More than eleven thousand civilians were killed or injured in the conflict in Afghanistan last year, setting a grisly new record – the highest number of civilian casualties recorded by UNAMA in any year since it started systematic documentation in 2009. In its 2016 annual report on the protection of civilians in the conflict, UNAMA also revealed that last year was the deadliest for children nationwide, and for Kabulis of all ages. UNAMA also recorded the most civilians killed and injured in ground engagements, suicide and complex attacks, and aerial strikes in any year. There were falls in civilian casualties resulting from targeted killings and IEDs, reports AAN Senior Analyst Kate Clark, but they were not enough to offset an overall increase in numbers.Graves prepared for those killed during an attack claimed by Daesh/ISKP on 23 July 2016 suicide which targeted a peaceful demonstration in Deh Mazang square, Kabul. It was the single deadliest conflict-related incident for civilians recorded by UNAMA in Afghanistan since 2001. Most of the victims were Shia Hazaras (Xinhua/Rahmat Alizadah)
The UNAMA statistics of war in 2016
How many killed and injured
- 11,418 civilian casualties (3,498 deaths, 7,920 injured), increase of 3% compared to 2015 (2% reduction in deaths, 6% increase in injuries)
- 1,218 women civilian casualties (341 deaths, 877 injured), decrease of 2%
- 3,512 child casualties (923 deaths, 2,589 injured), increase of 24%
Since 2009, the armed conflict in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of 24,841 civilians and injured 45,347 others
How they were killed and injured (in order)
- ground engagements: 4,295 civilian casualties (1,070 deaths and 3,225 injured), increase of 3% compared to 2015, highest recorded since documentation started in 2009
- IEDs: 2,156 civilian casualties (700 civilian deaths and 1,456 injured), decrease of 9%
- suicide and complex attacks: 1,963 civilian casualties (398 deaths and 1,565 injured), increase of 7%, highest recorded
- targeted and deliberate killings by anti-government elements: 1,118 civilian casualties (574 deaths and 544 injured), decrease of 16%
targeted killings by pro-government forces: 106 civilian casualties (81 deaths and 25 injured), increase of 52%
- explosive remnants of war: 724 civilian casualties (217 deaths and 507 injured), increase of 66%, highest recorded
- aerial operations: 590 civilian casualties (250 deaths and 340 injured), increase of 99%, highest recorded
Who was killing and injuring
(This includes mainly the Taleban, but also Islamic State Khorasan Province [ISKP] – the local Islamic State ‘franchise’ locally known as Daesh – and other Afghan and foreign insurgent groups)
Total: 6,994 civilian casualties (2,131 deaths and 4,863 injured), 61 per cent of total civilian casualties, increase of 2% compared to 2015
Taleban: 4,953 civilian casualties (1,618 deaths and 3,335 injured)
ISKP (Daesh): 899 civilian casualties (209 deaths and 690 injured)
Unidentified Anti- Government Elements 1,099 civilian casualties (286 deaths and 813 injured)
Main causes of death by anti-government elements (in order): IEDs, suicide and complex attacks, ground engagements, targeted and deliberate killings
(This includes Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF], international forces and pro-government armed groups)
Total: 2,728 civilian casualties (903 deaths and 1,825 injured), 24% of total civilian casualties, increase of 46%
ANSF: 2,281 civilian casualties (706 deaths and 1575 injured), 20% of total
Pro-Government armed groups (185 civilian casualties (52 deaths and 133 injured), 2% of total
International forces: 262 casualties (145 deaths and 117 injured), 2% of total
Main causes of death by pro-government forces (in order): ground engagements, aerial operations, targeted and deliberate killings, casualties resulting from search operations
Ground engagements in which civilian casualties could not be attributed to a specific party: 10% of total civilian casualties
Unattributed, but mainly from explosive remnants of war: 5%
Read the full UNAMA report here:
Trends in the conflict: ground engagements
In 2016, said UNAMA, the impact of ground engagements was “unrelenting and devastating.” The war in Afghanistan is now being fought out almost completely between Afghans, with the Taleban initiating most of the conflict, launching offensives to try to take territory, including district and provincial centres, while the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) tries to hold them off or fights to re-take lost ground.
2016 saw more than four thousand civilians killed or injured in ground engagements (up three per cent from 2015). Unexploded ordinance left behind from previous fighting killed or injured hundreds more, a two-thirds increase compared to 2015. Most of the victims – 84 per cent – were children, attracted by “unfamiliar and shiny objects” while playing, or compelled by poverty to search for scrap metal for their families to sell. ‘Defensively-placed’ IEDs, planted by the Taleban to slow up the recapture of territory, took yet more lives.
War also drove more than half a million Afghans to flee their homes in 2016, an increase of 40 per cent compared to 2015 and, says UNAMA, “continuing a four-year upward trend in the number of internally displaced persons” (see AAN reporting here. Those who are displaced, said UNAMA, “frequently returned to areas of recent fighting promptly, exposing themselves to the risk of unexploded ordnance and other threats, including the possibility of renewed armed clashes or aerial operations.”
Figures in the latest quarterly United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report back up a picture of Afghan territory being contested or changing hands. Quoting United States Forces in Afghanistan, it reported that districts under government control had fallen from 72 per cent in November 2015 to 63 per cent in August 2016, a nearly 15 per cent drop, with 10 per cent of districts now under Taleban control (up by 2 per cent) and 33 per cent of districts contested (up 4 per cent). (1) SIGAR said some of the decrease in government control was due to the ANSF deliberately falling back to consolidate the territory it does hold. The government has disputed SIGAR’s figures, saying it is in control of all 34 provinces of the country and the Taleban only hold eight districts.
This may just be a matter of defining ‘control’: is it freedom of movement, ability to govern, ability to protect the population? or something else: holding just the district centre or all the district? control for 24 hours a day or just daylight hours, etc? (2) What ‘taking’ a district means is also debatable: the Taleban have been reasonably good at capturing district centres long enough to film their flag flying, but frequently fail to hold them. AAN has looked at this issue in some detail. Looking at calculations as to which side holds how many districts is to risk feeling like you are hearing the score of a basketball match. The reality, of course, is that the conflict, both offensives and bids to re-take territory, is fought out over civilian land, homes and bodies. As UNAMA describes it:
Against a backdrop of protracted ground fighting, the battlefield permeated civilian sanctuaries that should be spared from harm, with suicide attacks in mosques; targeted attacks against district centres, bazaars and residential homes; and the use of schools and hospitals for military purposes.
Helmand was the province most badly hit by ground engagements last year (see AAN reporting on Helmand in 2015 and early 2016 here and here), UNAMA notes Taleban offensives in August on the districts of Lashkargah, Garmsir, Nahr-e Seraj, Nad-e Ali, Nawa-ye Barakzai, and Nawzad, all aimed at encircling Lashkargah city and two attempts to capture the city itself, in August and October. It also notes simultaneous offensives in Musa Qala, Nawzad, and Kajaki districts in northern Helmand which had the goal, it said, of “consolidating control over poppy harvesting areas and areas adjoining Uruzgan province (the latter in support of offensives targeting Tirin Kot city).” The result for Helmandis was 164 civilians killed and 333 injured – an increase of 40 per cent compared to 2015 – and 2000 families forced to flee for their lives. The fighting left homes damaged and health facilities and schools closed.
The other provinces hardest hit by ground engagements were: Uruzgan province – 520 civilian casualties (154 deaths and 366 injured); Faryab province – 309 civilian casualties (84 deaths and 225 injured); and Kunduz province – 342 civilian casualties (75 deaths and 267 injured).
Suicide and complex attacks also drove last year’s civilian casualty numbers up. Kabul city bore the brunt of this tactic, receiving more than three quarters of the total casualties. In 16 attacks, there were 1,514 civilian casualties, a 75 per cent increase compared to 2015. It made 2016 by far the deadliest year for civilians in the capital. (3) Those deaths and injuries also meant the central region as a whole recorded the second highest number of civilian casualties in the country, second only to the war-torn south. (4)
ISKP, a relatively marginal group nationally (see AAN reporting here, here and here) was responsible for a disproportionate number of those deaths and injuries. The ISKP claimed three sectarian attacks in Kabul last year. All struck the softest of targets – people praying in mosques or demonstrating on the streets. They left 144 people dead and 547 injured. The Taleban, however, also wrecked havoc, including with an attack on 19 April 2017 on the VIP Protection Directorate in the Pul-e Mahmud Khan neighbourhood of the capital that killed 56 civilians and injured 337 others. Another attack, on the American University in Kabul on 24 August which left 13 civilians dead and 48 injured, most of them students, was not claimed by any group, although AAN pointed to the Taleban as the prime suspect; the attack went unclaimed, we argued, because it was too contentious.
Targeted and deliberate killings by anti-government elements fell overall in 2016, compared to 2015 (by 16%), although the numbers were still bad enough – 1,118 civilian casualties, including 574 people killed and 544 injured, among them civilian government workers, education and medical workers, tribal elders and humanitarian de-miners.
However, targeted killings of women rose sharply, by 25% compared to 2015, with 35 women killed and 61 injured. The armed opposition targeted women human rights defenders, women’s rights activists and women working in ‘non-traditional areas’ such as policing and security or simply outside their homes. The victims included a woman killed in her home in Bala Buluk district, Farah province, on 12 November, whom insurgents had accused of “campaigning against violent extremism” and a woman in Warduj district of Badakhshan who had been working on aid and election projects inside her home who was killed on 15 October. UNAMA is not convinced that the government is taking these killings seriously However, there was a significant rise in the targeting of women:
The continued inability of the Government to hold the perpetrators of conflict-related targeted killings of women accountable raises the concern of possible acquiescence in crimes against women, particularly women perceived to hold roles, or engage in activities, that may conflict with prevailing social norms.
Civilians killed by pro-government forces – on the ground and from the air
Previously, when the Taleban’s main tactics were planting IEDs and carrying out targeted killings, they were responsible for the vast bulk of civilian casualties (5). Their shift to focus more on ground offensives has meant that pro-government forces are now killing and injuring more civilians, both as a proportion of the total number of civilian casualties (24 per cent) and in real terms. In 2016, there was a sharp increase – 46 per cent – in civilian casualties caused by pro-government forces, mainly the ANSF. More than half of these deaths and injuries came from them using indirect and/or explosive weapons, mainly mortars and artillery, during ground engagements in civilian-populated areas.
The increase in civilian casualties from air strikes, both Afghan (43 per cent) and international (40 per cent) (UNAMA could not attribute the remainder to either party), was even sharper – they doubled compared with 2015, with Nangarhar, Kunduz and Helmand provinces jointly accounting for more than half of the casualties. This reflects an expanding Afghan Air Force. One example was a strike on 9 August by Afghan Air Force helicopters which had been tracking Taleban as they fled into a compound in the Nawa-ye Barakzai district of Helmand: the strike killed a woman and three children and injured another child. UNAMA pointed also to a particularly sharp rise in civilian casualties resulting from US strikes in Nangarhar: 89 civilian casualties (37 deaths and 52 injured) in 13 aerial operations in Nangarhar province in 2016, compared to 18 civilian casualties (11 deaths and seven injured) during 10 aerial operations in 2015.
It has called for “an immediate halt to the use of airstrikes in civilian-populated areas and… greater restraint in the use of airstrikes where civilians are likely to be present.” It has also called for a cessation in the use of indirect use of mortars, rockets, grenades and other weapons, in civilian-populated areas. “[C]lear tactical directives, rules of engagement and other procedures,” need to be developed and implemented, it said, in relation to both “the use of explosive weapons and armed aircraft.” There is now a National Policy on Civilian Casualty Prevention and Mitigation, which it welcomed, but said this needs to be adopted and properly implemented. One practical step which has been taken is the graduation of 130 Afghan Tactical Air Coordinators (ATACs) from a NATO programmes which aims to “improve air to ground integration and minimize civilian casualties, including exercises enabling graduates to gain practical range experience coordinating aerial fires.”
Many of the casualties from US air strikes (since 2014 there has been no other international air force present on the Afghan battlefield) came from just one incident on the night of 2-3 November, when a series of air strikes were launched on Buz-e Kandahari village, in Kunduz. The strikes killed 32 civilians and injured 36 others, mainly women and children. They were called in, the US said, in self-defence after a US-Afghan partnered detention operation had ended in a firefight with three Afghan and two American soldiers killed and 11 Afghan commandos and four American soldiers injured. UNAMA, which said NATO and the ANA had declined its requests for information, questioned whether the attack was ‘disproportionate’, something which is prohibited under the Laws of Armed Conflict. (6)
In this regard, the use of airstrikes in a densely populated village during the night that resulted in 68 civilian casualties, including the deaths of 26 women and children and the injury of 23 others raises serious concerns.
Other trends to watch
Another worrying trend on the government side are the actions of pro-government armed groups, particularly in the north and particularly in Faryab province. Not part of the ANSF, or indeed legal entities, they include ‘national uprising groups’ who are paid by the government. The government uses such groups to fight insurgents, although as UNAMA notes, they also have a record of fighting each other, with national-level rivalries between political parties played out on the ground by allied militias. Such groups were responsible for a third more civilian casualties in 2016 than in 2015, 185 casualties overall (52 deaths and 133 injured), the highest number that UNAMA has recorded.
The increased practice of using untrained and unregulated pro-Government armed groups in [ground offensive] operations, sometimes to compensate for a lack of Afghan security force personnel, raised serious protection concerns for civilians both during such operations and during the post-operation phase. Pro-Government armed groups lack the training provided to Afghan national security forces and the discipline and accountability imposed through a formal command structure.
Another worrying development was the 52% increase in targeted and deliberate killings carried out by pro-government forces (106 civilian casualties, 81 deaths and 25 injured). They included pro-government armed groups, the Afghan National Army (ANA), Afghan National Police, Afghan Local Police, the border police, special forces and officers from the National Directorate of Security (NDS). Incidents of threats, intimidation and harassment by pro-government forces resulted in a further 67 civilian casualties (three deaths and 64 injured).
Also to watch are the numbers of civilians killed and injured in search operations, an increase of 63 per cent in 2016 compared to 2015 (88 civilian casualties, 49 deaths and 39 injured). ‘Escalation of force’ incidents (7) mainly by NDS and ANA, resulted in 27 per cent more civilian casualties in 2016, in comparison with 2016 (47 civilian casualties, 19 deaths and 28 injured).
UNAMA’s richly-detailed report of more than one hundred pages documents the Afghan conflict with statistics, stories and analysis and shows how the disaster of this war is felt in deaths and injuries, homes wrecked and people forced to flee. It also describes how the conflict constrains or harms many basic freedoms, whether that is through medical personnel suffering threats, intimidation, and abduction, clinics and schools being occupied by parties to the conflict, and threats to the freedom of the press and journalists themselves. In a war now basically fought out between compatriots, as this latest reports shows, the consequences for many Afghan civilians are catastrophic. Moreover, the trend in violence appears to be upwards.
(1) The country has around 400 districts; the exact number is still disputed even among government agencies.
(2) Integrity Watch Afghanistan, reporting on corruption in December 2016, said it had carried out a security assessment of Afghanistan’s 398 districts before sending out its enumerators to conduct a survey. It determined that 98 were too dangerous for enumerators to travel to, at all. In another 100, they were limited to the district centre and in a further 109, they could travel within a two-hour radius of the district center, but not to more remote areas. It was only in 91 districts — less than 23% of the country — that IWA-trained enumerators had a free rein.
(3) Civilian Casualties in Kabul since 2009
(4) UNAMA defines the central region as including Kabul, Kapisa, Logar, Maidan Wardak, Parwan, and Panjshir and the southern region as including Helmand, Kandahar, Nimruz, Uruzgan, and Zabul.
(5) The change was first seen in the first six months of 2014 when ground engagements became the main cause of civilian casualties for the first time. The gradual withdrawal of most international forces and especially of their aircraft has meant that from 2014 onwards, the Taleban have been able to mass in large enough numbers to launch ground offensives without fear of being wiped out from the air. This trend in the war had already been seen the previous year, 2013, when the number of civilian casualties from ground offensives had risen by 43 per cent. However, in that year, IEDs were still the main cause of civilian casualties. In 2013, UNAMA attributed 74 per cent of all deaths and injuries to the Taleban and other anti-government elements, 11 per cent to pro-government forces (eight per cent ANSF and three per cent international forces), while ten per cent had resulted from ground engagements and the remaining five per cent mainly from explosive remnants of war.
(6) UNAMA notes:
… where parties to a conflict carry out an attack against a military objective, even in self-defense, international humanitarian law prohibits disproportionate attacks – namely, those that are expected cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, or damage to civilian objects, excessive in relation to the anticipated concrete and direct military advantage.
(7) ‘Escalation of Force’ (also referred to as ‘force protection’) incidents take place when civilians do not heed warnings from the military or police when they are approaching check points or approaching or overtaking.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020