Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Killing Civilians: Taleban and International Law

Kate Clark 4 min

When the Taleban attacked the 400-bed military hospital in Kabul on 21 May 2011, they committed a gross violation of the international law that protects medical personnel during conflict. The Taleban spokesman heaped praise on those who attacked the hospital, even though, a few days earlier, he had been condemning the international military’s ‘crime against humanity’ of killing civilians in Takhar. AAN’s senior analyst, Kate Clark looks at how the Taleban use the language of ‘war crimes’ in their statements on civilian casualties and targeting, while all too often failing to protect civilians themselves.

On Saturday, a Taleban suicide bomber infiltrated the 400-bed military hospital(*) in Kabul and blew himself up during lunchtime. Six people were killed – all medical students – and more than twenty other people were injured. For more than thirty years, the war wounded of whichever side was in government – including Taleban during the days of Emirate rule – have been treated at the hospital, but this was the first time it was attacked.

Medical personnel have had legal protection during conflict since the first Geneva Convention in 1864, which makes this one of the oldest rules in the body of law which regulates conflict (called international humanitarian law or IHL). The law demands that all medical personnel and facilities are protected from attack. Targeting a zone established to shelter wounded and sick people and civilians from the effects of hostilities is also specifically prohibited. (For ICRC’s summary of the law, see here and here).(**)

The Taleban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, is aware of medical neutrality. In April, IRIN reported his complaint that the government was violating medical neutrality in the newly created district of Badbakh in Laghman. Mujahed said the Taleban had called on the UN and ICRC to get the district governor and his armed men out of a clinic which, in the absence of government buildings, they were using as a base. If they did not move, Mujahed warned, ‘we will attack it and we won’t be held responsible for any harm to civilians.’ (Whether or not the governor left is disputed: see this IRIN report for more details).

In April, Mujahed also made an extremely rare apology after Taleban used an ambulance to carry out a suicide attack in Kandahar. ICRC’s reaction to the incident was strong: ‘Using an ambulance for the purpose of deceiving the adversary in carrying out an attack constitutes perfidy. This is strictly prohibited by international humanitarian law and is totally unacceptable. By violating the neutrality of health care services, such acts of deception endanger medical personnel engaged in caring for the injured and sick in hospitals, clinics and rural health posts,’ Mujahed responded, ‘This will not happen again.’ (for details see this aan blog).

Yet in an statement emailed to journalists, he praised those who had attacked the 400 Bed hospital, calling them ‘sacrificing heroes’ who had killed and injured ‘Afghan hireling military medical staff and a couple of their foreign teachers’.

Mujahed’s praise came just days after he had referred to international law to lend weight to his condemnation of the deaths of four people killed in a night raid in Takhar (overnight on 17 and 18 May) and the shooting of demonstrators in the subsequent protests. ISAF said the two men and two women killed by US Special Forces had been insurgents and one was an IMU ‘facilitator’. Provincial officials said they were civilians, a father, mother and teenage daughter, and a guest. Locals, incensed by the killings and possibly incited by local politicians with local agendas, marched with the bodies to Taloqan city and on to the lightly manned German PRT. Soldiers there shot at the demonstrators, killing 12 people and injuring more than 80. (For press coverage in German see here; for English see here). Mujahed’s statement lambasted the foreign military for these killings, putting them into a long list of alleged civilian casualties, some of which have been admitted by ISAF.(***) He described the Takhar killings as ‘an action against humanity… a huge, unforgiveable crime against humanity.’

Using the language of IHL to denounce attacks by the foreign military is easy, but recent comments by Mujahed have suggested that the law on protecting civilians is also becoming slightly more relevant to the Taleban – if nothing else, at least in their statements. In April, he praised suicide attacks on military bases because ‘these attacks inflict more casualties to the enemy and do not inflict any civilian casualties.’ (see here). The Taleban’s own Code of Conduct tells their fighters: ‘Taking care of public property and the lives and property of the people is considered one of the main responsibilities of a mujahed; you must try very hard to carry out this responsibility…’

There is of course the question of implementation – do they practice what they preach – but also a more fundamental question of whom the Taleban consider a civilian. In a non-international conflict like Afghanistan’s, IHL looks at whether a person is directly participating in hostilities or not; in other words, if you are fighting it may be legal to kill you, if you’re not, your civilian status means you must be protected. The Taleban, however generally separate those who are with them from those who are against them – thereby lumping ‘the wrong sort’ of medical students and doctors, as well as politicians, government workers and tribal leaders with soldiers, considering them all legitimate targets. And that is a violation of international law.


(*) Officially called Daud Khan Hospital, it has been built by the Soviets for the Afghan army as its central military hospital. Amonsgt Afghans, it is – self-explanatory – called the chahrsad bistar, i.e. the 4-bed hospital.

(**) Condemnation of the attack came from UNAMA.

(***) A future blog will look into the Takhar killings in more detail and examine when the international military admits to civilian killings and when it does not.


Suicide Bombing Taleban