For the first time since UNAMA started documenting civilian casualties in 2009, more civilians have been killed in ground fighting than from any other tactic. In its six monthly report on the protection of civilians, it reported “a direct correlation” in some areas between the closures of international bases and a rise in civilian casualties, especially from ground engagements. Kate Clark reports on how this “dangerous turn” to the conflict, as UNAMA puts it, has cost civilians dear, pushing up deaths and injuries by a quarter.Civilian victims of a Taleban attack in Daulatabad, Faryab, June 2014. Will an investigation lead to justice for victims like these? Credit: Pajhwok Afghan news
The pattern of how civilians are killed in the Afghan war has shifted again, with the shifting character of the conflict itself. This is reflected in the findings of UNAMA’s six monthly report on the protection of civilians that was published today (9 July 2014) (press release here).
The withdrawal of international forces is causing the conflict to evolve. Air strikes (always by international forces) killed and injured only 39 civilians out of a total of 4,853 in the first six months of 2014. IEDs, since 2009 the lead cause of deaths and injuries, (1) although still killing and injuring seven per cent more civilians than in 2013 – an “unprecedented” number, said UNAMA – are no longer the biggest killer of Afghan civilians. That place has been taken by ground engagements, now responsible for 39 per cent of all civilian deaths and injuries. These engagements are almost all between the Taleban and Afghan security forces (1) and are having, said UNAMA, a devastating effect on civilians:
More than half of all civilian casualties from ground engagements resulted from indirect fire, mostly mortars and grenades impacting homes, agricultural fields and playgrounds where women and children were commonly found with the remaining casualties from civilians caught in crossfire.
Overall, ‘anti-government elements’, as UNAMA calls them (a term often shortened in this piece to Taleban as they are the mainstay of the insurgency) are responsible for 74 per cent of all civilian deaths and injuries. UNAMA attributes eight per cent to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and one per cent to international forces (2) As to casualties from ground engagements, UNAMA says 52 per cent were caused by the Taleban and 14 per cent by government forces. It could not attribute 32 per cent to either side in the fighting. According to UNAMA, most of the ground engagements initiated by the Taleban appeared to target security forces, but they also deliberately attacked civilians and civilian property. Indiscriminate shelling of civilian populated areas has, of course, been a pattern of earlier periods of the Afghan war in the 1980s and 1990s.
UNAMA is particularly concerned by the “sharp rise” (160 per cent) in civilian casualties caused by “high explosive weapons systems with a wide-area impact.” In the first six months of 2014, it said mortars and rockets accounted for 50 per cent of civilian casualties from ground engagements, causing 955 civilian casualties (221 civilian deaths and 734 civilian injured). It also said the intensification of ground fighting in civilian-populated areas has had “an unprecedented toll on women and children.” The number of children killed and injured has more than doubled, while women have seen a 61 per cent increase, compared with the first six months of 2013.
UNAMA said both the Taleban and government forces are “increasingly relying on stand-off tactics such as mortars and rockets to avoid their own losses and repel the opposite side, which also resulted in civilian casualties.” UNAMA noted that the ANSF were killing and injuring “significantly” more civilians in indirect fire incidents and mortar rounds than in 2013 (up by 139 per cent with 215 civilian casualties).
The impact of military transition
UNAMA said it had observed a direct correlation in some areas between a rise in civilian casualties in ground engagements and ISAF’s withdrawal:
In previous years, the robust and well-armed presence of hundreds of ISAF Forward Operating Bases and Command Outposts often prevented the movement of Anti-Government Elements into the more populated areas of districts. In response to an increased presence of Anti-Government Elements in some districts, Afghan forces initiated their own operations to protect territory, notably increasing check points and patrols, as well as responding to attacks launched against them. This resulted in an increase in fighting in civilian-populated areas, which often led to civilian casualties.
UNAMA said the closure of international bases and “the heavy demands” placed on the ANSF, exacerbated by political uncertainty over the elections and whether or not a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) will be signed with the United States, “has opened up space for Anti-Government Elements in some areas to challenge Afghan forces for control of key routes and terrain.” In some areas, it said the Taleban has felt confident enough to operate in “larger attack groups” which resulted in higher civilian casualties. In others, said UNAMA, the ANSF were able to hold territory after the closure of ISAF bases which, in itself, resulted in fewer civilian casualties.
UNAMA gives many examples and stories of those killed and injured in ground fighting, as well as more substantial detail about the recent fighting in Helmand, mainly in Sangin district, and its impact on the local population:
… reportedly 800 insurgents targeted a number of ANP positions in synchronized attacks… Intense fighting occurred for several days, with some territory changing hands multiple times…Victims evacuated and assisted by medical personnel described how mortar rounds landed in civilian residences [and] crossfire and IEDs, and booby-traps freshly planted by withdrawing fighters claimed numerous victims. Civilians informed UNAMA that Anti-Government Elements used civilian houses as shelters and as bases to launch attacks at Pro-Government Forces.
It said there had been a failure of all parties involved in the fighting on-going in Helmand to distinguish between civilians and combatants, as mandated by the laws of armed conflict. At least 50 civilians were killed and approximately 265 injured during the last 12 days of June (when UNAMA’s reporting period ended). It quoted medical clinics reporting that 40 per cent were women and children.
For a graphic account of how conflict can intensify following ISAF withdrawal and just how widespread the harm can be to civilians, see also AAN’s Obaid Ali’s look at Faryab, the province which, says UNAMA, saw the second highest number of civilian casualties from ground engagement, after Helmand. Obaid Ali describes not just the direct impact of the fighting, but also how the expanded influence of the Taleban and pro-government armed groups affects the civilian population, with targeted killings, attacks on NGOs, higher basic food prices and closed schools.
Not surprisingly, UNAMA’s first recommendation to both Taleban and government in its report is: “Cease firing mortars, rockets and grenades into civilian-populated areas.” To the Taleban, it also says: “Cease all attacks from and in civilian locations, including public roads, markets, restaurants, civilian homes, consulates, civilian Government offices, including courthouses.”
On IEDs, the news is also bad. They were the cause of 30 per cent of all civilian casualties with numbers increasing by seven per cent since 2013. Moreover, the Taleban’s use of pressure-plate IEDs, which are inherently indiscriminate and therefore illegal, (3) increased by 33 per cent. The decline in their use in 2013 had been the one bright spot of last year’s reporting especially because it appeared that the Taleban might have been responding to pressure from the public and bodies like UNAMA. In the first six months of this year, IEDs, overall, killed 463 civilians and injured 1000. Of those, 161 civilians were killed and 147 injured by pressure-plate IEDs (amounting to 21 per cent of all IED casualties and six per cent of all casualties from all tactics).
Another aspect of the conflict which is worrying, even though relatively speaking, it does not cause many civilian casualties is the impact of pro-government armed groups which plague some districts of some provinces. Such groups caused less than one per cent of all civilian casualties, but, said UNAMA, that is trending upwards. Moreover, there is a marked increase in associated human rights abuses and “a total absence of accountability for their illegal actions.” UNAMA has documented “intimidation and harassment, including extortion at illegal check-posts established by armed groups” and found the state frequently unable to intervene; it gives the case of a commander who attacked two villages in Pashtun Kot in Faryab, including burning people’s homes and then was offensively defiant to the presidential delegation commissioned to investigate. (For more detail on the incident, see Obaid Ali’s report mentioned earlier).
Upholding the law?
The picture of the Afghan war portrayed through UNAMA’s statistics is bleak, given the way the war is developing. The ANSF (excluding the ALP) do come out relatively well in this report – apart from their use of mortars and rockets. They are doing better on civilian protection than any of their predecessors among Afghan state forces and generally appear to be fighting professionally, while taking heavy losses. The UN does call on the ANSF to revise and strengthen their tactical directives, rules of engagement and other procedures, and ensure proper training and resourcing of all Afghan national security forces on civilian protection, including accountability. It also said violations by the ANSF and pro-government militias must be investigated and those found responsible prosecuted and punished.
As for the Taleban, while talking more about civilian casualties, providing reports on what they say are casualties caused by ‘the other side’, and claiming to be protecting the ‘ordinary people’, they still show no sign of improvements on the ground; their tactics continue to break the laws of armed conflict, as well as their own codes of conduct. (4)
UNAMA has upped the ante on pinning specific attacks on the Taleban. It is now closely monitoring their claims of responsibility and matching them, where appropriate, to the civilian deaths and injuries caused. Of the 147 attacks claimed by the Taleban in which UNAMA recorded civilian casualties in the first six months of 2013, it said 75 attacks appeared directed at military targets, while 69 deliberately targeted civilians, including tribal elders, civilian government and justice sector employees, and civilians in restaurants. Even those aimed at the military frequently broke the laws of armed conflict, when for example, they caused disproportionate civilian harm.
UNAMA gives several examples of where attacks claimed by the Taleban killed or injured civilians. They include the 17 January attack on the Taverna restaurant in Kabul where a suicide bomber and two armed men killed 21 civilians, including cooks, waiters, drivers and Afghan and international civilian diners. The Taleban justified the target of the attack by saying the target was “a restaurant frequented by high ranking foreigners” (see AAN reporting here).
Another example, was the detonation of a remote-controlled IED on 14 June, in Aybak city, Samangan, against a minibus carrying staff of the Independent Election Commission and female voting centre searchers, their children and male relatives. The attack, claimed by the Taleban as having killed “14 elections workers and an army commander” killed 11 civilians, including four women and a small child, and injured three.
Such double reporting – from the Taleban’s own websites and from the ground – considerably strengthens the case against the movement, useful for those involved in trying to get the Taleban to actually follow the laws of armed conflict, and, indeed, their own rules, as well as those amassing evidence for any future legal action over Taleban war crimes.
(1) This is the case, at least as far back as 2009 when UNAMA started documenting civilian casualties.
(2) 12 per cent of civilians were killed or injured in ground fighting where it was not clear who exactly was the author. Four per cent of casualties were from unexploded remnants of war and one per cent from cross-border shelling from Pakistan.
(3) By their nature, pressure-plate IEDs break the principle of distinction whereby parties to a conflict are bound to distinguish between civilians and combatants and protect civilians.
(4) The Taleban emailed a written response to UNAMA’s 2013 Protection of Civilians report, which said the leadership had issued clear directives to their fighters “not to carry out attack and detonate anything at bazaars, markets, schools and bus stations. Practical measures have been taken in order to implement this directive. We condemn and have condemned attacks at similar locations.” The UNAMA report also has a useful annex with a translation of a Taleban document, Reasons for Establishing Civilian Casualty Unit, its Policy and Some Examples of Civilian Casualty Incidents.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020