UNAMA has published its mid-year assessment of the harm done to civilians by the warring parties in Afghanistan (full report here): the number of civilians killed and injured has risen again. There were 4921 civilian casualties, the highest number for the first half of any year since UNAMA started documenting them. 70 per cent were attributed to the Taleban and other opposition groups. UNAMA also reports sharp rises in casualties from targeted killings – for the first time, these are the biggest killer of civilians – and suicide and complex attacks. There has also been a big increase in civilians killed by pro-government forces in ground engagements; more are now dying from government mortars, rockets and grenades than from the Taleban’s. UNAMA has also catalogued horrific abuses by pro-government militias, increasingly seen as a weapon of necessity by a government under pressure from the Taleban. AAN’s Country Director, Kate Clark, reports.
January-June 2015: the numbers
4,921 civilian casualties: 1,592 civilians deaths and 3,329 injured, a rise of 1 per cent compared with January-June 2014
Casualties among women: up by 23 per cent
Casualties among children up by 13 per cent
Taleban and other opposition groups: 70 per cent of the total, a reduction of 3 per cent compared to January-June 2014 (UNAMA refers to ‘anti-Government Elements’ unless the Taleban has specifically claimed responsibility for an incident; AAN here uses ‘Taleban’ as short hand for all the various armed opposition groups)
Pro-government forces: 16 per cent (15 per cent Afghan national security forces and pro-government armed groups, 1 per cent to international military forces), a rise of 60 per cent
Ground engagements in which responsibility could not be attributed: 10 per cent
Unattributed explosive remnants of war (1): 4 per cent
Cross-border shelling from Pakistan: Less than 1 per cent, a 61 per cent reduction compared to January-June 2014
Causes (in order of magnitude) of civilian casualties
Ground engagements: 32 per cent of all casualties
IEDs: 22 per cent
Complex and suicide attacks: 21 per cent
Targeted killings: 14 per cent (94 per cent attributed to the armed opposition). This was the biggest killer of civilians, although other causes ranked higher when injuries are also taken into account.
Rises and falls
Ground engagements: overall civilian casualties fell by 19 per cent; those attributed to the Taleban down by 46 per cent and to pro-government forces up by 85 per cent
Suicide and complex attacks: civilian casualties up by 78 per cent
Targeted killings: civilian casualties up by 57 per cent
IEDs civilian casualties down by 21 per cent, although those from pressure plate IEDs, considered illegal because they are inherently indiscriminate, were up by 38 per cent
Civilian abductions (almost all by anti-government elements): 196 incidents, up by 37 per cent compared to last year; they resulted in 117 per cent more deaths and injuries compared to January-June 2014 (62 deaths and 14 injuries).
Future deaths and disability
491,832 Afghan children missed their polio vaccinations because of attacks on polio workers, anti-vaccination bans and general insecurity in the country.
The changing way in which the Afghan war is being fought is having an impact on how civilians are suffering, largely for the worst. From UNAMA comes, as ever, a detailed overview of the cost of the war to civilians: solid statistics bring out the dynamics of the conflict and are balanced by human stories of bereavement and terrible suffering. It is a complex picture with the few hopeful trends far outweighed by negative ones. (See also AAN’s own reporting of the conflict this year, including detailed case studies of provinces and particular attacks. (2))
Most civilians are still being killed and injured in ground engagements despite a significant fall from the numbers a year ago. Ground engagements took over from IEDs as the leading cause of civilian casualties in 2014 (see UNAMA’s 2014 report here and AAN’s analysis here), as the Taleban, encouraged by the withdrawal of the better armed and better air-protected foreign soldiers started to mass in greater numbers and ‘take the battle’ to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). This year, there have been major pushes by the Taleban to make territorial gains including towards major population centres, largely district centres, but also one major city (Kunduz). ANSF launched significant counter-offensives in Kunduz, Badakhshan and northern Helmand.
The number of casualties from ground engagements has fallen, but, says UNAMA, probably mainly because last year’s election-related violence skewed the figures for the first half of 2014. Moreover, at the same time, the numbers of women and children killed and injured in ground engagements have risen sharply, as the warring parties fight in civilian-populated areas and the war comes to families in their homes.
The number of civilians killed and injured by pro-government forces, mainly the ANSF, in ground engagements has increased by 85 per cent. Indeed, in the first half of 2015, government forces killed and injured more civilians in ground engagements than the Taleban did. Primarily, these casualties came through the use of ‘indirect fire’ weapons (which have no direct line of sight to the target and can be much more difficult to use accurately) such as rockets, grenades and especially mortars, which have a wide area of impact launched into civilian-populated areas. UNAMA has documented “instances where the use of indirect weapons in populated environments had an indiscriminate and severe humanitarian impact on civilians.” This is serious language. All parties are legally bound to discriminate between civilians and combatants when they are fighting and protect civilians.
UNAMA notes that civilian casualties by the government have tended to be fewer in planned operations, so the counter-offensive in Kunduz was more deadly for civilians than Operation Zulfiqar in Sangin district of Helmand (although in the latter the ANSF did deliberately demolish or partly destroy 50 civilian homes – UNAMA says it could find no legal basis for this act). In this report there are also the first documented civilian casualties from the Afghan Air Force providing close air support and also opening fire in civilian-populated areas.
UNAMA’s first recommendation to the government is to “cease firing mortars, rockets and grenades into civilian-populated areas.” Its second recommendation is to develop a national policy to mitigate civilian casualties with clear tactical directives and rules of engagement, training, accountability and compensation for victims. This was the sort of system ISAF and the US counter-terrorism mission eventually put into place after recognising that civilian casualties are a military and political disaster and it worked to really reduce the number of civilians killed and injured by the foreign military (see also the 2013 analysis of the NGO Civilians in Conflict of what the ANSF could do). It is also obligatory under international humanitarian law for parties to the conflict to discriminate between civilians and combatants and protect civilians and their property. However, those concerned about civilian casualties – including civilians themselves – may have a fight on if, as reported on the Palace website, President Ghani really does believe that “the government of Afghanistan is not responsible for the civilian casualties.”
In the context of ground engagements, UNAMA reports the Taleban have again been increasing their use of pressure-plate IEDs “as a defensive weapon to slow or prevent the advancement of Afghan national security forces before, during, and after ground engagements.” This reversed a downward trend in the Taleban’s use of this most indiscriminate and deadly weapon. 39 per cent more civilians were killed or injured by pressure-plate IEDs in the first half of this year compared to last. UNAMA does note “some precautions by Anti-Government Elements in the conduct of hostilities – UNAMA documented a reduction in civilian casualties from Anti-Government Elements during ground engagements.” It gives no more detail: perhaps the Taleban have been targeting less indiscriminately. If so, that would be a welcome development – and something to watch.
Ground engagements have other consequences. Unexploded ordinance was responsible for many civilian deaths and injuries; UNAMA only gives the figure for those which were not attributable to one of the warring parties – 4 per cent of all civilian casualties in the first six months of 2015. Of these, 83 per cent were children. Also, approximately 103,000 people were forced to flee their homes because of the conflict, a 44 per cent increase compared to the first half of 2014. The total number of IDPs – internally displaced persons – in Afghanistan is now edging towards a million. As of mid-July, says UNAMA, it exceeded 945,600.
A particularly disturbing trend in the conflict this year is the government’s use of militias to fight alongside or instead of ANSF, particularly in the north and north-east – UNAMA refers to them as ‘pro-government armed groups’. Aligned with the government, but not necessarily controlled by it, they are almost always loyal to or have links to powerful figures within the administration. They are also illegal. Their track record so far this year has been horrible: in the first half of 2015 such militias, says UNAMA, caused two per cent of all civilian casualties through ground engagements, targeted killings, and beatings and ill-treatment. The numbers killed and injured by them in the first half of 2015 were double the number for 2014 says UNAMA:
Pro-government armed groups increasingly carried out human rights abuses with impunity, including deliberate killings, assaults, extortion, intimidation and property theft. UNAMA notes further concern with the increased use of pro-government armed groups in operations by Afghan national security forces to combat Anti-Government Elements, particularly in the north and northeast regions, and the rise in civilian casualties resulting from such operations.
UNAMA details such cases as a teacher being taken out of his school and shot and a travelling prosecutor kidnapped for ransom, both in Khanabad, Kunduz. In Pashtunkot district in Faryab province, a militia commander shut off the water supply from the Serhauz dam in early June, depriving most of the district as well as the provincial capital, Maimana, of water for several days. Reportedly, says UNAMA, this was in retaliation for the looting by a rival militia of a humanitarian aid convoy destined for the commander’s area the previous day. In Sancharak district of Sar-e Pul, UNAMA says there were no recorded human rights abuses by militias in the first half of last year. This year, there were 13 separate incidents, including deliberate killing, serious assault, extortion, illegal taxation, forced labour, illegal detention, denial of access to healthcare, land theft, property destruction and the sexual exploitation of under-age boys. Such abuses in this one district caused the deaths of six civilians and injuries to two others.
The fact that the government has been relying on illegal militias has given them both semi-official control of territory and boosted their impunity. They have powerful patrons at the highest levels of government which, particularly in current circumstances, makes them practically untouchable. Those currently being used by the government are largely from Jombesh and Jamiat-e Islami. Especially in the north and north-west, militias have a long and complex history, with a record of abusing civilian populations and fighting each other as well as the Taleban. Letting this particular genie out of the bottle in order to withstand Taleban offensives may be one decision the administration comes to regret. There is not just the problem of civilians suffering their abuses now, but what impact that has on the insurgency. From 2008 onwards, militia depredations of the civilian population were one reason why the Taleban were originally able to expand their influence in the north in 2008.
Trends driving the casualty figures upwards: suicide and complex attacks and targeted killings
If ground engagements are the main cause of civilians being wounded and killed in the conflict, the Taleban have continued to pursue their ‘traditional’ methods of asymmetric warfare more than ever. There were 57 per cent more civilian casualties from targeted killings and 78 per cent more in complex and suicide attacks in the first half of 2015 compared with 2014.
Most of the complex and suicide attacks – 31 out of 44 – took place in the south and central regions of Afghanistan and, as UNAMA comments:
Suicide and complex attacks carried out in urban areas caused extreme harm in 2015, with the brunt of the harm occurring in urban areas, mainly Kabul, Lashkar Gah city, and Helmand, Jalalabad and Nangarhar provinces. Twelve incidents in Kabul city caused 302 civilian casualties (42 deaths and 260 injured). Eight incidents in Lashkar Gah city caused 171 civilian casualties (27 deaths and 144 injured). One attack in Jalalabad city, Nangarhar province, caused 158 civilian casualties (32 deaths and 126 injured).
Targeted killings are now the biggest cause of civilian deaths – 28 per cent (440 out of 1,592). UNAMA has documented the targeted killings of aid workers, tribal elders and civilian government officials and is particularly concerned about huge increases in the targeting of the judiciary, legal officials, lawyers and their work places – up 249 per cent compared to the first half of 2014 (itself a bad year to be a legal professional in Afghanistan) – and of mullahs and places of worship – up 100 per cent.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for 27 suicide and complex attacks in the first half of 2015; these resulted in 87 civilians being killed and 455 injured. This was a 167 per cent increase from January-June 2014, but may be due to the Taleban claiming attacks more frequently. Of the 395 targeted killings attributed to opposition elements by UNAMA, the Taliban claimed responsibility for 96 separate incidents, which killed 87 and injured 90 civilians – more than doubling the civilian casualties from targeted killings claimed by the Taliban in 2014. War crimes investigators will be noting these claims (for more information about investigations by the International Criminal Court see here).
In the first half of 2015, almost half a million children were not vaccinated for polio who should have been. UNAMA blames particular commanders rather than the Taleban per se for this (the leadership has largely been reasonably supportive of vaccination campaigns). UNAMA details heath workers being denied access and being beaten, kidnapped and killed. Up to now, the Afghan Taleban has done much better than its Pakistani counterparts in recognising that Afghan children need to be protected from polio. This trend needs to be watched.
(1) In other words, they could not be attributed to any party in the current conflict or were attributed to a party in a previous stage of the conflict.
(2) In the last six months, AAN, too, has published case studies of conflict-ridden areas. Find for example a two-part series on the hot spots of conflict (part one, part two). More specifically, we reported particularly on Kunduz (see here and here), Sar-e Pul and Kapisa. We also did analyses of particular attacks, including on the Park Palace Hotel in Kabul, the reported targeted abductions of Hazaras and the Jalalabad Kabul bank bombing. And we have looked at the emergence of Daesh (Islamic State or IS).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020