Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Civilian Casualties 2: Taleban claims to protect civilians laid bare

Kate Clark 6 min

Accusations against the Taleban are becoming more pointed: their indiscriminate use of IEDs is a war crime, said UNAMA in its most recent mid-year report on civilian casualties, as well as violating a ban on land-mines made by Mulla Omar in 1998. The Taleban continues to insist its hands are clean, but, as AAN Senior Analyst, Kate Clark reports, with it and other armed opposition groups now responsible for 80 per cent of civilians deaths in the conflict, the question of how to encourage, persuade or threaten the Taleban to do more to protect civilians is becoming ever more urgent.

The war is heating up – even as both the transition of responsibility for security from international to Afghan forces and a drawdown of the numbers of  foreign soldiers in Afghanistan have begun. The departing General Petraeus’ attempt to massage statistics to claim insurgent attacks were falling (for details, see a previous blog here) was met by Taleban bullishness and a horrible mix of religious terms and US-style military jargon: ‘The Jihad of Afghanistan is going ahead robustly with the help of Allah, the Almighty, even so more than the past.’* One can only fear that the numbers of civilians getting killed and injured will also, and inevitably, rise and that most, on current trends, will die at the hands of the Taleban and other insurgent groups (From now on, I’ll just refer to Taleban).

One tactic – being pursued by Amnesty International – to encourage the Taleban to abide by its obligations, under International Humanitarian Law ( IHL), is to hold out the threat of future prosecutions for war crimes. In the wake of some atrocious attacks on civilian targets, Amnesty is pushing for the Afghan government to start cooperating with the International Criminal Court (ICC) to ‘investigate allegations of war crimes by all sides to the conflict.’ It said, armed opposition groups are becoming ‘far bolder in their deliberate killing of civilians… which is a war crime, plain and simple’. Amnesty is urging the Afghan government to cooperate with the International Criminal Court to investigate the perpetrators.  (see press release here) The court’s preliminary investigation was formally started in 2007, but four years later, it has yet to receive a response from Kabul for requests for information. (For details on this, see the recent AAN blog here

The ICC can only investigate crimes which took place after Afghanistan ratified the Rome Statue of the ICC which was in 2003.  Nevertheless, the court’s remit covers all parties to the current conflict – Taleban, international and Afghan government forces and, incidentally, Amnesty, is also highly critical of the NATO countries: ‘They have all signed bilateral agreements, with the Afghan government exempting themselves from ICC jurisdiction,’ says Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific Director, Sam Zarifi, ‘That includes the Dutch [who host the ICC in the Hague] and the Americans who have not signed up to the Rome statue, but still they signed a specific exemption with Kabul.’

Meanwhile, UNAMA is continuing its tussle with the Taleban over civilian casualties, played out via the media and internet in reports, statements and counter-statements.

UNAMA has significantly upped the ante in its latest six monthly report on civilian casualties (which can be read here), with its first unequivocal assertion that the majority of  IEDs planted by the Taleban are indiscriminate in nature, ‘as they cannot distinguish between a civilian object and a military objective, making their use illegal under international humanitarian law.**

A third of all civilians dying in the conflict are through IEDs.  Most are of a pressure plate design, says UNAMA, meaning they explode when they are stepped on or driven over; they have twice the explosives of a standard anti-tank mine, but are set to explode with a trigger weight of between 10kg and 100kg. ‘As a result of this design and configuration,’ says UNAMA, ‘each pressure plate IED serves as a massive anti-personnel landmine with the capability of destroying a tank.’

Moreover, in 1998, reminds UNAMA, Mulla Omar banned anti-personnellandmines. He called them ‘un-Islamic’ and ‘anti-human’ and made ‘acommitment to the suffering people of Afghanistan and the international community that the IEA would never make use of any type of landmines.’ (for contemporary reporting, see hereWhile both Omar and Burhanuddin Rabbani made strong statements against land mines at the time, both sides continued to use them, particularly the Northern Alliance which was then fighting a defensive war. ***


Such weapons are also a patent violation of  the Taleban’s own Code of Conduct or layeha which repeatedly calls on fighters to take all possible care to protect what are called ‘the common people’ and threatens dire punishments against cadre who do not (for text in Pashto, see here; for English, see here, specifically articles 57, 65, 66 and the advice on the back cover).****

 Since UNAMA’s last mid-year report in August 2010, even if it is only for the sake of damage limitation on the propaganda front, the Taleban is now talking about civilian casualties, occasionally uses some of the language of IHL and is answering some of the accusations made against it (see also earlier blogs here, a recent report on the Taleban’s Code of Conduct here and the communiqué with which the Taleban launched its spring operation***** ). In turn, UNAMA is also addressing some of the Taleban’s concerns.

A year ago in response to UNAMA’s last mid-year civilian casualty report (in August 2010 – read it here), the Taleban proposed the setting up of a multi-party committee to investigate civilian casualties (read the proposal here). Even though such a committee was not set up, UNAMA has scrutinised a list which the Taleban said (in June 2011) were attacks conducted by international and Afghan government forces where civilians were killed and which UNAMA had overlooked – evidence, it said, of UNAMA’s bias.  Some of the incidents had actually already been counted as the work of international or Afghan forces, but the rest have all, where possible, been investigated or re-investigated.

The Taleban’s response to UNAMA’s mid-year report is also interesting. Yet again, it accused UNAMA of ‘conducting ‘a regular propaganda campaign to hide the cruel acts, [such as] night raids which are targeting Afghans collectively, by the occupation forces.’  Yet, at the same time, it specifically addresses some of  UNAMA’s concerns:

UNAMA blames the Islamic Emirate’s mujahedeen for causing the majority of civilian casualties with its road-side bombs, while it very clear to our citizens that all our IEDs are controlled remotely and  do not function by pressure plate. We select our targets. Unfortunately the UNAMA report is the opposite of reality.

Taleban claims to care about Afghan civilians have been laid bare yet again in the statistics of the UNAMA report. But for those wanting to see the number of civilians killed and injured reduced, this dialogue across the airwaves and on the internet is important and the Taleban’s spokesman’s last sentence appeared to leave the door open to continuing debate:

‘Thus they [UNAMA] have not listened to the proposals of the Islamic Emirate for avoiding the civilian casualties. The Islamic Emirate wants to repeat its stand and recommendation once again that we will agree on all possible ways to avoid civilian casualties.’

 (Fortunately, while UNAMA on the ground appears to have taken great pains to be scrupulous about its conclusions, someone should remind the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon about the importance of humanitarian neutrality and of having some thought for what impact his words might have on the security of his staff in the field as his comments on the report, in an ‘exclusive interview’ with USA Today (read it here), were needlessly sycophantic towards Washington. Ban called the Taleban ‘totally irresponsible’, while he praised NATO for reducing casualties (both statements might be justified by the statistics, but one would want some caveats). He then summed up the conflict as follows, ‘I really appreciate all this noble sacrifice by many American soldiers… this is a fight against terrorists, illegal armed groups.’)


* The statement, in English, was emailed to AAN, media offices and other agencies on 11 July.

** Such IEDs would violate three principles of IHL – which ICRC has summarised as follows; UNAMA highlights the first: Distinction: ‘Civilians are protected against attack, unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities,’ and ‘Attacks must not be directed against civilian objects’ (ICRC Study Rule 6). Precautions in attack: ‘In the conduct of military operations, constant care must be taken to spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects. All feasible precautions must be taken to avoid, and in any event minimise, incidental loss of life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects’ (ICRC Study Rule 15).Proportionality: ‘Launching an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advance anticipated, is prohibited’ (See original here)

*** Omar was not able to sign the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty because he headed an un-recognised government, but both he and the then recognised leader of Afghanistan, Burhanuddin Rabbani, made strong statements in 1998 against the use of anti-personnel landmines.

**** Several injunctions in the Code are aimed at protecting the ‘common people’: all officials and ordinary mujahedin must ‘with all their power . . . be careful with regard to the lives of the common people and their property’ (art. 65); they must ‘avoid casualties among the common people’ when conducting suicide attacks (art. 57) and anyone who harms people in the name of the mujahedin shall be punished (arts. 65, 66). Taleban fighters and officials are also told: ‘Taking care of public property and the lives and property of the people is considered one of the main responsibilities of a mujahed’ (back cover).

*****The Taleban launched its ‘Badr Operations’ with a communiqué which appeared to pre-emptively defend the movement against the charge that it targets civilians.  It said the movement would focus attacks on ‘military centres, places of gatherings, airbases, ammunition and logistical military convoys of the foreign invaders in all parts of the country’ and that, ‘Strict attention must be paid to the protection and safety of civilians during the spring operations by working out a meticulous military plan.’ At the same time, civilians were also explicitly included in the communiqué’s target list, which went as follows: ‘foreign invading forces, members of their spy networks and (other) spies, high-ranking officials of the Kabul Puppet Administration, both military and civilian, members of the cabinet, members of the parliament, Heads of foreign and local companies working for the enemy and  contractors.’


Civilians Taleban