived as the de-lance, or the tool, of a global strategy of their enemies.

How does the ICRC continue to be present in these areas where other organizations are absent?

— We have built a historic relationship with groups and communities over the twenty years that we have been present in the region. Many people who work with the Taliban, or under its umbrella, had already taken up arms, twenty years ago, against the government then supported by the USSR. And they were welcome in Western capitals. I was there as a young delegate. And I find people who say the same thing.

What do they say ?

— Many Afghans refuse this model of society that is brought to them or imposed on them. For them, there is not much difference between their struggle 20 years ago, against a central government supported by external powers, which imposes a model of society, and today. Their speech is the same: “We refuse to be submissive”. This is obviously not representative of the entire Afghan people, since many support the Kabul government and accept foreign troops. But this feeling is very strong in the opposition and among a large part of the population in the East and South of the country.

Is the movement winning?

— The ICRC is not competent – ​​in any sense of the word – to pronounce on 'who wins the war'. On the other hand, we perceive a hardening of the conflict. On both sides, we can also say that we are gaining 'ground' in certain regions or strategic areas.

Violations of international humanitarian law appear to be common in Afghanistan. Is this right respected by the rebels?

— The ICRC detects and documents violations of the law and intervenes with the responsible authorities, whoever they are and wherever they are located, in a strictly confidential manner, in order to prevent human damage. As for the armed opposition, we must clearly see that we are dealing with a movement which has a doctrinal framework which draws its sources from Islam and local traditions. International law is not its immediate reference, but its content – ​​the law of war – is valid and speaks to them: the act of killing a non-combatant (civilian, wounded, prisoner) is generally prohibited by Islam and by the codes of honor. But how can we define and distinguish a non-combatant from an active participant in hostilities? At what point, under what circumstances, is the death of a non-combatant acceptable? What is torture? These are fundamental questions for everyone.

The bombing of civilians, however, constitutes a violation of IHL?

- Yes. Bombing of civilians is prohibited by the Geneva Convention. But a civilian death from bombs does not automatically result from a violation of international humanitarian law. Likewise, military response intervention to “extract” a patrol stuck in an ambush and annihilate the opposition is obviously not in itself a violation of international law. It is an analysis, case by case, and operation commanders must find the right balance between military imperative and humanitarian obligation. In short, achieve their combat objective while ensuring the protection of civilians and respect for the principles of precaution, distinction and proportionality. The first obligation of each of the belligerents is to distinguish themselves from civilians, not to expose them to attacks. This can target the armed opposition when it blends into the population, such as coalition forces when they establish a forward post near a populated area.

And the prisoners of war, or the detainees at Bagram?

— We cannot talk about prisoners of war. Because this is not an international conflict. But there are several thousand prisoners, including several hundred in the hands of the coalition, or the Americans. There is everything: from common criminals to Taliban militants. There are also the “internees”, like at Bagram, detained without charge. This is not automatically a violation of international humanitarian law. It is planned in the context of an armed conflict, for imperative security reasons. But the treatment of these internees must obey certain rules, which are the subject of on-site evaluations by the ICRC and discussions with the authorities.

Your third priority is access to care, is it guaranteed?

- No. There is a big problem with access to care, and health in general. If there are positive indicators over a large part of the territory, thanks to national and international effort, the population in the south and east, in certain tense rural areas, remains very isolated and vulnerable. Child mortality rates, or during childbirth, for example, remain extraordinarily high. If you are also an injured member of the opposition – or suspected of being so – you are even less likely to have access to care.

Are you pessimistic then?

“I wouldn't allow myself. But this conflict is not about to end. Especially since this conflict is not isolated…

Neighboring Pakistan?

- Yes. What is happening in the North West Frontier Provinces (NWFP) and the tribal areas is serious, and the humanitarian damage significant. Here too, it is a non-international armed conflict, which is the result of both local conflict dynamics and links with Afghanistan (NB: the border is porous and fluid). The insecurity is entirely comparable to what is happening in Afghanistan. And the humanitarian response is far from sufficient. We are very little deployed in these areas, but other humanitarian actors are not at all. Pakistan is a subject that is both specific and inseparable from the Afghan problem. 2008 was a difficult year, from an economic and political point of view, but also with the deterioration of security. 2009 promises to be very worrying, with very few people who can go there, observe, see and act.


— We want to say: take an interest in this question (of Afghanistan, Pakistan), there are needs…

(Comments collected by Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Face-to-face interview. Published in Europolitics in a first version

NB: The four ICRC missions in Afghanistan
1° Dissemination of international humanitarian law
2° Protection of detainees
3° Medical assistance
4° Neutral intermediary for displaced persons, hostage taking.

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).