The latest UNAMA report and other figures paint a mixed picture of the level of violence Afghanistan experienced on election day. On one hand, the day remained calmer than many feared, without the massive terror attacks threatened by the Taleban. On the other hand, 28 September was the second-most violent election day the country has ever experienced. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig looks at the figures in context, also the mute media reporting of violence on E-day and the propaganda war playing out around incident and casualty figures. Afghan Border Forces fight from inside the grounds of the Awal Baba school voting centre in Maidan Shahr. Sher Mohammad, pictured, said Taliban fighters were 200m away. Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2019
What was the level of violence, compared to earlier elections?
The data from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) shows that the presidential election on 28 September 2019 was the second-most violent election day since the overthrow of the Taleban in 2001, when the total number of civilian casualties is taken as the criteria. While UNAMA does not explicitly rank the elections in order of violence in its “Special Report on 2019 Election Violence” released in Kabul on 19 October 2019, the figures speak clearly: with a total of 277 civilian casualties (28 deaths and 249 injured) in 100 election-related incidents across the country, the casualty level was significantly lower than on 20 October 2018, the first day of that year’s parliamentary election both when it comes to the numbers of overall civilian casualties and of civilians killed. (1) (There was also an unspecified number of incident that did not cause casualties.) Then, UNAMA verified 435 civilian casualties (56 deaths and 379 injured). However, the 2019 figures were higher than on both the first and the second round polling days in the 2014 presidential election, in April (159 civilian casualties, of which 32 deaths and 127 injured) and June (251; 52 deaths and 199 injured).
However, if number of incidents, rather than civilian casualties, are the metric used, according to one international security analysis source in Kabul, the 2019 E-day was the most violent since 2001. The source recorded and verified a total of 530 incidents on that day, of which the Taleban initiated 472 (89%), while Afghan forces were responsible for 58 offensive operations (11%). (530 is also the figure claimed by the Taleban for the attacks they carried out on 28 September; see media report here). Not all these incidents caused civilian casualties, such as the detonation of a ‘flash bang’ explosive device near a poling site in Kandahar reported by AAN. This situation reflects the wider trend, observed by the source, that also over the entire month of September 2019, the insurgents initiated 2,000 attacks – more than double the 750 security incidents initiated by government forces. The UNAMA report does not provide a total number of election day incidents.
The Afghan interior ministry told New York Times reporter Mujib Mashal on 28 September that the Taleban had launched 68 attacks affecting about 75 sites and that the number of casualties was much lower than in the previous two elections. Mashal commented that “the numbers they give […] seem less than what we are tallying from around the country” – namely “at least 30 security forces & 10 civilians killed and at least 40 security forces and more than 150 civilians were wounded in direct & indirect election day attacks.”
Prior to the elections, there had been widespread fear among Afghans and international observers of major attacks against polling sites, after massive and detailed threats of violence by the Taleban in the run-up to the elections. To a large extent, these did not materialise, or were thwarted. UNAMA notes that without the government’s efforts to secure polling sites, including through defusing IEDs, “the civilian casualty toll would have been higher.” Also, the decision – as during earlier polls – to make the days around E-day school-free “reduced children’s risk of being harmed as a result of direct attacks against schools used as polling centres.” Nevertheless, 15 schools and health facilities sustained damage on election day.
Who were the victims?
According to the UNAMA report, 45 per cent of all civilian casualties on this E-day were children (103; 13 deaths and 90 injured) and women (23; 4 deaths and 19 injured).
Furthermore, at least 85 civilians (12 deaths and 73 injured) became victims of violence on 28 September despite the fact that they were not actively participating in the election. Many were “harmed in residential houses, mostly their own homes, including 55 children and 11 women.”
UNAMA refers to cases in Tirinkot, the capital of Uruzgan province, Dangam district in Kunar province and Siagerd district of Parwan province. On the latter, it writes:
In Sia Gird district, Parwan province, the Taliban fired rockets towards a school used as a polling centre in the district administrative centre. One of the rockets landed on a residential home, killing a 15-year- old girl and injuring three young girls and an adult male. Two residential homes were partially damaged.
Before the election, the Taleban had issued a series of warnings (AAN reporting here), including threats against campaign events and election personnel, practically declaring them legitimate military targets. On 6 August, for example, the Taleban, writing in English, warned voters to “stay away from gatherings and rallies that could become potential targets.”
On 28 July, they attacked the office of president Ashraf Ghani’s first running-mate, Amrullah Saleh’s Green Trend movement in Kabul, leaving 20 dead, including 16 civilians, and as many as 50 wounded (media report here). They followed up on their warning against campaign rallies with another massive suicide bombing attack on a Ghani election rally in Charikar, capital of Parwan province, on 17 September, killing 26 people and wounding 42 (according to a media report here).
These and other attacks in the pre-election period “targeting the electoral process” brought UNAMA’s estimate of the total figure of civilian casualties over this year’s election period to 458 people (85 deaths and 373 injured). This number includes 11 injured election workers. UNAMA, though, concludes that “levels of election-related violence remained relatively low in the months leading up to polling day” in 2019.
The UNAMA report does not refer to the 19 September 2019 Zabul bombing claimed by the Taleban. On that day, a car bomb destroyed the provincial hospital in Qalat, killing 39 people and wounding 90 others (see AAN Zabul election reporting here). Technically, this attack was not part of the pre-election violence, as it neither aimed nor hit an election-related target. According to the Taleban and security analysts in Kabul, the target was an NDS training facility located next to the provincial hospital, but the hospital suffered the most casualties and damage. However, the timing of the attack contributed to the threat-laden pre-election atmosphere. Furthermore, Taleban fire on election day also hit the makeshift replacement of the hospital, a tent used as an emergency room, causing slight injuries to two people, according to local AAN sources.
UNAMA also reports one civilian casualty in the immediate aftermath of polling day, a man shot and injured by the Taleban on 30 September in Zurmat district, Paktia province, while driving a truck of ballot boxes to the provincial capital. Apparently, there was also a second incident, the reported killing in Sancharak district of Sar-e Pul province on 6 October of a student who had worked as an IEC staff member and was transporting election material back to the district centre (see media report here). Security analysts in Kabul confirmed the incident. It probably came too late for UNAMA to be included in its report.
Who were the perpetrators?
UNAMA attributes 95 per cent of civilian casualties on election day to Taleban attacks, and 81 per cent of deaths and injuries over the entire electoral process so far in 2019. Of the latter – 458 civilians harmed (85 deaths and 373 injured) –, UNAMA attributed 370 (64 deaths and 306 injured) to the Taleban.
It attributed the remainder “to cross-fire incidents between the Taliban and the Afghan national security forces” and one incident to “a pro-Government armed group.”
There were also 63 verified civilian casualties (11 deaths, 52 injured) caused by Afghan government forces “targeting the Taliban, mostly caused by its response to threats and attacks by the Taliban”. The same balance is seen with regard to the number of civilian casualties over the entire 2019 election period.
No civilian casualty on polling day was caused by the Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP). (On polling day of the 2018 parliamentary elections UNAMA attributed 53 civilian casualties – 13 deaths and 40 injured – to the group.) However, there was one incident of intimidation that UNAMA attributed to ISKP.
According to one media report, though, ISKP had tried to disrupt the election in two areas of Kunar province where it controls several villages in remote valleys. According to the Voice of America, reporting on 8 October 2019 and based on local eyewitnesses, ISKP members were gathering in Kandaharo village of Marawara district and had threatened to take all the election material away. In nearby Leichalam, ISKP members “had announced in the village’s Tangai mosque that they would shoot at anyone seen going toward the polling centers (…) two weeks before polling.”On the morning of the election, however, local Taleban showed up at both sites, actually facilitating the local people’s participation in the election, in contrast to the movement’s declared anti-election policy.
AAN confirmed the report with a source in Kabul who originates from and regularly travels to Kunar. He said these incidents were exceptions, even in the province, and most likely caused by the nature of the local conflict situation, in which the local Taleban perceive the ISKP as a more serious enemy than the government.
Which weapons and methods were employed?
UNAMA found that “indirect-fire systems such as rockets, grenades and mortars, as well as improvised explosive devices (IEDs)” caused most of the civilian harm, for a total of 191 persons (22 deaths and 169 injured). 54 of those people (3 deaths and 51 injured) were hit by IEDs planted “at or near polling centres (…), including schools.” The report highlights the “indiscriminate effects” caused by these weapons.
The most severe incident occurred when a remote-controlled IED detonated near to a mosque and a madrassa in the centre of Kandahar city, which was being used as a polling centre. According to UNAMA’s findings, it resulted in “18 civilians injured including a boy, an Afghan National Police officer guarding the centre, a polling centre staff member, a member of the provincial Independent Election Commission and a member of the provincial Electoral Complaints Commission.”
AAN had reported on election day that the explosion had occurred inside the Shah Jama Mosque polling centre and that the bomb had been hidden in the mehrab (the niche in the wall pointing towards Mecca) area of the mosque (see also media report here), and that 16 people were reported injured, three of them severely.
UNAMA also reports the abduction of 15 civilians by the Taleban during polling day and in its direct aftermath, “all of them” election workers.
For instance, in Parwan province, in the evening of polling day, the Taliban abducted eight election staff from a polling centre when they were on their way to the Shinwari district administrative centre.
Additionally, UNAMA documented
91 incidents of threat, intimidation and harassment from the Taliban (…) that caused polling centres or polling stations to close, prevented them from opening, or caused a serious disruption in voting. The Taliban used various types of threats, intimidation or harassment during polling day, including through the firing of indirect weapons towards polling centres; the closing of roads and setting up of illegal check posts to prevent voters from participating in the electoral process; the issuing of threatening letters; and the placing of IEDs in and around polling centres, including schools and health facilities.
Afghan reporting of violence
As AAN had reported in one of its election primers, the government – essentially the Ghani campaign – was pushing for another news blackout on election-day security incidents, with the aim of ‘not discouraging voters from casting their ballots’. This also happened during the 2018 parliamentary elections, when there was a tacit agreement between some key media outlets not to report security incidents until noon (AAN’s reporting here and a 2014 discussion by journalists over the ethics of such a move here).
Indeed, major Afghan media did not report any security incident on 28 September. The Kandahar mosque bomb attack (see above) was only reported by foreign news agencies. Also, Afghan journalists, at least on Twitter, were surprisingly quiet. A lonely two-line report came around noon via Twitter quoting the Italian NGO Emergency that runs several hospitals countrywide, saying that it had received “18 wounded from election-related violence.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – not an Afghan outlet – reported after 3 pm, the initial closing time for the polling sites (which was extended by two hours) about clashes between Afghan security forces and Taleban fighters in six districts of the northern province of Faryab, “preventing people from voting.” Most Afghan reporting on incidents started only after polling sites had closed, such as by Pajhwok which reported at 7:07 pm local time, quoting Afghan intelligence sources, that “at least 32 people were killed and 123 others wounded as a result of 113 attacks on election day across the country (…) in 26 provinces, [and with] casualties […] in 10 provinces.”
Perhaps influenced by the news blackout and limited access to sources on election day on incidents, a number of commentators (one example here) called the Afghan government forces “the real winner of the presidential Election in Afghanistan.“ Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor Hamdullah Moheb, addressing the United Nations Assembly in New York on 30 September, claimed the government forces had “averted […] most attacks”.
Afghanistan’s election day 2019 leaves an ambiguous picture when it comes to the violence expected and then executed. Compared to the prevalent fears of a massive and countrywide Taleban terror attack wave on 28 September, the situation appeared comparatively calm, particularly in the larger cities. The UNAMA (and other) figures, however, suggest that relief that pre-election fears were not fulfilled distracted from the very real civilian harm caused by the Taleban which, in the case of deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects, can constitute war crimes. Taking the number of civilians killed and injured as the yardstick, the level of violence meant 28 September 2019 was the second-most violent election day in Afghanistan’s history.
Secondly, it seems the Taleban’s pre-election threat campaign was effective in preventing many voters from casting their ballots (although it was not the only reason for the low turnout (AAN analysis here and here). After some large pre-election bomb attacks to demonstrate their readiness to cause widespread civilian harm, they may have seen ‘no need’ to continue this on election-day.
Thirdly, despite the efforts and concrete measures of the government forces to secure the election, the number of lives lost and the fact that the Taleban were able to perpetrate significant numbers of attacks make the somewhat triumphant statements about their success sound hollow. Statements like this – on all sides – need to be treated as part of the propaganda war which is also raging in Afghanistan.
Edited by Rachel Reid and Kate Clark
(1) The UN figures on civilian casualties also include Afghan security officials killed or injured while guarding polling sites who are considered legitimate targets by the Taleban. UNAMA however, underlines in its report that the “electoral process in Afghanistan is a civilian undertaking,” and that
- acts of violence against civilians and civilian objects – which include voters, election workers, campaigners, election rally sites and polling centres – as well as indiscriminate attacks, are strictly forbidden under international humanitarian law and constitute war crimes (…);
- widespread or systematic attacks against Afghanistan’s civilian population may also constitute crimes against humanity (…);
- [w]arning civilians of an intention to attack election sites does not release the warning party of its obligations under international humanitarian law; and that
- acts or threats of violence intended to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited under international humanitarian law.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020