Any notion that the Taleban capture of territory since 1 May has been virtually bloodless has been demolished by UNAMA’s mid-year report on civilian casualties, published today. The numbers of civilians killed and injured in the first six months of 2021 are back up to the record highs of 2014 to 2018. Moreover, nearly half of the six month total occurred in just two months, May and June. The surge in civilian harm coincided with the Taleban’s push to take territory. In UNAMA’s new report, it has also reported on the deliberate destruction and looting of civilian homes, schools and clinics in newly-captured territory, the vast majority by or with the complicity of Taleban fighters. AAN senior analyst Kate Clark has been reading UNAMA’s report and also brings readers AAN’s latest mapping of district centre control. It shows how conflict has spread even further since UNAMA’s 30 June data cut-off point. Maps and charts are by Roger Helms.A family fleeing their home in Panjwayi district of Kandahar province on 4 July 2021, after the Taleban captured the district centre from the ANSF after fierce night-time fighting. Photo: Javed Tanveer/AFP
UNAMA’s 2021 mid-year report on the Protection of Civilians in the Afghan Armed Conflict can be read here. Reports from earlier years can be read here.
To see a detailed PDF version of AAN’s map of district centre control as of 24 July 2021, please click on the link.
Last year ended bloodily in Afghanistan. Violence did not subside with the coming of winter but worsened: the last quarter of 2020 was the bloodiest of the entire year. The first half of 2021 has proved to be as bad for civilians as the previous record highs in the years between 2014 and 2018. Civilian casualties really escalated in May and June with the start of a Taleban onslaught to capture territory and district centres following the announcement by US president Joe Biden that international forces would be withdrawing rapidly, completely and unconditionally.
Some of the scores of district centres that have fallen to the Taleban since 1 May changed hands, as UNAMA put it in its new report, “based upon arrangements between parties and civilians in the area,” in other words, after negotiation, or surrender or evacuation by Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Nevertheless, it says:
[T]here was also a significant amount of fighting that occurred in and around civilian populated areas. Civilians suffered from being near to areas that were newly contested, whether by Taliban moving into these areas, or by Afghan national security forces attempting to re-take territory.
The Taleban’s capture of territory has by no means been bloodless. More than 5,183 civilians were killed or wounded in the Afghan conflict in the first half of 2021; nearly half – 2,392 civilian casualties – in May and June. May 2021 was the worst May for civilian casualties since UNAMA began systematically documenting them in 2009. June 2021 was also the most violent June on record.
UNAMA writes of the dread felt by civilians of the “battle coming to their doorstep,” of the fear engendered by “indiscriminate shelling during ground engagements, the use of IEDs including victim-activated pressure-plate IEDs, and airstrikes,” all taking place “in populated areas.” In the first six months of the year, it also notes, 205,386 Afghan civilians were verified as having fled their homes.
The statistics of violence, January to June 2021
5,183 civilian casualties, 1,659 killed and 3,524 injured; up by 47% compared to January to June 2020.
How were civilians killed and injured
- IEDs 38% of total: 1,958 civilian casualties, 501 killed, 1,457 injured, increase of 281% compared to January-June 2020
- Ground Engagements 33% of total: 1,710, 489 killed, 1221 injured; increase of 41%
- Targeted Killings 14% of total: 741 civilian casualties, 403 killed 338 injured; slight increase
- Airstrikes 8%, 419 civilian casualties, 404 killed, 338 injured, increase of 33%
Who killed and injured civilians
- Taleban 39% of total: 2,044 civilian casualties, 699 killed, 1,345 injured, up by 36% compared to January to June 2020
- Undetermined anti-government elements 16% of total: 819 civilian casualties, 218 killed, 601 injured 217, up by 365%
- ISKP 9% of total: 439 civilian casualties, 124 killed, 315 injured, up by 47%
- ANSF 23% of total: 1,206 civilian casualties, 378 killed, 828 injured, up by 53%
- Pro-government armed groups/undetermined pro-government forces 2% of total, 99 civilian casualties, 44 killed, 55 injured, up by 18%
What UNAMA’s report tells us about the war
The Taleban decision to intensify its fight with the government as foreign forces leave, rather than opt for political negotiations has led directly to thousands of Afghan civilians being killed and injured. The number of combatant deaths and injuries on both sides caused by that decision is likely to be even higher. The Taleban leadership chose to push on with the war even as the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic was devastating lives and a severe drought threatens many Afghans’ livelihoods and food security.
In the first half of 2021, UNAMA reports, Afghan civilians were most at risk from IEDs laid by the insurgents, followed by ground engagements, where either side might cause civilian casualties, targeted killings by insurgents, and airstrikes by the Afghan air force.
The number of civilians killed and injured by IEDs was up almost three-fold compared to the first six months of 2020; UNAMA said it was the worst IED toll for the first six months of any year that it has recorded. A third of those casualties came from one incident – the unclaimed attack on schoolgirls leaving class at the Sayed ul-Shuhada school in the predominantly Hazara Dasht-e Barchi neighbourhood of Kabul on 8 May in which more than 300 people were killed or injured.
Indirect fire – mainly mortars and artillery – was the cause of more than 60 per cent of the civilian casualties recorded by UNAMA as due to ground engagements. Nearly two-thirds of those killed or injured were women and children. They suffered disproportionately, wrote UNAMA, as both sides in the conflict continue to use these weapons in populated areas where homes provide no protection to those sheltering inside.
Targeted killings carried out by insurgents have also continued apace. UNAMA has noted the “ever-widening breadth of types of civilians… including humanitarian workers” who are victims of targeted killings. Especially through the use of IEDs and shootings, insurgents, it said, are targeting “human rights defenders, media workers, religious elders, civilian government workers, and humanitarian workers.”
As well as the ANSF responding to Taleban attacks from the ground, there has also been a “significant increase” in airstrikes. The Afghan air force told UNAMA that requests for strikes increased from 1,364 in the first six months of 2020 to 4,253 in the first six months of 2021. It does not report how many were carried out but does say that 266 were called off because of worries over civilians or public buildings. Even so, UNAMA remains “very concerned” that twice as many civilians were killed and injured by the Afghan air force from January to June 2020 compared to the same period in 2021.
The conflict has brought not only the loss of lives but also the destruction of civilian homes and other property. This has come not only from indiscriminate mortar and rocket fire, but also, wrote UNAMA, from looting and the deliberate destruction of “civilian homes, schools, clinics, electricity and mobile phone towers, city water supplies, bridges, shops, and residential apartment buildings.” The “vast majority” of such acts was carried out by Taleban fighters or “with the complicity” after they took control of a new area in May and June.
UNAMA is also concerned “about the increasing number of reports of killing, ill-treatment, persecution and discrimination in communities affected by the current fighting and its aftermath.” While working to verify such reports, it says that all parties, especially “during times of heightened conflict… must respect the human rights and dignity of people and prevent such abuses and violations.”
Three other trends in the recent conflict noted by UNAMA are also worth highlighting. The first are the high numbers of attacks on schools and education staff – 16 attacks in the first six months of 2021 – and healthcare facilities and staff – 28 direct attacks, resulting in 12 civilians killed and 13 injured. These attacks included the Sayed ul-Shuhada school massacre and the killing of polio vaccinators in Nangrahar; three female polio vaccinators were killed in attacks claimed by the Islamic state in Khorasan Province (ISKP) in March, and six male polio vaccinators were killed and three wounded in five separate attacks by unknown gunmen in June.
Secondly, as UNAMA has noted, there has been a “resurgence of deliberate sectarian-motivated attacks against the Shi’a Muslim religious minority, most of whom also belong to the Hazara ethnic minority,” nearly all, it said, claimed by ISKP. The 20 incidents that UNAMA documented in the first half of the year included a “string of non-suicide IED attacks and shootings, including at least eight IEDs in May-June alone that targeted buses or similar vehicles carrying members of the Hazara community.” Those attacks left a total of 500 Shia Muslims/Hazaras killed or injured – 300 in the Sayed al-Shudada school attack alone. After a year of reduced activity, ISKP, although remaining a far junior player in the conflict than the Taleban, appears to be resurgent.
Third is the resurgence of pro-government non-state armed groups. UNAMA notes the information surfacing “about Government support for, and issuance of weapons to, civilian members of the population for the purpose of collective self-defence.” It points out that such groups operate outside a well-defined chain of command, and in a “fragile security environment” may abuse civilians. It gives an example from 5 June, in Taloqan city, capital of Takhar province, where UNAMA says, members of a pro-government armed group killed four civilian men and abducted 20 civilians, “holding them for two nights, after accusing the men of supporting the Taliban, with whom the armed group had recently engaged in an armed clash.” UNAMA wants the government to disband such groups and integrate their members “into national security forces so that they may be held accountable for their conduct through the established military structures.”
The war since 30 June
In the month of July, after the cut-off point for data for UNAMA’s semi-annual report, there has been no diminishing of the violence. One indication of this is the large number of district centres that have continued to fall to the Taleban, as can be seen in the chart above. AAN has calculated that, as of 1 May, the Taleban held 33 of Afghanistan’s 421 district centres. Two months later, at the end of June, they had captured and held 125 more, capturing also eight others, but losing them back to the government. In July so far, as the map below shows, the Taleban have continued to capture district centres. By 24 July, we calculated 75 more district centres had fallen to them, with the government meanwhile recapturing seven others.
The tempo of the conflict in Afghanistan has not tailed off. There is no basis for hoping the harm done to civilians as documented by UNAMA in the first six months of 2021, and especially in May and June, has in any way lessened. Indeed, there have also been continuing reports of abuses in July, including from Kandahar where Human Rights Watch has said, “growing evidence of expulsions, arbitrary detentions, and killings in areas under [Taleban] control are raising fears among the population.”
As Afghanistan enters the second half of 2021, fears over the harm done by this bitter conflict are legion, of further loss of life and the destruction of homes, of having to flee through areas planted with IEDs, of being subject to abuse or ‘revenge’ attacks by armed men and of the denial of dignity and respect. If civilian casualties continue at the same magnitude as Afghans have suffered in May and June, it is possible 2021 could be the worst year since UNAMA began systematically documenting the deaths and injuries of Afghans in this war.
This article was last updated on 28 Jul 2021