The conflict in Afghanistan is now overwhelmingly Afghan versus Afghan – this is one of the conclusions to be drawn from UNAMA’s 2013 Protection of Civilians report. 8,615 civilians were killed or wounded during 2013 and only three per cent of those by the international military forces. Counting deaths and injuries together, 2013 was more violent even than 2011, the previous peak year for civilian casualties. Most civilians – 74 per cent – were killed or injured by the Taleban and other insurgent groups. President Karzai’s hoped-for scenario of peace returning to Afghanistan’s villages as foreign forces withdrew is looking hollow, as do Taleban claims that victory is imminent and ISAF’s optimistic assertions of success. AAN Senior Analyst, Kate Clark, reports on the continuing war in Afghanistan.
As the final year of the 2001 foreign military intervention in Afghanistan begins (it may be extended in a limited way if the BSA is signed), the UNAMA report makes sober reading. From a civilian point of view, 2013 was the most violent year since UNAMA started counting; deaths alone were slightly fewer than in the previous peak year of 2011, but combined deaths and injuries were significantly higher (8615, compared with 7839). The decline in civilian casualties in 2012 now looks to have been a blip; since then, numbers have risen by 14 per (see reporting here). There were 25 per cent more people – 124,354 – who were forced out of their homes by the conflict in 2013 as in 2012; as of 31 December, said UNAMA, the number of internally displaced was 631,286, more than half of whom left in the last three years.
Afghan versus Afghan
The Afghan war has become largely domestic (although, as always, largely externally financed). According to the US Department of Defence’s latest and ever-optimistically named Report on Progress towards Security and Stability in Afghanistan, published in last October and covering April-September 2013, the ANSF are now responsible for the vast majority of operations, 95 per cent of conventional and 98 per cent of special operations (note that although ISAF/US military figures are sometimes massaged – see for example the controversy over the use of the phrase ‘Afghan-led’ – the trend is certainly correct). It said casualties among the ANSF had also increased by 79 per cent compared with the previous six months (these figures were disputed by the ministries of interior and defence who said casualties had increased among police and army by respectively 15 and 14 per cent). Counting Taleban casualties is far more difficult, as the annual report (1) of the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee released in November 2013 made clear before giving its estimate of 10,000 to 12,000 Taleban having been killed in the previous twelve months. As for foreign forces, according to the US Department of Defence report, they suffered 59 per cent fewer casualties between April and September 2013 as in the previous six month period, as well as a six per cent drop in ‘enemy initiated attacks’ (ie attacks against foreign forces) and a 22 per cent drop in ‘IED events’ (likely also only counting IEDs that threaten foreign troops).
Looking at the figures, it is clear that the ANSF are now the major target of the insurgents, especially police and Afghan Local Police (ALP) who tend to be more vulnerable to attack – more lightly armed than the army and often out in the open on guard duty.(2) However, the Taleban (used in this dispatch as shorthand for all insurgent groups – UNAMA prefers ‘anti-government elements’) are also killing more civilians – four per cent more than in 2012 and amounting to 74 per cent of all civilian deaths and injuries in 2013. Civilians are killed in targeted attacks – aimed at government workers and officials, ‘pro-government’ tribal and community leaders, elections workers, construction and health workers and clerics (attacks on mullahs and mosques tripled in 2013, compared with 2012) and through the indiscriminate or disproportionate use of lethal force (in IEDs, suicide attacks or badly aimed rockets). Civilians are also increasingly being killed in cross fire between insurgents and the ANSF and international military.
The biggest killer, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), used exclusively by insurgents, killed or injured just over a third of all casualties by all parties to the conflict (962 civilians were killed and 1,928 were injured) – a 14 per cent increase since 2012. Since 2009, said UNAMA, more than 12,000 civilians have been killed or injured by IEDs. There were some small signs of improvement in Taleban tactics: the number of civilians killed in suicide and complex attacks while still high – 15 per cent of all civilian casualties, ie 255 deaths and 982 injuries – were 18 per cent less than in 2012, even as the number of attacks remained similar. A sign perhaps of better targeting? (3) Taleban orders also led to a decrease (39 per cent) in the use of pressure-plate IEDs which are completely indiscriminate, being detonated as easily by a child stepping on them as an armoured vehicle driving across. This move follows a great deal of criticism, not least from UNAMA.
The movement is now more frequently using remote-controlled IEDs which have the potential to be far more accurate. However civilian casualty figures from remote-controlled IEDs, have, in turn, risen dramatically – by 84 per cent. Some of those incidents were targeted killings. UNAMA recorded remote-controlled IEDs used to kill civilian government workers, healthcare personnel, tribal elders, daily labourers and construction workers, teachers and election workers. More often, they are used against ANSF despite civilians being also present. There was, for example, the radio operated IED detonated on 27 June 2013 against a car in Mehterlam district of Laghman which the presumed target, an ALP commander, survived while one ALP member was killed – along with four civilians. Or in Pashtun Zarghun district of Herat, on 15 October 2013, a radio-controlled IED killed a 15-year old girl, injured eleven other civilians including four children and injured one policeman.
One major new trend in 2013 was the rising number of civilians killed and injured during ground engagements – up 43 per cent compared with 2012 and causing 27 per cent of all casualties. This is now the second most common cause of death after IEDs:
Throughout 2013, UNAMA observed a correlation between rising civilian deaths and injuries from ground engagements particularly attacks by Anti-Government Elements against Afghan security forces in civilian-populated areas and areas where security responsibilities transitioned. The closure of international military bases and reduction in ISAF air and ground operations, particularly ISAF ground operations partnered with Afghan security forces, gave Anti-Government Elements in some areas greater mobility and capability to attack Afghan security forces, the latter more active and more exposed to attacks than in previous years.
UNAMA also noted “security gaps” in some areas as the final transfer of security began. In such contested areas, civilians are at greater risk from cross fire and from IEDs and other insurgent tactics. UNAMA observed a pattern of civilians being killed and injured in repeated insurgent attacks against the ANSF, with a “steady sequence of counter-attacks and offensive operations, resulted in ongoing clashes, attacks and operations”. Casualties from ground engagements were up in every province. In Nangahar and in the southern region, they shot up in the second half of the year, following the final transition of the most insecure, contested districts in the province. 25 civilians were killed and 115 injured, a 150 per cent increase from the last six months of 2012. In the southern region, civilian casualties almost tripled, with 54 civilians killed and 307 injured. UNAMA found 44 per cent of casualties from ground engagements were caused by insurgents, 16 per cent from ANSF and 38 per cent were attributable to the ‘fog of war’. (1)
UNAMA is particularly concerned by the use of indirect fire such as mortars and rockets which caused 1,026 civilian casualties or 44 per cent from ground engagements, a rise of 12 per cent compared with 2012. 66 per cent of these casualties were caused by insurgents, largely when they attacked security forces stationed in the vicinity of Afghan civilians, although they also targeted civilian government employees, offices and buildings. 24 per cent of the casualties were caused by pro-government forces firing mortars and rockets, a 381 per cent rise since 2012 (further breaking this down, 80 per cent of casualties from pro-government forces were attributed to the ANSF, seven per cent to the international military and 13 per cent to both, presumably in joint operations).
Another deeply worrying trend in the report were abuses carried out with apparent impunity by some Afghan Local Police and pro-government armed groups. The ALP, now numbering 25,000, does improve security in many of the 126 districts it operates in, says UNAMA. However, it devoted nine pages (worth reading) to detailing abuses by ALP and pro-government armed groups; these included summary executions and other killings, beatings, threats, illegal searches, occupation of schools including killing and the destruction of property. There were problems particularly in Kunduz, Faryab, Nangahar and Uruzgan. UNAMA also detailed how political connections can give effective immunity.
In Pul-e Khumri district of Baghlan, for example, it described how two ALP commanders had allegedly committed many crimes, including murder, beatings, the sexual abuse of boys and robbery and one was detained and then released in June 2013 because of his connections. The two were only finally arrested in December 2013 after they killed two civilians and injured five others over a land dispute. Another case study involved an ALP commander in Nangahar who was accused of murder, forced marriage and drug trafficking. After UNAMA raised these allegations with the ministry of interior, the ministry removed him from his post and began criminal proceedings, only for him to be rapidly returned to work: “When asked by UNAMA… the ALP Directorate stated that the commander could not be removed due to his relationship with and protection by the then provincial governor of Nangahar.” This was a reference to Gul Agha Sherzai, one of the presidential contenders. The UNAMA report confirms a trend which AAN has followed in different provinces, including Kunduz, Uruzgan, Ghazni, Faryab and Baghlan, also looking at the Taleban in the ALP and the topic in general, see here and here.
Air operations, CIA
While the bulk of the foreign forces are leaving Afghanistan, if the BSA is signed, some may stay behind. As well as supporting the ANSF, there would also be a ‘counter-terrorism’ mission which would likely still focus on targeted killings and possibly detentions. One of the issues to scrutinize closely then are air strikes, which, in 2013, caused two per cent of all civilian casualties, a reduction of ten per cent compared to 2012 – although air operations may also have been fewer. Some of the operations look to have been extremely dubious from the point of view of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), also known as the Law of Armed Conflict. They included two strikes in Kunar in the spring of 2013 called in by the CIA after it and its proxy militia had run into trouble in detention operations. In the second strike at least, as AAN reported, the CIA called in an air strike on a house which they may well have known contained only civilians. There was also a targeted air strike from a drone on a car, again in Kunar, on 7 September 2013, which killed six insurgents and four civilians, leaving one an injured four year old girl as the sole survivor of her entire family. Under IHL, parties to a conflict have to take “all feasible precautions” not to kill civilians. ISAF/US military rules on targeted killings include the need for a positive identification of the target and for maintaining him/them in eye contact before attacking, yet those tracking the car had apparently not noticed women and children getting into it and had not confirmed the status (combatant or civilian?) of the men accompanying the target. AAN has also reported on how the military assumes combatant status for men merely by their proximity to someone who has been selected for targeted killing – again this looks like a breach of IHL which requires combatants to distinguish between combatants and civilians. UNAMA also noted how unforthcoming ISAF was when questioned about this case.
Putting pressure on the parties to the conflict
ISAF and the US military only started taking civilian casualties seriously when they realized they were politically and militarily damaging to the mission and, in the end, have developed good practice. (2) Rules on air strikes are very tight, especially for offensive strikes where there is no urgent need to defend troops in imminent danger on the ground (for detail, see earlier AAN reporting here). However, as UNAMA pointed out:
It is unclear if all military and security forces currently operating in Afghanistan are held accountable to the same ISAF standards and policies regarding the use of lethal force in aerial operations. In this regard, UNAMA notes that coordination and consistency in practice, policies and procedures between ISAF and its special operations forces, and international non-military government agencies, particularly regarding the use of UAVs [drones], is required to promote protection of Afghan civilians. This is of particular importance in the context of ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.
That reference to “international non-military government agencies” is, presumably, to the CIA which has since long taken part in hostilities in Afghanistan. It runs militias and operates drones from Afghanistan into Pakistan. It is worth reiterating that no-one knows what rules the CIA operates under and although its Afghan headquarters are in the heart of Kabul – in the old Ariana Hotel – journalists and Afghan civilians have no access to ask questions, as they do of the military. AAN has also been told that the CIA does not open its doors to the ‘official’ watchdogs, such as UNAMA, the ICRC and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, or engages in dialogue on issues such as whether it adheres to the Geneva Conventions when it conducts hostilities. Its only monitoring is domestic through the Senate and Congressional Intelligence Committees. This lack of transparency and communication makes it extremely difficult to generate public pressure on the CIA.
There has also not yet been enough domestic pressure to really force the ANSF to develop robust systems for mitigating civilian casualties because casualties from the foreign military are still what get the headlines and cause outrage in the presidential palace and Afghan parliament. UNAMA is keen to see a strengthening of the government’s Civilian Casualty Tracking Team in Kabul and regional and provincial bodies such as the Operations Coordination Centres, for receiving complaints, carrying out investigations and – presumably – introducing better practices (see also this in depth report by the Centre for Civilians in Conflict).
As for the Taleban, they are also not immune to public pressure. Orders to stop using pressure plate IEDs and possible directions to be more careful when launching suicide and complex attacks are evidence that public pressure can work to change behaviour and mitigate civilian casualties. That fear of bad publicity also may be the reason why we have not seen the sort of completely random attacks launched in Pakistan or Iraq: the bombing of markets, mosques etc. Cynically, however, one might say that criticism has mainly led to what UNAMA wryly described as increased Taleban “messaging on civilian casualties” during 2013. The existence of a dialogue and some engagement with UNAMA is good in itself, even if it is just the Taleban strongly condemning its report as one-sided and fabricated and supplying figures, now monthly, to UNAMA for those they consider to have been killed and injured by the ‘other side’.
One of the problems for the Taleban portraying itself as a movement which takes care of civilians is that its idea of who a civilian does not match IHL’s. Under IHL, a civilian is anyone who is not a member of the armed forces or a paramilitary group and is not participating in hostilities – this makes them protected persons. However, in “An open letter to the UNAMA about the biased behavior of this organization,” dated 25 February 2013, which UNAMA quotes in its report, the Taleban make an exception to this: “According to us civilians are those who are in no way involved in fighting. The white-bearded people, women, children and common people who live an ordinary life, it is illegitimate to bring them under attack or kill them.” Excluded from their idea of protected persons are those they perceive to have ‘sided’ with the state. These could be mullahs, tribal leaders, politicians, civilian government workers, election workers and so on; all are, in the Taleban view, legal targets.
Another major problem with Taleban tactics is that even when they have – in IHL terms – a legitimate military target, they do not take enough precautions to ensure civilians are not also hurt or they attack despite what will inevitably be disproportionate civilian casualties.
Finally, for rules to protect civilians to work, there need to be feedback and discipline. AAN has followed many stated attempts by the Taleban to minimise civilian casualties, including with its use of a Taleban’s Code of Conduct and orders by ‘Mullah Omar’ (see AAN assessments of discipline structures and how Taleban rules match up to IHL here and here). In mid-December 2013, the Taleban announced a mobile phone number, an email address and a radio channel for people to report civilian casualties caused by Taleban or the ‘other side’. Information, they said, would be passed on to a new committee for “the avoidance of civilian casualties” which had been set up under the supervision of the military commission in June 2013. The committee was tasked with collecting information, investigating and referring incidents of ‘negligence’ by Taleban members to a sharia court. UNAMA noted, “No public information has been provided to date on any action taken by this committee.”
In many ways, the UNAMA report is a good indication of how the Afghan conflict will likely progress as the foreign military presence continues to fall away. We can predict continuing conflict between Taleban and the ANSF. On the government side, we see abuses by some parts of the ANSF, particularly some ALP. However, overall and by historical standards, the ANSF, especially the ANA, is a largely well-disciplined force which is neither targeting civilians or fighting in ways which kill them through recklessness. Even if the BSA is signed, the ANSF will have far less foreign support in 2015 and beyond, especially close air support, air transport, medical evacuation and support for clearing IEDs. They are likely to come under more pressure from the Taleban and will have to work hard to fight while ensuring civilians are protected. This is where concerns over the ANSF use of mortars and rockets and the weakness of civilian casualty tracking could become much more significant.
On the Taleban side, the withdrawal of the better armed and trained foreign forces has made the use of conventional methods of warfare against the ASNF, such as ground engagements, more attractive again. Yet, the movement also retains its dependence on ‘asymmetric methods’ such as IEDs, suicide attacks and targeted killings. The cost for civilians is obvious, particularly given Taleban notions of civilian status.
Also, in any continuing post-2014 US military counter-terrorism mission, one will have to watch the actions of the CIA and Special Operations Forces. In the absence of the more public and media-friendly and accountable ISAF mission, that will be much more difficult.
The UNAMA report also lays bare all claims of imminent victory or of peace breaking out, such as President Karzai’s happy predictions when he and President Obama announced that the last phase of transition would be happening ahead of schedule (in spring 2013; it just squeezed in ahead of the summer solstice) and that “the withdrawal in spring of foreign forces from Afghan villages will definitely help in ensuring peace and full security in Afghanistan”. This year, Karzai will leave office, standing down as president of a country which is, to some extent, still – or again – at war with itself.
The foreign forces are also leaving with successive and relentlessly optimistic claims echoing behind them. General David Petreaus, for example, declared when he handed over his command of ISAF and US military forces in Afghanistan in July 2011 to General John Allen, that the ‘surge’ of 33,000 extra US soldiers deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 to 2012 was starting to work:
… [the insurgents] have less capacity; they have been degraded somewhat… This is the first real indicator — for the first time since 2006 — compared to the previous year, insurgent attack numbers are lower.
As AAN revealed, Petraeus had cherry picked his figures. Even so, the foreign military battled for some time to maintain a narrative that the tide against the Taleban had turned. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, for example, also said in July 2011:, “I have never seen our progress more real and our prospects more encouraging.”
The foreign military has managed to stay optimistic only by lowering the benchmarks of success. No foreign military or political leader now speaks about defeating the Taleban. During General Allen’s leaving speech in February 2013, he spoke about “winning the war” in ways George Orwell would have relished, calling ISAF’s handover of security to Afghan forces (the ‘transition’) an “historic… an epic achievement”:
… our victory here may never be marked by a parade or a point in time on a calendar when victory is declared. This insurgency will be defeated over time by the legitimate and well-trained Afghan forces that are emerging today, who are taking the field in full force this spring. Afghan forces defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens. This is victory. This is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.
Now, success is cast merely as the ANSF coping with the Taleban, as for example in the US Department of Defence report from November 2013:
Afghan security forces are now successfully providing security for their own people, fighting their own battles, and holding the gains made by ISAF in the last decade. This is a fundamental shift in the course of the conflict. The ANSF have seen their capabilities expand rapidly since 2009, while insurgent territorial influence and kinetic capabilities have remained static. During the 2012 fighting season, ISAF led the fight against the insurgency, helping to put the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) firmly in control of all of Afghanistan’s major cities and 34 provincial capitals. During the 2013 fighting season, the ANSF led the fight, and have consolidated GIRoA’s control of Afghanistan’s urban areas. The fact that the ANSF – a force in its infancy five years ago – can now maintain the gains made by a coalition of 50 nations with the best trained and equipped forces in the world is a significant accomplishment.
The fact that a rag-tag army of badly armed insurgents has managed to survive a fight with the international military coalition, as it has the Afghan army, is presumably also a ‘significant accomplishment’, but one which unfortunately only means continuing conflict in Afghanistan. Moreover, as the US report later admits, “The insurgency has also consolidated gains in some of the rural areas in which it has traditionally held power.”
Yet Taleban talk of victory is equally fatuous: “God-willing, the moments of victory is coming ever near with the passage of each day”, ‘Mullah Omar’ told his fighters in an Eid al-Adha statement in October 2103. He explained that victory meant “the defeat of the invaders and establishment of an independent Islamic system”. Yet if this year is anything to go by, the Taleban will just switch their sights from targeting ‘invaders’ to the government, its forces and those perceived to be its supporters. As for talk of any side ‘winning’, as the mid-year 2011 UNAMA report said so succinctly: “Civilians will only ‘win’ in Afghanistan when civilian casualties across the board decrease.” That prospect does not yet look to be in sight.
(1) The remaining two per cent were due to cross-border shelling.
(2) Some police, for example traffic police or those guarding election convoys, would be classed as civilians in International Humanitarian Law (IHL) (the Law of Armed Conflict); others participate in hostilities and are not protected by IHL.
(3) This was the conclusion of a similar trend identified by UNAMA on page nine in its 2010 annual report on the Protection of Civilians.
(4) One area where ISAF worked hard to bring down civilian casualties was in Escalation of Force, ie grading its response to a situation like a car approaching a check post too quickly so that soldiers could protect themselves from a bomber, but also not unnecessarily kill civilians who did not understand ISAF ‘rules’. UNAMA notes that Escalation of Force casualties were up in 2013 by 47 per cent by ANSF and the international military; this reverses a decline dating back to 2011.
(5) Allen’s rhetoric went on:
The soldiers of the Coalition have conducted a battle handover from a main force unit from 50 nations to Afghanistan’s forces that were still being built during the drawdown of 33,000 troops, all the while pivoting to a strategy of security force assistance and closing nearly 600 bases — all of this in contact with the enemy, an enemy that would stop at nothing to break the enduring bonds that our Coalition and our Afghan counterparts share. I don’t think any of our nations have ever done this in history… This remarkable success will be looked upon as a defining moment in the Campaign and likely in Afghanistan’s modern history.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020