Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Nine Per Cent Reduction in Civilian Casualties in 2017: Better news (but still bad)

Kate Clark 13 min

For the first time since 2012, UNAMA has recorded a year-on-year decrease – of nine per cent – in civilian casualties sustained during the Afghan conflict. This relatively good news still meant that more than ten thousand civilians were killed and injured during 2017. There are glimmers of hope in UNAMA’s report; the Afghan National Security Forces took more precautions, it said, to protect civilians during ground engagements. There were ominous trends, too; almost a quarter of all casualties were killed or injured in suicide or complex attacks, most of them in Kabul, the highest numbers on record. Also, as AAN Co-Director Kate Clark points out, more than a quarter of all civilians killed or injured were deliberately targeted and most casualties were preventable.

The cover of the 2017 UNAMA report showing a victim of the 25 August, ISKP-claimed attack on the Shia Imam Zaman Mosque in Kabul city. A suicide bomber and four gunmen killed 35 civilians and injured 65 others during Friday prayers. Photo: (C) Omar Sobhani, ReutersThe cover of the 2017 UNAMA report showing a victim of the 25 August, ISKP-claimed attack on the Shia Imam Zaman Mosque in Kabul city. A suicide bomber and four gunmen killed 35 civilians and injured 65 others during Friday prayers. Photo: (C) Omar Sobhani, Reuters

UNAMA 2017 Civilian Casualty Figures* (read the full report here).

  • 10,453 civilian casualties (3,438 deaths and 7,015 injured), representing a decrease of nine per cent compared to 2016 (with a two per cent reduction in deaths and six per cent in injuries);
  • 1,224 women casualties (359 deaths and 865 injured), representing an increase of less than one per cent compared to 2016;
  • 3,179 child casualties (861 deaths and 2,318 injured), representing a decrease of ten per cent since the previous year.

Since 2009, the armed conflict in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of 28,291 civilians and injured 52,366 others.

How civilians were killed and injured (in order of magnitude):

Cause of Casualty Total Number of Casualties Total Number of Deaths Total Number of Injured Percentage of all Civilian Casualties Comparison with 2016
Ground Engagements 3,484 823 2,661 33% 19% decrease
Complex and Suicide Attacks 2,295 605 1,690 22% (16% of which were in Kabul city) 17% increase
Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) 1,856 624 1,232 18% 14% decrease
Targeted and Deliberate Killings 1,032 in 570 targeted killings during the year 650 382 11% 8% decrease (although killings were up by 13% and injuries down by 30%)
Explosive Remnants of War 639 164 475 6% 12% decrease
US and Afghan Forces Air Operations 631 resulting from 139 aerial operations 295 336 6% 7% increase


Who is responsible for the casualties:

 Anti-Government Elements (AGEs), most notably the Taleban but also Islamic State Khorasan Province, ISKP (also known as Daesh), and other Afghan and foreign insurgent groups. AGEs were responsible for a total of 6,768 civilian casualties (2,303 deaths and 4,465 injured), representing 65 per cent of all civilian casualties and a three per cent decrease compared to 2016.

Insurgent Actor Total Number of Casualties Total Number of Deaths Total Number of Injured Percentage of all Civilian Casualties Comparison with 2016
Taleban 4,385 1,574 1,574 42 12 per cent decrease
ISKP 1000 399 601 15 11 increase
Unidentified and other 1389 330 1059


The leading causes of civilian casualties by Anti-Government Elements (in order of magnitude):

  • suicide and complex attacks
  • IEDs
  • ground engagements
  • targeted and deliberate killings

Pro-Government Forces, including Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), international forces (only the US has a combat mission in Afghanistan) and pro-government armed groups were responsible for a total of 2,108 civilian casualties (745 deaths and 1,363 injured), representing 20 per cent of all civilian casualties and a decrease of 23 per cent since the previous year.*

Pro-Government Actor Total Number of Casualties Total Number of Deaths Total Number of Injured Percentage of all Civilian Casualties
ANSF 1693 529 1164 16
Pro-Government armed groups 92 26 66
International military 246 147 99 2
Unidentified 77 43 34 1

*Comparison with 2016 not given.

The leading causes of death by pro-government forces (in order of magnitude):

  • ground engagements
  • aerial operations
  • killings and injuries of those known to be civilian or mistaken for anti-government elements
  • casualties resulting from search operations.

Shelling from Pakistan into Afghanistan resulted in 42 civilian casualties (16 deaths and 26 injured) in 23 incidents or one per cent of civilian casualties, a four-fold increase compared to 2016. 

Trends in the conflict: ground engagements

UNAMA’s 2017 Protection of Civilians report presents a complex picture of evolving conflict dynamics and new patterns of civilian casualties. The most significant factor driving down casualty figures is that fewer civilians have been being killed or injured in ground engagements. The number of casualties has fallen below 3,600 for the first time since 2013. Those attributed to pro-government forces fell by 37 per cent and those to the Taleban and other anti-government elements by seven per cent. There was a particularly marked decrease – 29 per cent – in civilians killed or injured by indirect weapons, such as mortars, rockets and grenades, compared with 2016. This reduction translates into almost 800 people who are alive and uninjured today who would have been harmed if the 2016 casualty rate had been sustained. UNAMA reports that this decrease was most notable in the following five provinces: Baghlan, Helmand, Kandahar, Kunduz and Uruzgan. (UNAMA gives a useful table with the three leading causes of civilian casualties in each of Afghanistan’s 32 provinces, on page 67 of the report.)

This fall in numbers came despite the fact that “the levels of fighting,” according to UNAMA, were “only slightly lower than in 2016.” Another indicator of this is that, on 15 November 2017, the United Nations had recorded more than 21,105 security-related incidents for the first 11 months of 2017, an increase of one per cent since 2016. See also AAN’s analysis of the conflict in 2017 which assessed various indicators of insecurity here. One key reason behind the fall in civilian casualties from ground engagements, said UNAMA, were the “significant measures” taken by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to protect civilians, including: 

…the adoption of a National Policy for Civilian Casualty Mitigation and Prevention and related training for security forces, together with the adoption of practical measures on the battlefield, including relocation of security bases from civilian areas, and increased constraints on the use of mortars and other indirect fire weapons during ground fighting in civilian-populated areas.  

These measures helped cause a reversal in the trend observed in 2016, of pro-government forces, mainly the ANSF, harming increasing numbers of civilians (46 per cent more than in 2015), especially during ground engagements and especially with the use of indirect fire into civilian-populated areas (see further details here). (1)

Fewer civilians were also harmed during ground engagements in 2017, according to UNAMA, due to the “lack of major [insurgent] attacks against provincial centres and relative reduction in attacks against district centres by insurgent forces compared to 2016.” This was particularly the case in Helmand, Kunduz and Uruzgan provinces. Insurgents instead increased their targeting of stationary ANSF check-posts and convoys. UNAMA further noted that numbers of civilians killed and injured by shooting during ground engagements was up by 12 per cent, “in line” with this increased emphasis by the Taleban on directly attacking police check-posts.

Both sides have also increasingly issued warnings to civilians about forthcoming operations. Furthermore, in areas where frontlines remain static, civilians had already fled, thereby removing themselves from danger. (2)

The changing tactics of the Taleban – fewer attacks on population centres – may be a response to the increased threat of air strikes from both the United States and Afghan air forces. Gathering in large numbers in order to launch such ground offensives is far more risky as a result. (For more analysis, see here. After losing many fighters, killing many civilians and failing to take Tirin Kot, Lashkargah and Kunduz in 2016 (or hold Kunduz in 2015), the Taleban may also have decided to hold their fire and consolidate their control of captured areas. Reports have suggested, for example, that they have been organising their taxation and what is called in economic circles ‘revenue mobilisation’ (see this article, research here and discussion here about 12 minutes into a radio programme discussing the prospects for peace in Afghanistan). Whatever the reasons, the reduction in civilian casualties from ground engagements is a welcome development. Nevertheless, as UNAMA points out, the destruction in 2017 was still horrific and widespread:

… taking mothers, fathers and children away from their families, and displacing nearly half a million civilians in 2017. The conflict also destroyed homes, livelihoods and impeded access to health, education and services. UNAMA also continued to record a strong correlation between the use of weapons such as mortars, rockets and grenades during ground fighting and civilian casualties from unexploded ordnance, with children accounting for most casualties.

Other conflict trends: IED, suicide and complex attacks

Also helping to drive down civilian casualties in 2017 was the decrease in casualties from IEDs (an insurgent tactic only), by 14 per cent compared to 2016. There was a significant decrease (32 per cent) in casualties from remote-controlled IEDs, together with a more minor reduction (eight per cent) in those from pressure-plated IEDs. This is significant because IEDs were, for many years, the main cause of civilian casualties; the decrease in remote-controlled IED caused casualties suggests better targeting by insurgents. Again, though, the damage caused by IEDs cannot be minimised. In 2017, 1,856 civilians lost their lives or were injured by them. Pressure-plated IEDs, which are illegal due to their inherently indiscriminate nature, disproportionately affected civilians in the south, with about half of all those killed and injured living in in Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces. Here, insurgents fought to retain territory and “typically placed the devices along roads mainly used by Afghan national security forces, but also frequented by civilians,” according to UNAMA.

Both the reduction in casualties from ground engagements and IEDs were partially offset by a large increase in casualties from suicide and complex attacks. More civilians were killed and injured in this type of attack in 2017 than in any year since 2009 when UNAMA began systematically recording civilian casualties. The Taleban and ISKP both employed this tactic.

Insurgents killed and injured more civilians in suicide and complex attacks than in ground engagements (2,295 compared to 1,368). The disproportion was especially marked with ISKP; 83 per cent of the civilians it killed and injured were in suicide and complex attacks (830 civilian casualties: 308 deaths and 522 injured as a result of 21 attacks). (3)

ISKP claimed 19 of those attacks (UNAMA attributed a further two) and, as in 2016, all were against civilians. More than one third targeted Shia Muslims: five were against Shia places of worship, one a library in Herat and another a political gathering in a predominantly Shia neighbourhood of Kabul. ISKP also attacked the media, government offices, a cricket match and the Iraqi embassy. The civilians killed and injured in attacks claimed by ISKP (781) increased by 18 per cent in 2017 compared to 2016. Civilian casualties from the 27 attacks claimed by the Taleban (782) decreased by 22 per cent compared to 2016. (4) UNAMA’s figures, then, do not bear out the theory that the Taleban, because of the threat from the air, turned from ground engagements against population centres to carrying out suicide and complex attacks.

The city of Kabul bore the brunt of this type of attack with 1,612 civilian casualties (440 deaths and 1,172 injured), 17 per cent more than in 2016, and comprising 70 per cent of all civilian casualties from this tactic in 2017. The 31 May attack alone (which remained ‘unattributed’ by UNAMA ­– see AAN discussion of who might have been behind it here) caused more than one third of all civilian casualties in Kabul city in 2017 (at least 583 civilian casualties, 92 deaths and 491 injured). Paktia and Helmand also suffered suicide and complex attacks, including the targeting of banks where ANSF personnel were drawing out pay.

Sectarian attacks and those on places of worship

One of the most disturbing trends in the conflict in 2017 was the three-fold increase in attacks on places of worship, religious leaders and worshippers. Shia Muslims were especially hard hit, suffering 83 per cent of the resulting casualties. UNAMA attributed 499 civilian casualties (202 deaths and 297 injured) during 38 such attacks last year. The number of deaths doubled, compared to 2016 and injuries were up by a third. ISKP was responsible for the majority of those casualties, but UNAMA notes, the number of attacks both attributed to and claimed by the Taleban against religious figures and places of worship also increased in 2017. (UNAMA attributed one attack to pro-government forces.)

Air Strikes

Causing only six per cent of the total number of civilian casualties in 2017, it could be argued that air strikes, particularly those by the US, receive a disproportionate amount of media and political attention. Nevertheless, attention would seem to be warranted because civilian casualties have increased, by seven per cent compared to 2016 and that made 2017 the worst year on record for civilians to be killed and injured in air strikes. The fast-expanding Afghan Air Force is now carrying out more operations and was responsible for more civilian casualties than the US. (5)

Civilian casualties from airstrikes by the Afghan Air Force occurred throughout the country, in 25 of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan, with the highest number in Faryab province. Civilian casualties from US strikes, however, were concentrated in three districts, Chahardara in Kunduz province, Deh Bala in Nangrahar and Sangin in Helmand province. Together, they accounted for over 50 per cent of all civilian casualties from airstrikes from the US Air Force.

An expansion of the Afghan Air Force is a key component in the Afghan and US strategy of trying to hold and re-capture territory (see discussion here and here). The Afghan Air Force made nearly double the number of airstrikes in the first ten months of the Afghan solar calendar (21 March 2017 to 20 January 2018) than the previous ten months – 425 airstrikes, compared to 219. UNAMA attributed 309 civilian casualties (99 deaths and 210 injured) to the Afghan Air Force (49 per cent of the total) in 68 aerial operations.

The US has also seen the numbers of sorties flown and weapons released rise sharply; it released 4,361 weapons in 2017, compared to 1,337 during 2016. UNAMA attributed 246 civilian casualties (154 deaths and 92 injured) to the US Air Force (38 per cent of the total) in 49 aerial operations (while the US caused fewer casualties, it caused more deaths). (6) Four of the 49 operations each resulted in more than ten civilian deaths; they included offensive strikes on narcotics factories (see AAN reporting here and civilians mistaken for insurgents, and defensive strikes in civilian-populated areas.

The increase in sorties and weapons dropped in 2017 was far higher than the increase in civilian casualties, indicating that the quality of safeguards is not falling. As UNAMA put it, “the reduced harm ratio suggests improvements in targeting and civilian protection procedures.” Even so, it said:

…as civilian casualties from aerial operations reached record high levels in 2017, UNAMA once again recommends that both the Afghan Air Force and international military forces review targeting criteria and pre-engagement precautionary measures, including considering the high likelihood of civilian presence in populated areas and starting from a position of considering all persons to be civilians unless determined otherwise.  

Search operations

Search operations became the fourth leading cause of civilian casualties caused by pro-government forces in 2017. There were 123 casualties (79 deaths and 44 injuries) during 33 search operations, mostly in Nangrahar and Kandahar provinces, an increase of 40 per cent compared with 2016. Most involved National Directorate of Security (NDS) Special Forces (86 casualties, 61 deaths and 25 injured, in 23 incidents). They were either acting alone or partnered with international military forces (although UNAMA does not specify, these were likely either CIA paramilitaries or US Special Forces).

NDS Special Forces, says UNAMA, “appear to operate outside of the regular NDS chain of command, resulting in a lack of clear oversight and accountability given the absence of clearly defined jurisdiction for the investigation of any allegations against them.” The geographic concentration – in Nangrahar province, there were 12 search operations involving NDS resulting in 38 casualties and in Kandahar, 37 casualties in seven search operations – suggests no-one is reigning these units in. UNAMA describes NDS Special Forces entering one home in Mohmand Dara district and shooting dead all seven civilian men, all from one family, who were inside. They were IDPs from Achin district who had fled the heavy fighting there.

The Khost Protection Force, a paramilitary pro-government armed group outside any formal tashkil, also continues to operate with impunity, for example, killing a boy and injuring two others (all between 7 and 11 years of age) during a search operation in Sabari district, Khost province. 

Use of Children in the conflict

UNAMA reports on two pre-existing dynamics, now being substantiated, to do with the conflict-related use and abuse of children. It said it had verified 83 boys (under-18s) recruited and being used “as bodyguards, [to] assist in intelligence gathering, plant IEDs, carry out suicide attacks and participate in hostilities.” UNAMA attributed the recruitment and use of 40 boys to the Taleban, 19 boys to ISKP and 23 to the ANSF (mainly to the Afghan National and Local Police). This would appear to be an instance of under-reporting, given that UNAMA said it had also received “credible but unverified reports of 643 children recruited and used by armed groups.”

Also liable to be under-reported is the sexual abuse of children by government and anti-government forces: UNAMA said that, while researching child recruitment, it had verified four cases and received “credible and specific reports of 78 boys potentially victims of sexual abuse by parties to the armed conflict.” Boys were reported to have been forcibly recruited, or recruited under the false premise of an offer of employment, and subsequently sexually abused. The practice of bacha bazi – keeping boys for sex – has now been criminalised under Afghanistan’s new penal code. 


If the reduction in civilian casualties is to become a downward trend, rather than a one-year blip, some of the ways forward are clear. Government forces, UNAMA says, need to cease firing mortars and carrying out air strikes in civilian-populated areas and develop clear rules of engagement and tactical directives for using these weapons. It calls on the international military to support them and to strengthen its own “pre-engagement targeting protocols to prevent civilian casualties,” continue to conduct post-operation reviews and investigations and “ensure transparency, following allegations of civilian casualties from air strikes and search operations.” As for the insurgents, they need to stop targeting civilians and stop carrying out attacks in civilian-populated areas – whether suicide attacks, shooting or firing mortars. As the reduction in those being killed by government mortars and by the Taleban’s use of remote-controlled IEDs in 2017 shows, many lives can be saved from measures to protect civilians.

That the number of civilians killed and injured in the Afghan conflict has finally fallen after years of relentless increase is welcome. Even so, on average, 29 civilians lost their lives or were injured in the war every day last year, more than ten thousand in total. Just over a quarter of them were deliberately targeted, almost all by insurgents. Most of the casualties were preventable.

* As UNAMA says, figures are unlikely to be absolutely final. Reports of casualties from December, especially from remote areas, may still come in after the cut-off date for the annual report (7 January 2018) and those injured may die of their wounds. Some incidents may take months to verify. In previous years, there has been some fluctuation in the casualty figures in quarterly reports, for example, the civilian casualties for January to September 2016 were reported as 8,397 in 2016, revised to 8,531, when reported on in 2017 (a difference of 1.6%). Similarly with the 2016 mid-year report, there was a revision from 5166 (as reported in 2016), revised upwards to 5267 (a difference of 2%). UNAMA told AAN that, “The figures in each annual report are the most accurate.” It said the casualty figures tend to shift somewhat, but not by more than one per cent and usually do not go down.



(1) In 2016, pro-government forces caused more civilian casualties in ground engagements, reported UNAMA, than anti-government elements, 1,773 compared to 1469.

(2) UNAMA gives this breakdown of those causing civilian casualties in ground engagements in 2017:

Pro-Government Forces Civilian Casualties
Afghan National Army 548 (153 deaths and 395 injured)
Afghan National Police 111 (25 deaths and 86 injured)
Afghan Local Police 42 (10 deaths and 32 injured)
Afghan National Security Forces 183 (43 deaths and 140 injured)
Pro-Government Armed Groups 70 (12 deaths and 58 injured)
Anti-Government Elements Civilian Casualties
Taleban 1,286 (284 deaths and 1,002 injured)
Daesh/ISIL-KP 23 (10 deaths and 13 injured)
Unidentified AGEs 49 (10 deaths and 39 injured)
Undetermined 933 (226 deaths and 707 injured)


(3) The rest of the ISKP-caused casualties comprised: 104 civilian casualties (45 deaths and 59 injured) from 11 IEDs attacks, and mostly in Nangrahar: 29 civilian casualties (25 deaths and four injured) from 23 targeted killing incidents; 23 civilian casualties (10 deaths and 13 injured) from ground engagements; 13 civilian casualties (10 deaths and three injured) from abductions; and one death from unexploded ordnance.

(4) ISKP suicide and complex attacks resulted in far higher civilian casualty rates than the Taleban’s: 794 civilians were killed and injured in 31 Taleban attacks and 803 in 21 ISKP attacks. UNAMA could not attribute 671 casualties from such attacks, including the 31 May bombing in Kabul.

(5) The Afghan Air Force was responsible for 309 civilian casualties (99 deaths and 210 injured) (49 per cent) in 68 aerial operations; the US Air Force was responsible for 246 civilian casualties (154 deaths and 92 injured) (38 per cent) in 49 aerial operations; 76 civilian casualties (42 deaths and 34 injured) in 21 incidents could not be attributed.

(6) UNAMA could not attribute 76 civilian casualties (42 deaths and 34 injured) in 21 air strikes.




Civilian Casualties