War & Peace

Fewer Deaths, But…: UNAMA’s 2012 Civilian Casualties Report (amended)


‘Civilian deaths in Afghan Conflict fall for the first time in six years’ was the good news top line of the new 2012 report by UNAMA on the protection of civilians. Fewer civilians were killed in suicide attacks, ground engagements and aerial attacks, said UNAMA. The Taleban remain responsible for bulk of civilian deaths, while claiming even more frequently that they protect civilians. The biggest overall killer are IEDs. But targeted killings of civilians by insurgents also doubled in 2012, compared with 2011, with seven times more civilian government officials killed. International and Afghan government forces, however, have taken various measures to mitigate casualties, says UNAMA, although they can still do more. In the wake of ISAF targeted killings using air strikes which ended up killing civilians, UNAMA questions how exactly the international military determines when a person is ‘hostile’. AAN Senior Analyst Kate Clark says that the pattern of civilian casualties shown in this insightful report reflects how the conflict is changing, not least in the proliferation of armed actors; ‘armed groups’ (ie not insurgents or state forces) for example, are mentioned for the first time in a UNAMA report.

The headline news from the UN report is, of course, the 12 per cent drop in the number of civilians killed in 2012, compared with 2011. The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO),(1) also recently found a drop in the number of civilians killed and put this down to a decreased intensity in fighting, although it said this had not brought about a proportional drop in civilian deaths. UNAMA’s more detailed work – it has tracked individually every case included in its figures – has now fleshed out the numbers and trends considerably.

UNAMA said the fall in civilian deaths happened during the first five months of 2012 and was due to, ‘unseasonably harsh winter which impeded insurgent movements and [the] effects of earlier military operations against Anti-Government Elements.’ From July onwards, however, it found a 13 per cent increase in civilian casualties compared with the same period in 2011 and noted a over-proportional 17 per cent increase in civilian casualties from IEDs placed in public and civilian locations and intensified conflict in some parts of the country. So, the falling pattern of casualties is not yet assured.

Afghan civilians are mainly dying at insurgent hands – four out of every five deaths. Messaging by the Taleban on the desirability of protecting civilians has improved, says UNAMA, but so far this has not translated into changes on the ground. The leadership, for example, continues to mendaciously deny it uses pressure-plate IEDs which kill indiscriminately. IEDs, including not yet exploded ‘legacy’ IEDs, do not just kill, says UNAMA; they restrict lives, reduce access to health and education and create ‘an environment of insecurity with civilians living under the constant threat of death, maiming, serious injury and destruction of property.’

Meanwhile, a further shift in insurgent tactics has seen a doubling in targeted killings of civilians (up by 108 per cent): government officials, religious leaders, tribal elders, off-duty police and those seen as promoting the peace process. Three times more women died in targeted killings (in figures: 51; 2011: 16) and seven times more civilian government employees, compared with 2011. There was a nine per cent decrease in deaths from suicide and complex attacks, but this may, unfortunately, be deceptive as the figure excludes targeted killings using suicide attackers. UNAMA also details threats and intimidation of civilians by insurgents, including house burnings and assaults; they found a 17 per cent increase in such incidents compared with 2011.

Civilian casualties by what UNAMA calls ‘pro-government forces’, ie Afghan government and international, are down by almost half, to eight per cent of the total, with the main cause of death – aerial strikes – showing a significant decrease of 42 per cent. There has been a continual tightening of restrictions by ISAF on the use of air power which has brought the numbers of civilian casualties down sharply (for analysis, read this earlier AAN blog). Even so, 27 per cent of all civilians killed by pro-government forces are still killed in air attacks, almost half of them (51) children.

Defensive air strikes can only now be carried out when troops on the ground are in danger and there is no alternative. However, says UNAMA, most civilian casualties from air strikes result from offensive action. In these cases, UNAMA believes civilian casualties ‘should be preventable to the greatest extent possible’.

Targeted killings which end in civilian deaths is something which AAN has reported extensively on and, like the UN, we would welcome greater clarity from ISAF on how it determines whether a target is military. Take for example, the five air strikes on 16 September 2012 in Alingar, Laghman province, which were approved by both ISAF and ANSF commands and supposed to kill insurgents, but actually killed four women and four children who had been walking to a mountain to gather wood and pine nuts. As UNAMA explains:

… it is unclear what pre-engagement measures and precautions were taken prior to launching the [Alingar] strike. Based on discussions with ISAF, such measures normally include establishing a target as a lawful military objective, maintaining positive identification of a specific targeted subject, assessing potential collateral damage and understanding the pattern of life in the area. In this case however, there was an apparent failure to undertake appropriate measures to distinguish between civilians and insurgents which resulted in significant civilian casualties.

UNAMA says Alingar showed the urgent need for further review of the rules:

… [the] pre-engagement considerations particularly in circumstances where there is no immediate threat and the opportunity is available to exercise tactical patience, consider tactical alternatives and take additional time to confirm positive identification and situational awareness. This is of particular relevance when positive identification is based on perceived ‘hostile intent’ rather than the identification of a specific individual, and confirming the individual’s status as a combatant or a civilian directly participating in the hostilities.

Both ISAF and the US government undertook investigations and reviewed policy in the wake of the Alingar killings, but, says UNAMA, results were not made public. As AAN has written previously, publishing investigations is helpful not just for grieving family and communities, but in helping prevent future mistakes. In this case, UNAMA has asked ISAF not just to publish results but ‘publicly state it has taken all appropriate policy and punitive measures if investigations established negligence or some other violation.’

As the post-2014 period looms, targeted killings using air strikes and drones is very much in the offing which makes getting the rules clear now particularly important for preventing civilian deaths. (The UNAMA also reports a 72 per cent increase in drone strikes in Afghanistan, with five cases and 16 civilians killed in them, up from just one such strike in 2011). Amendment 20 February: The latest killing of civilians mistaken for insurgents in a strike called in by ANSF enraged President Karzai, prompting him to say on 16 February he would be banning Afghan forces from calling in air support from international troops (read AAN analysis here). The announced decree has not been published yet, though.

In UNAMA’s report, we also have a new category of hostile actor, what it calls ‘armed groups’ – militias which are neither insurgents or within the formal, legal structure of the state (and often former ‘illegal armed groups’, to be dealt with by the DIAG programme, but never disbanded). UNAMA has documented such groups in 40 districts in the north and north-east alone and finds they are particularly rife in Faryab and Kunduz; in some places, it says, they are stronger than the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) (read related AAN blogs about both provinces here and here). Government figures may exercise varying degrees of control over these groups; when they carry out security or counter-insurgency operations under the informal command of a government figure, such as a chief of police, NDS officer or district governor, ‘they effectively form part of the armed forces of a party to the conflict and therefore have both obligations under, and should be held accountable for violations of, international humanitarian law [the laws of armed conflict].’ It goes on:

In some areas, armed groups’ links to the Government were more tenuous involving family connections and personal loyalties, rather than incorporation into command structures. In other areas, the power relationship was more extreme, with the armed group exercising control over local Government decisions. Other armed groups were not linked to Government figures.

UNAMA documented armed groups’ abuses of the civilian population, including, ‘targeted killings, abductions, threats, intimidation and harassment, extortion of taxes, abuses of the right to education including occupation of schools and threats against educators and rape. It also observed, ‘a lack of accountability for human rights abuses in areas where these groups exerted substantial influence and where local Government officials supported these groups.’

Armed groups may emerge or re-emerge, UNAMA says, when, ‘transition, emerging security gaps and deficient ANSF presence (tashkil), appeared to force the hand of local security actors to enlist the help of local armed groups which had large numbers of armed personnel and strong influence over communities.’

Together with the expansion of ALP, which its very mixed record on human rights, and the incorporation of various problematic ALP-like groups, without vetting, wholesale into the ALP, (on both of which there is a lot of welcome detail in this report) what we are seeing is a proliferation of militias. For anyone with any knowledge of earlier phases in the Afghan conflict, of war crimes by militias and the harm to civilians when forces fragment, UNAMA’s reporting is alarming. (See the AJP report for historical precedents and war crimes and this Human Rights Watch report for detail on ALP.) For a province like Faryab, which has seen a resurgence not just of armed groups linked to ‘pro-government’ figures, but also the Taleban, where the state is weak, Kabul far away and international forces have now let, the future for civilians is extremely worrying.

Also notice that the Afghanistan’s National Security Council very recently expressed concern about such groups while, according to the commander of the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Adm. William McRaven whose SOF teams ‘have trained 19,000 local police officers’ so far, he had ‘been asked by the Afghan interior minister to increase that to 45,000’ in December last year.

One last thing to highlight in the report is the case study of Janikhel in Paktia, one of several districts under the strong influence or control of ‘anti-government elements’ which UNAMA focussed research on. Civilian casualties were relatively low, it said, with IED attacks lower than in more contested districts in the province. However, from mid-2011, attacks by the international military out of Salerno Base in neighbouring Khost on insurgents in the surrounding mountains which killed civilians and fighters and the (illegal) occupation by special forces of the high school for three weeks increased anger against the government by locals. They also reported that Paktia’s provincial governor Juma Khan Hamdard was ‘corrupt and ineffective’ and had abandoned them (see AAN reporting on the same complaints against him from 2010 here). Insurgent presence was felt in restricted freedom of speech, freedom of education – with Taleban pressuring teachers and students – harassment and intimidation. UNAMA also found power-sharing agreements between the insurgents and the very few government forces.

There is a lot of detail in this 85-page report and much insight into the conflict, as well as pointers to how it may unfold. The Janikhel case study shows what weak government and strong insurgent control, with or without local peace deals, may look like. Other areas where insurgents continue to vie for control with state forces may see increased targeted killings and IEDs. Elsewhere, in places where the state is weak, civilians may find it is proliferating militias which they also need to fear.(2) All in all, then, although the fall in civilian deaths in 2012 compared to 2011 is very welcome news, there is much cause still for trepidation.

Read also our frequent guest blogger Gary Owen’s take on the report and media coverage of it here.

(1) ANSO and UNAMA figures tend to mirror each others, even though they track the conflict using different measures (for detail on the statistics of war, see here and here.

(2) The Logic of Violence in Civil War by Stathis N. Kalyvas (Cambridge University Press: 2006) is useful here for looking at patterns of violence where territory is contested or under the control of the state or of non-state actors.

Photo: Janikhel in more peaceful times, 2004: villagers expecting a UN visit to check poling stations for the presidential elections — photo by Thomas Ruttig

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Thematic Category: War & Peace